This week Bisnow followed up their 51 Most Influential Women in UK Real Estate list with an excellent event, 'Women Leading Real Estate: A Celebration of London's Brightest Stars', which I attended with two of my colleagues: our head of planning, Anita Rivera, and construction expert, Justine Ayto. The seminar, bravely scheduled for Valentine's Day, attracted an amazing 500 women in real estate who filled the ballroom at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, which has previously hosted more male-dominated property industry events. On a practical level, it is highly unusual at a property event to find the queues are for the ladies' facilities rather than the mens'! As Sherin Aminossehe (until recently the Head of Government Property Unit and now Head of Offices at Lend Lease) remarked, she hasn't been in a room filled with women since she was at school - my thoughts exactly when I attended my first Women in Property event many years ago. And it's often the case that the women who have worked in real estate for many years don't notice if they are in a room of men. In fact, I was mildly surprised at last year's MIPIM when somebody asked why I was the only woman at a dinner with 30 men. I suspect it will be a rather different ratio this year.
The first session was an interview with Alison Nimmo, CEO of The Crown Estate, who described the stage as being set up like a boxing arena. She talked engagingly of the Crown's role in creating inspiring places, acknowledging that when you own the backbone of the west end it's important to get it right. She highlighted their important collaborations across London with the other great property owning estates, with a nod to a neighbouring estate owner Shaftesbury's CEO Brian Bickell sitting in the front row! Talking about her leadership style, Nimmo described herself as being "quite modern and inclusive" and aims to build a high performing team around her. "Leaders need to lead – they can't be in the engine room the whole time" – she said, you need to lead from the front with "deeds not words". And you need to create the right culture and not allow negative behaviour, although processes "mustn't stop people being themselves".
The next session was around Driving Change & Building the Pipeline for Aspiring Young Leaders. It included Brian Bickell (Shaftesbury), Collette O'Shea (LandSec), Linda Shillaw (Manchester Airport), Sherin Aminossehe (Lend Lease) and Anastasia Klein (Maples Teesdale), all seated in a circle on stage described by the participants as the 'circle of truth'. An initial run through of their different backgrounds disclosed two accountants, an architect, a lawyer and two surveyors by training.
Bickell started the discussion by explaining that 35 years' ago the property industry was detached from everything else, "We need to sell ourselves as an industry. After all we are responsible for creating the built environment". So true!
Looking at why we have so few women coming into real estate, Aminossehe pointed the finger at 'presenteeism' which she sees as particularly unhelpful to women, especially when they have children. When she started out in real estate, she said it was 50/50 men and women but women have decreased in number along the way. O'Shea, MD at LandSec, said we need more female role models and they need to be available to show women how they can have a great career in the real estate sector. She highlighted the problem that women can get pigeonholed and networking can be challenging, as it can often revolve around more traditionally 'male' activities such as shooting, hunting and fishing. (I can attest to that: I had a very brief shooting career so as not to be excluded from real estate events, but decided it wasn't my forte!) Shillaw added that we are not good enough at articulating what a property career is about and we need to encourage talent and diversity at all levels. She felt that we just aren't attracting enough women into real estate: we need to be more visible and bring in more women in the first place but we also need different generations working together so that senior female talent can mentor the next generations.
There was discussion around what we are doing to change attitudes. Clayton pinpointed that you can change culture, saying that at CBRE they have challenged behaviours and this has now had a positive effect on their retention of women. The message was that we shouldn't shy away from positive actions and there are practical things that can be done. Unconscious bias training was flagged as important. O'Shea said that you need to go over the top to make things happen and suggested that recruitment agencies can be part of the problem because women in real estate can be below the radar of some recruiters. Clayton again flagged the need for senior women to look out for the younger women in real estate, saying: "we need to keep an eye on younger talent".
The panel stressed the importance of coming to events such as this, and the need to encourage younger women to be more visible. There were strong objections to being the token woman at events and Shillaw suggested that an effort should be made to ensure that the balance was 50/50 at industry events, even if that means inviting more junior people.
The panel discussed the character traits that have helped them in their careers. O'Shea talked about her ability to see ahead. For Aminossehe, it was resilience embodied by her parents who had to leave their life in Iran and come to the UK. Clayton stressed the need for a sense of humour and energy. Shillaw put her success down to being "bloody-minded and stubborn and passionate about what I do".
The panel wrapped up with a discussion of how much change we would see in the next 10 years. They were generally optimistic that there would be quite a difference, but stressed once again that we will need mentors for younger people coming through. O'Shea commented that events like this morning's make her more optimistic that there has been a sea change and that there is now a momentum to move forward, backed up by investors being more demanding. Bickell, the only man on the panel, said that he had seen more change in the last five years than in the previous 40 years of his career. He felt that the new generation coming through will accelerate change.
In Closing Remarks, Andrea Carpenter, founder of Women Talk Real Estate (which Mishcon de Reya proudly sponsors) in conversation with Vivienne King, Chair of Real Estate Balance, said that 360 women have now signed up to Women Talk Real Estate and that 90 invitations have gone out to speakers at real estate events through the system, expanding that this made her even more frustrated that so many women still did not have a platform. She emphasized the need to recognise the confidence gap and make the most of practical training which has an impact. King said that women are better represented in real estate than ever before and studies have shown this is good for business, saying that we must make ourselves more recognised – something which has massive support from senior men in the sector. "This is a long game", she said, "we need to grab the momentum and push it through. We all need to make a commitment to driving change."
So ended a positive and inspiring women's event. Our Legal Director, Justine Ayto, said she found the event to be truly inspiring: "I left with a great deal of food for thought regarding positive steps we can all take to capitalise on the recent shift in momentum and drive forward change within the industry. The hallmark of our success will be demonstrated by gender balance at all levels across the industry".
We had heard a range of views, but the clear message was that the industry needs to modernise, and that the senior women in the industry need to work with and mentor the younger women coming up through the ranks.