Construction still lags behind in terms of gender diversity. Improving the balance requires more than establishing a DEI group and a decent maternity policy, says Ceri Moyers
I have worked in the real estate industry for over 15 years and I am certainly hearing a growing conversation about the need for improved gender diversity. The statistics and the anecdotal feedback, however, demonstrate that we are not getting much further than talk.
The 2023 Pipeline report shows that the real estate and construction industries lag in the third quartile of all global macro industries for female leadership representation at 21-29%. If we have any real hope – or intention - of improving this and reaping the well evidenced productivity and profitability benefits associated with a more diverse workforce, we need to invest in and retain women at all levels.
We need to consider the cultural and behavioural issues that limit women in the workplace and commit to making genuine change
For any real estate or construction companies wanting to seriously address female retention in their 2024 diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) strategies, here is a slightly belated new year’s resolution for you: let’s challenge ourselves to expand the solutions focus and the investment beyond issues relating to childcare. We need to consider the cultural and behavioural issues that limit women in the workplace and commit to making genuine change.
Countless data, most notably from McKinsey, shows that the ages of 26-38 are where the majority of women “off-ramp” from their careers, and this coincides with the period many will start a family. In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that the challenge of female talent retention can become singularly aligned to this issue.
Focusing DEI attention and investment on childcare policies oversimplifies what is a very complex issue. Good maternity and paternity policies do not on their own solve all of the problems for families with children, and nor do they do anything for those who cannot or do not want to have children.
An emerging term, “support-washing” describes the way in which many businesses put in place a maternity/paternity policy and a DEI group and decide the challenge is fixed. Real Estate Balance’s 2022 report for example showed that “there is a disparity to how well board and senior leadership think they are doing [on DEI] and how well they’re actually doing”.
What research shows employees actually value is the time and investment in initiatives such as cultural/behavioural change programmes, talent development, mentoring, or management incentives for inclusive behaviours. Official evidence and anecdotal feedback from our Mentoring Circle community – now numbering some 400 women between the ages of 24 and 36 – suggests there are precious few businesses with any of these kind of programmes in place.
Why? Because the interventions themselves and the challenge they are looking to address – that of “culture” – is complex. I am using culture here as a catch-all term to refer to all of the implicit biases, stereotypes and behaviours that cannot be neatly wrapped up in a policy or process.
These issues are subliminal and complex and include: assumptions about what women want from their careers and/or are capable of; the connection between traditional leadership qualities and naturally “male” characteristics; the endemically self-fulfilling nature of women’s mentoring or development programmes which focus on building “confidence” while men are taught commercial and leadership skills; the difference in how flexible working requests are interpreted when coming from women versus men…
I could go on. And I’m sure anyone reading this column would acknowledge that they have made one of these assumptions. I know I have.
And what about the behavioural issues? I am not referring here to the kind of serious breaches or inappropriate conduct that require HR intervention, but the casual, and – in a huge majority of cases – well-intentioned remarks and behaviours that are so much harder to classify and therefore address. This can be anything from standing up when a woman enters the room, commenting on her appearance, saying “cover your ears” to the female in the room before using a profanity – “don’t swear, there’s a lady present”.
Even if the intent here is good, the impact is not. What this does is constantly single women out as “other”, and not like the majority. And, if you are someone who experiences or hears things like this multiple times a day, the chances are that a proportion are going to decide: “I’m tired of this, I want to work somewhere where more people look, speak and act like me.”
Ask women what their day-to-day experience in your workplace is like – and really listen to what they have to say
And this is dangerous, because the age our industry is losing women is one at which they are young enough to start again, to take a risk, to look at the rest of their career and the likelihood of working until 70-plus and think: I’ll change it now.
So, what can we do? Let’s make 2024 the year that we start taking action on culture. As individuals, consider your interactions with others and how they differ with men and women. Ask women what their day-to-day experience in your workplace is like – and really listen to what they have to say. Be allies – call out stereotyping or bias when you hear or see it.
As businesses, if you genuinely believe in the benefits of diversity and are serious about retaining your female talent, you need more than a DEI group and a maternity policy. Put your culture under the spotlight; invest in mentoring and development; show your female talent you actually care about their future.
For as long as our industry remains a sea of blue suits, we are missing out on proven productivity, profitability and innovation benefits. We are doing our bit at Mentoring Circle to try and claim them – so, who’s with us?
Ceri Moyers is a director of Mentoring Circle and founder of OD and coaching consultancy Clarity Consulting