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Markets & Geopolitics

How can we attract and retain more female talent?

Attracting more female talent into the industry makes both ethical and business sense, so why is it taking so long?

World Built Environment Forum Summit
24 April 2018

The #MeToo movement, the Presidents Club, and the gender pay gap reporting have dominated the news agenda this year. In this context, the World Built Environment Forum Summit 2018 kicked off its second day with a breakfast panel discussion on how the industry can attract and retain more female talent, as well as tackling the wider problem of diversity in the workforce.

Former President of the RICS, executive director at CBRE and panel moderator Amanda Clack opened discussions observing that one in five, 21%, of new RICS trainees are female however, just 14% of members are women, proving “we have to do more to attract top talent into the profession.”

“People want to work in organisations that are taking diversity and inclusion seriously”, Clack continued, “so it’s important to be action oriented”.

Standards - like the RICS Inclusive Employer Quality Mark that now has 150 firms with 150,000 employees signed up - are important in proving organisations are taking diversity and inclusion seriously, Clack believes.

The mid-career drop-off

Highlighting what was to be a common theme at the breakfast, Clack concluded her opening remarks by saying, “we’ve seen change in the C-Suite, now it’s time for mid-career” - the period where the industry loses much female talent.

“How do we retain and develop female talent mid-career? How do we keep women in property and construction?” Clack asked the panel.

In the last five years, Simon Prichard, Senior Partner at Gerald Eve, told the audience he had seen a remarkable change in attitude towards women in the workplace. With a new generation joining the sector and senior buy-in, Prichard was sure he had seen an “appreciable change at the top of the industry.”

Comparing with other industries, Prichard said he learnt a lot from financial services, which had embraced different groups in society. He said he saw how they had targeted “the pink dollar, the grey pound” for commercial benefit. Then he looked back at property and construction and saw “our industry was chronically short of women.”

Gerald Eve, Prichard went on, came up with a plan “in the midst of the global financial crisis”. Number three on that list was to be the employer of choice for female graduates. Partly driven by altruism, this was also about commercial advantage and having access to the widest group of talent possible - a theme the panel would come back to throughout.

After a successful ten years under this initiative, Prichard explained, the company now faces an entirely different set of challenges. Many of the women from this generation have reached the middle of their career, have gone on maternity leave or other career breaks. How does Gerald Eve intend to retain that talent? “It’s been a deliberate and successful initiative for us...so we’re right behind it” said the firm’s senior partner.

The workplace of the future

Next, Clack asked Bryony Goldsmith, an Associate at Arcadis and Winner of the Women of the Future Award 2016, what kind of workplace she wanted to see.

“As an industry we’re getting better at attracting women. At Arcadis, I’ve never felt an unconscious bias. But, when you reach middle management, you realise what the industry used to be like." - Bryony Goldsmith, Associate, Arcadis and Winner of the Women of the Future Award 2016

From her experience as a working mother, Vicky Smith, a Partner at Deloitte UK, said it came down to “open and honest conversations with your team”. She said she was fortunate that people had always been supportive of her and thought “you need real commitment from senior management.”

Sensing a theme emerging, moderator Amanda Clack asked the panel what “the deal” with middle management was. It consistently came up as the period in many women’s careers where they drop out of the workforce and find it extremely difficult to rejoin.

At Deloitte, Smith said, every employee going on maternity leave will get training. And every manager with a team member going on maternity leave is put in touch with someone who has successfully managed someone back into the business.

Simon Prichard felt the problem could be more acute depending on the scale of the business. He said he had a “bugbear about disruption”. In the property world, the Gerald Eve senior partner felt, this was often “groups of men leaving large practices who can earn 75p in the pound by not paying maternity leave”. For him, having gender balance on the team was a major component in winning work from large corporates.

Returning to work

The panel were asked how the industry can help women return to work from career breaks.

For Smith it was about offering people the opportunity and helping them relearn soft skills like confidence in the workplace. “It’s the right thing to do”, argued the Deloitte partner, “but it also gives us access to a great talent pool. If we give them that opportunity, they’re likely to be more loyal.” This is borne out in the figures. Eighty per cent of participants in the Deloitte return to work scheme have remained with the firm.

Goldsmith said it was about giving people enough time. “As women we don’t necessarily talk about the things which are worrying us” felt the Arcadis associate, and “by the time they hand their notice in, it’s too late.”

An audience member asked how, as someone who had taken a lengthy career break, she could come back to senior roles when many HR teams had a certain process to follow.

Smith thought applying for senior roles is always difficult - Deloitte try to avoid it and promote from within their own ranks. Her advice was to contact senior people directly, before saying she was always surprised how men are far more comfortable doing this than women.

Picking up a question on how men can be better supported in the workplace, Clack asked if men should be braver in asking for flexible working.

“Things are changing as women become more empowered in the workplace and take progressive, higher earning roles. There's an inevitability of greater flexibility... if society keeps on the same trajectory it has been on.” - Simon Prichard, Senior Partner, Gerald Eve

When it came to practical actions to improve talent retention, Smith wants open conversations and opportunities that reflect people’s changing requirements. Goldsmith said people should have more time with mentors and team, while for Prichard it was about drawing from a much deeper pool of talent.

Current President of the RICS John Hughes asked the panel, if there is a trend in the right direction, what could be done to “supercharge this change?” “And what can the RICS do?” asked Clack.

Smith wants the parts of the industry that are “so far off what’s acceptable” in terms of diversity, to be called out. Goldsmith says we should be thinking big and use shocking data and anecdotes as a “platform for change”. Prichard said recent harassment scandals could lead to positive change and there is a “genuine commitment to getting better...and not just on gender, but the wider diversity agenda too.”

Asked about the gender pay gap, Goldsmith said it wasn’t something that could be ignored, saying it was a “black and white representative of where we are.” Why would female talent stay in our industry where they are not valued, asked the Arcadis associate.

Wrapping up the session, Clack asked each of the panel if they had one last message for the room:

Simon Prichard - “Keep the faith. I really feel change is coming. The path we’re on is the right path.”

Bryony Goldsmith - “Women should keep shouting about our achievements, make sure people know what you’re doing. Build your allies, so you have someone to fight your corner.”

Vicky Smith - “Be confident, talk about our achievements, decide what we want from careers at different points in our lives.”

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.