“Fifteen per cent and rising?” – A look at Women in Property

Lesley-Anne, Chair of the Association of Women in Property

Lesley-Anne, Chair of the Association of Women in Property

Lesley-Anne Avis, real estate partner at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, is Chairman of the Association of Women in Property in this, the organisation’s 25th anniversary year.

In 1987, two property professionals – architect Elspeth Clements and surveyor Michelle Foster – met by chance at an industry event. Both agreed it was time something was done to raise the profile of women working in property and construction. That was the beginning of the Association of Women in Property (WiP). It’s twenty-five years later and, while a significant amount has changed, the fact still remains that women represent just 15% of the industry workforce.

15% is also the figure of women evident within FTSE 100 companies, where women now account for 15.6% of all directorships. This is up from 12.5% and can be seen as a step in the right direction, even if there is still a ways to go. Recently the Government recognised the need to encourage businesses to appoint a greater number of women into board level positions, notably as detailed by Lord Davies’ 2012 report and a subsequent 2012 report published by Professor Susan Vinnicombe and Dr Ruth Sealy of Cranfield University.

The WiP has participated in the Call for Evidence forum, which helped inform Lord Davies’ initial findings and have held numerous seminars and debates on the role of women in the boardroom. Speakers have included Baroness Andrews, Jane Ashcroft, Sarah Bates, Suzanne Doyle Morris, Rebecca George, Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas, Clara Mera-Nelson, Sue O’Brien, Sandi Rhys Jones, Katrine Sporle and Sophie Warner.

Over the years WiP, which operates predominantly as a networking organisation, has worked hard to offer support and guidance to women across our industry. These women come from a diverse variety of disciplines including; surveyors, engineers, architects, developers, planners, lawyers and many more from beyond these ‘core’ property disciplines. The WiP has introduced initiatives that are reflective of all stages along a career path in property, from early educational choices all the way through to the boardroom.

Our ‘Schools Roadshow’, for example, target girls choosing their GCSEs, to inspire and encourage them to consider a career in the industry. In 2007 the WiP launched its ‘National Student Awards’ to encourage and inspire young women studying for a Built Environment degree. The awards process was designed to give them interview and presentation experience as well as an introduction to the wider industry. It is also vital to raise awareness among the business community of the exceptional talent coming through and facilitate greater links between education and business.

Networking is still at the heart of what we do and we hold over 300 events across our branches each year, ranging from CPD style seminars, site visits and various social functions. For eight years we have also been running a mentoring programme, which matches mentors with mentees, and is widely recognised as being of great professional and personal benefit to both parties. There are opportunities to get involved with the running of our branches at a local level by joining the branch committees. The experience gained is beneficial for everyone, particularly for those wanting to aim for senior management or board positions in their organisations.

While many of the initiatives to help women reach their potential are relatively recent it is still surprising that the ratio of men to women in the property and construction industry hasn’t changed more significantly. There are clearly more young women entering the industry now than 25 years ago and, at the entry and early career level, the ratio of young women is much higher but in middle and senior management positions things are not much better. So what is going wrong?

The ‘fall out’ is widely accepted to occur at the point when many young women take time out to start a family. Unfortunately too many organisations lose highly skilled and valued staff because, when they return, they find the combination of a busy working day and hectic home life almost unmanageable. Flexible working hours have helped both women and men juggle busy work roles with family responsibilities, and we applaud any business that implements these arrangements. However, there also needs to be recognition that many professional roles simply cannot be undertaken on a flexible basis. The decision as to whether they can be fulfilled needs to be a personal one based on realistic expectations from both parties. Sadly, for many women, returning to work can be just too problematic.

But what about those women who are in successful, professional jobs? Anecdotally, women across different disciplines and industries tend to agree that a typical female trait is to work hard, get the job done well but not to particularly promote themselves within their firms – a classic ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach. This might be a sweeping statement, and there will be plenty of people reading this who would disagree, but it could go some way towards explaining why there are fewer women in senior positions. Perhaps it’s been a matter of who shouts loudest?

Recently WiP joined forces with Property Week to create the ‘Women’s Power Top 100’ to follow on from our June announcement of our Top 25 Women in Property. These initiatives have revealed that there is an impressive range of women working across all disciplines, certainly more than was revealed in a similar exercise six years ago. Women are increasingly realising the need for visibility, to see and be seen, as part of their on going career prospects and responsibility to those coming through behind them.

We do believe that perceptions are slowly changing as a confident new generation arrives in business and industry. If Lord Davies’ Women on Boards 2012 report is anything to go by, all the signs are there that a culture change is finally taking place in British business. As boardroom ratios change, we must all work hard to ensure the same impact is felt all the way through a business structure.

Then perhaps that 15% figure will really start to move.

Lesley-Anne Avis
Chair, WiP

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