The Diversity & Inclusion Experience: Equity > Equality

Another article about diversity? Hasn’t it all been said already?!

We’ve shared our views on diversity in the real estate sector before, not so long ago. We highlighted the continued lack of diversity and some of the excellent initiatives that are catalysing progress – including Real Estate BalanceFreehold, and WomenTalkRE. And we committed to being more proactive in our efforts to support and enable inclusive behaviours.

So what else is there to say? Well, the good news is that the real estate sector is making progress – as are many other sectors. The recent Hampton-Alexander Reviewof FTSE Women Leader shows 30% of FTSE 100 and 24.9% of FTSE 250 board positions are currently occupied by women – up from 27.7% and 22.8% last year respectively – and real estate companies feature in the top ten performers in both lists.

Yet the anecdotal evidence (see, for example, page 20 of the Review) speaks of slower progress in terms of real experiences. Less than one in three FTSE 250 board vacancies went to women in 2018. The percentage of women in executive committee and direct report roles across all FTSE 350 real estate companies averages 28.4% overall, and 21.4% at board level.

And what’s happening in the pipeline of talent that feeds into those top positions – is it fit for purpose? What about other underrepresented groups in real estate workplaces?

We’ve grown our team over the past year, and we’ve really valued learning about each other’s perspectives on some of the key challenges currently facing the sector. We’ve spent time discussing diversity, including what it means to us on a personal level and some of the solutions for progressing inclusiveness in the real estate world and beyond. Here are some of our thoughts.

Born this way?

When it comes to attitudes around gender roles and diversity, we’re pretty much a product of our early years. Each experience and interaction shapes our patterns of behaviour, contributing to assumptions and preconceptions that feed into adult life. You could say we’re biased from birth.

History shows us that this programming can change over time, but it takes persistent, proactive effort. And that effort needs to be significant if hardwired social norms are to continue evolving in a more, not less, inclusive direction. Willingness to change has to come from every sector, and particularly from those already occupying positions of power: leading by example, enabling progress and calling out unacceptable behaviour.

So recognising diversity as a shared, societal issues is – we think – the most vital first step in moving away from divisive, blame-laden conversations and towards a more positive view of the benefits that fully inclusive workplaces can bring. In fact, it was a conversation kickstarted by Estates Gazette about blame that motivated us to share our thoughts.

And within this bigger picture, we obviously have to develop a clear understanding of just how diverse and inclusive the workplace is, so we know what we’re working with…

Looking behind the numbers

Numbers are important. They enable target setting, demonstrate progress and allow comparison with others. And when it comes to high interest issues such as diversity, it’s vital that figures are open and transparent. Increasing the number of women on a board, ensuring more representation from ethnic minorities on a panel – these things all help to increase visible diversity. 

This observable, measurable diversity is essential, particularly to hold to account those companies that are lagging behind. But it also has some pitfalls.

Firstly, as we’ve mentioned, numbers rarely reflect the everyday reality of underrepresented groups in the workplace. Although the data might say ‘things are becoming more balanced’, anecdotally this is commonly not matched by everyday experience. A lot of this comes down to unconscious bias – those automatic reactions that are so innate, we don’t even notice them. This might be assumptions or judgements about life plans or skills, words used more often in relation to women than men, even the tone of voice or body language used in everyday interactions with certain groups or individuals.

Until such biases are tackled systemically and until diversity goals are focused on processes and experiences as much as numbers, the practical reality is likely to continue lagging behind the figures. Workplaces might officially bemore diverse, but they won’t necessarily feelmore inclusive.

Secondly, there’s a risk that focusing on numbers or quotas can leave individuals feeling unrealistic pressure to perform as the visible minority. An example of this comes from one of our team members, who trained as a carpenter:

“I didn’t get to be an individual; I was the girl. I was there representing an entire gender whether I liked it or not. If one of the boys makes a mistake it’s no big deal; we say ‘Darren’s rubbish at carpentry’. If I fudged something up, my entire gender takes the hit: ‘GIRLS are rubbish at carpentry’.”

