Women in property: it’s time to press the reset button

by Vivienne Clements, Executive Director

I wrote an article recently for EG about women in the property industry and the dangers of potentially losing them in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. It certainly seemed to strike a chord with a number of people.

My essential case is that women have made a great deal of progress over time. We’ve seen more female involvement in the sector than ever before and many of us have had the opportunity to forge successful careers – taking on senior positions in our businesses. The Women in Property organisation has played an important role in encouraging this progression, along with others.

Of course, we know that things are by no means perfect.

In my EG piece, I mentioned PwC’s 2020 Real Estate Balance report, which showed that fewer than a quarter of UK property companies had women on their boards. That figure hasn’t moved significantly in the past few years and it shows just how much work is still to be done.

Nevertheless, by other measures, we have registered positive change. And this is what leaves me so worried about the possible impact of Covid-19. Could the disruption caused to our lives by the pandemic have a particularly severe impact on female representation in property?

We know, for instance, that women have taken on a lot more of the additional childcare responsibilities this year, as kids were sent home from school. Although education is up and running again, many headteachers are being forced to send children home to self-isolate. What’s more, it’s difficult to know whether we might yet see a return to school closures if the second wave of infections continues to rise.

There are bigger, structural issues at play though. Evidence shows that women are much more likely to have lost their jobs or to have resigned in the wake of the coronavirus. Others have seen their hours cut back, have gone on to furlough and taken unpaid leave. As we head towards the winter with less government protection on offer, it’s likely that this situation will become even starker.

Supporting female colleagues through the ‘new normal’

So how might we stop talented women in property leaving the industry altogether? Here are two very practical suggestions:

First, we need to create and maintain a supportive culture, which allows staff to balance their work and family commitments. This might mean setting aside the traditional 9-to-5 office culture.

Second, we need to empower women by allowing them to set their own schedule and take control of any childcare responsibilities alongside their working role. By making this leap, we’ll see increased commitment and productivity.

Ultimately, the pandemic may provide us with an opportunity to reset the way we do business and recalibrate our working culture.

If we can seize the moment, it may be possible to create an environment that is more attractive to women – meaning that we not only retain the knowledge and experience already within our businesses, but also reach out to new talented female recruits.

This year, we have been forced to innovate and become more flexible. As a result, we’ve glimpsed a world of new possibilities. Now, we can make them a long-term reality.

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