Do diversity initiatives work and are they leading to real cultural change in commercial real estate? 

April 16, 2021
Written by: by Ginny Gibson, Professor Emerita, Henley Business School, Reading University
The third round table exploring the UK data from the  2020 CREW Benchmark Study on Gender & Diversity in Commercial Real Estate  took place just before Easter and looked at the impact of diversity initiatives in the commercial real estate sector. There were eleven CREW UK members in the discussion who came from diverse specialisms including investment, valuation, architecture, design, project management, recruitment, legal and flex space.  Some of these women were actively involved in developing or supporting diversity initiatives within their own organisations so were bringing first-hand experience.

The data from the benchmark study had indicated that, while almost 60% of organisations had programmes aimed at advancing women, only 10% of the those surveyed said that these programmes were a factor in their current success and 20% a factor influencing their future success.  So why the gap…are these programmes achieving the aims intended?

The discussion started with a recognition that programmes to advance women in real estate are relatively new and may not yet have made an impact.  We also recognised this there were a wide range of initiatives including internal mentoring, returners programmes, and internal women’s groups but each of these seemed to be developed in isolation rather than a series of co-ordinated initiatives. 
One of the contributors, who had recently joined the DEI committee in her own organisation, talked about the journey organisations need to go on – the idea of a DEI maturity matrix.  There are several frameworks but the Deloitte Diversity and Inclusion Model  makes it simple and clear with organisations moving from 1. compliance to 2. programmatic to 3. leader-led and finally 4. fully integrated with the tipping point in the middle.  The emerging view was that most of the organisations represented around the table were at level 2 with relatively ad hoc initiatives while making some progress at level 3 which leads to a more strategic understanding to DEI, a commitment to cultural change and greater monitoring of progress.
This brought us to a discussion about the cultural shift with more focus on gender equity, diversity, and inclusion.  Almost 80% of the survey respondents felt that there had been a positive shift driven mainly by external pressures from the industry and mandates from the CEO/senior executive. Investors, clients, various industry groups such as Real Estate Balance  and external reporting [Gender Pay Gap Reporting] were seen as instrumental in raising the issues around DEI.  But when asked about the impact of this cultural shift, the survey highlighted changing policies and more flexible working practices rather than fairer/more transparent pay and promotion practices or reduced sexual harassment.  So, it appears that the impact has been more on policy and less on practice!
We felt that this reflected experience; the senior teams in most organisations understood the business benefits of DEI but the “trickle down” was slow. Middle managers were not yet “walking the talk” with day-to-day interactions reverting to the old norms –the long hours culture, the boy’s club, the “let’s go to the pub” social, promotion on a “mini me” basis. However, changing this requires DEI moving from an HR /DEI Team’s responsibility to everyone’s responsibility….  where DEI is integrated into all aspects of the organisation – behaviours, structures, and systems.  This kind of culture change takes time, and, like all new habits, it is a matter of practice!

We ended the discussion on a positive, recognising that we had the power to take action – introducing new initiatives, finding the root cause of the issues and calling out inappropriate behaviour.   We could change what success looks like by being strong role models both inside and outside our organisations demonstrating that women can be successful in commercial real estate.