This experience is far from isolated and, in our opinion, is almost certainly a contributory factor for some individuals not taking opportunities that others might leap at – the pressure of judgement and the risk of failure on behalf of your entire gender, race, or any other defining factor are powerful motivators.

Which leads to our final point about data, which is that, while numbers might explain what the situation is regarding diversity, they can’t tell us anything about why. Without asking why certain groups are underrepresented either as a whole or within particular sectors or roles, we’re only tinkering around the edges.

Equity > equality

This “why?” question is really about identifying barriers: what’s stopping this person from going for that role, stepping onto that stage, progressing beyond a certain level? What do they need in terms of support? Do they have role models they can identify with and aspire to be like? Is the system or setting itself inherently biased by design?

Opening up these questions isn’t necessarily easy, but we think it will save a lot of time and resource in the long run. If we keep asking why people aren’t taking the opportunity given to them to sit at the table, we’re asking the wrong question. We should be asking what’s stopping them from getting to the door, getting into the room, or even knowing the table exists in the first place.

So perhaps when we talk about equality, we’re looking at the whole issue with the wrong filter. Equality is about providing the same opportunity for all. Great, but we’re not all the same. We think the conversation should shift far more towards equity: taking account of where people are starting from, understanding their needs and aspirations, and providing opportunity and support accordingly.

Less stick, more carrot

But people are busy, resources are tight, the job needs doing. Is there really any value in making the effort to dig deeper, when it might be easier just to meet the leadership-level diversity target and move on?

We think it’s more than valuable; it’s essential. Diversity of thought and experience bring challenge, innovation and opportunity at all levels. And with the many complex global issues facing businesses at the moment, the ability to innovate quickly and think differently is likely to become a point of difference for the most successful of companies.

Ultimately, this is about sustainability. In a fast-evolving marketplace, how can any business maximise its success in the long run if it – willingly or accidentally – excludes underrepresented voices from the table? These voices might spot risks and opportunities no-one else had thought about, or present fresh approaches to intractable problems. Indeed, the evidence linking diversity with profitability is increasingly compelling (e.g. see McKinsey and HBR).

For the real estate sector, embracing diversity and inclusivity might mean some challenging conversations about how decisions get made, where the debate happens, and who is involved – not just at board level, but across every part of the business. Another of our colleagues shares their experience:

“More often than not I’ve found that talented women involved in real estate are not always in the typical asset / property / development role. People in marketing and leasing roles, or with broader expertise in disciplines such as sociology and psychology often get overlooked, and therefore so does their ability to add a voice to the conversation.”

We think inclusivity also means fully sharing responsibility for calling out inappropriate behaviour or bias, and for creating positive change. Being a passive observer is no longer an option.

Ultimately, change requires a broadening of approach from the reactive response to external expectations to a deeper understanding that diversity and inclusivity are genuinely good for employers and employees alike. It is with that premise that genuinely meaningful action can be taken.

Our vision

None of this is easy, and all of it takes time. We’re talking about individuals and companies working together to tackle a systemic issue that has deep roots. Progress might be slow, but it is happening, and we think it can happen more effectively with some simple shifts in mindset and approach:

  • Acknowledging the social and systemic context to diversity and inclusiveness together, without blame. 
  • Understanding and addressing unconscious bias wherever possible, including through coaching and reverse mentoring.
  • Exploring what sits behind the numbers – being curious about whyas well as what, and focusing on processes and experiences as much as the figures.
  • Concentrating on equity (taking account of what people need to get to the same place), rather than blanket equality (offering people the same chance regardless of their background).
  • Changing the dialogue to include underrepresented voices at every level; a CEO and school leaver will both have valid and useful observations to offer.
  • Sharing responsibility for cultural change, which requires those in leadership roles to admit the limitations of their understanding, especially on unconscious bias – everyone is on the journey together.
  • Recognising and embracing the benefits of diversity in both the short and the long-term.

We’re happy to discuss our thoughts more deeply with anyone that’s interested in having a chat – whether at the personal, organisational or industry level. Do get in touch