Hard quotas appear to be an unlikely tool in the growing push to promote gender parity in the real estate industry if commentary at a panel hosted by the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Toronto chapter on International Women’s Day is any indication.
A movement to set, measure and track soft targets for diversity and inclusion has only emerged in the last few years. The success to date seen by early adopters of this strategy suggests that looking at how an organization is faring in promoting women at all levels, and then establishing goals, may be enough to realize gender parity.
The Ontario government, for example, announced in 2016 that it would aim to fill at least 40 per cent of appointments at all provincial agencies and boards with women by 2019. At least one provincial agency, Infrastructure Ontario, has already surpassed that target, reaching perfect gender parity in both the boardroom and the C-suite.
Speaking at the ULI Toronto panel, Toni Rossi, president of the real estate division at Infrastructure Ontario, credited the leadership of its board chair in driving action on diversity and inclusion. However, Rossi said that there is more work to be done, noting that middle management is one part of the organizational chart where the provincial agency has struggled to move toward gender parity.
“We’ve been very deliberate about progressing a measured basline,” she added. “I personally have a visceral feeling when I hear the word quota.”
Rossi may not be alone in feeling this way. Aspiring leaders have expressed to at least one real estate executive that establishing hard quotas may diminish merit-based promotions.
“The feedback that we get from our strongest people is: ‘Please don’t put a quota in there because who wants to be that person who’s looked at as: You have two spots; therefore, I’m one,’” said Blake Hutcheson, president and CEO of Oxford Properties Group, speaking at the ULI Toronto panel.
Also speaking at the ULI Toronto panel, Leslie Woo, chief planning and development officer at Metrolinx, added that there are alternatives to quotas in the push for gender parity that have yet to be used. Woo has pressed recruiters to go back to the labour pool after they’ve sought out female candidates and come up short.
She said Metrolinx, another provincial agency, has set a goal of reaching gender parity from the manager level up within three years in an effort to reflect the demographic composition of the region it serves, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Its 14-member board of directors has a 50-50 split between men and women and its executive team has a 60-40 split that favours women, but it has some ground to make up from the manager level up, where it currently has 28-per-cent female representation.
“Part of what we’re trying to do in our organization is to call it, and enable people to call it when they see it,” said Woo. “When I go into a boardroom or meeting, I take a picture and I show everybody: ‘Did you notice what our boardroom meeting looked like? Let’s mix it up a little bit.’”
Metrolinx is also turning to its women’s network and diversity and inclusion council for ideas. Woo said organizations need to determine what their status quo looks like in order to know where to place their focus. She had to approach the HR department for demographic data when the women’s network was being formed.
REALPAC, a national trade association representing the largest real estate companies in Canada, started to track diversity and inclusion statistics in 2017, including gender, as part of its annual compensation and benefits survey. “Collecting data on male-to-female breakdowns within organizations will establish a baseline from which to chart trends,” said Michael Brooks, CEO of REALPAC.
REALPAC’s move to track male-to-female ratios comes as part of a broader initiative, led by an advisory council and a staff committee, launched last year to promote diversity and inclusion in the industry, including gender equality. Brooks said a scan of global best practices showed the Canadian real estate sector is trailing its counterparts in the U.S., Europe and Australia. Male members of the Property Council of Australia, for example, have pledged not to participate in ‘manels’ (all-male panels).
The statistics currently available suggest the real estate sector is also trailing the Canadian economy at large on gender parity. Women in the real estate sector may find the top rungs of the corporate ladder harder to reach compared to some of their peers in other sectors, an analysis of Canadian Property Management’s 2017 Who’s Who in Canadian Real Estate Survey revealed.
“It’s been a journey, and I’ll admit that we’re not getting this right — not as a society, not in this industry, and not at Oxford,” said Hutcheson, “but I have been a huge champion of both inclusion and diversity, and I’ve just watched the company evolve over nine years.”
“We make better decisions when we have a diverse group in the room,” he said.
Hutcheson was also recently appointed CEO and chief pension officer at OMERS, which, similarly to Metrolinx’s diversity and inclusion efforts, provides forums for women’s and LGBTQ groups. He said the impetus to promote diversity and inclusion isn’t limited to social responsibility, citing research coming out of Harvard University that shows it drives shareholder value.
What’s more, a new index from MSCI Canada that tracks a sample of publicly traded entities that meet criteria to be considered leaders in women’s diversity saw higher returns than a broader investable market index over the span of a year and a half.
Recognizing the research that exists, Rossi said she worries about the ability of the real estate industry to attract top talent in the future, having looked around the room at one of the biggest conferences of the year and not seen a lot of diversity.
In the classroom at Ryerson University where Brooks teaches the capstone real estate course, he sees plenty of women and visible minorities preparing to enter the sector, but he said that the industry needs to change the signals it’s sending.
“Put yourself in their shoes looking for a job at any organization in Canada — ‘I think I’ll check out the C-suite’ — and all you see is white men,” said Brooks. “That doesn’t send a reaffirming message about the future and what your opportunities are.”
There are encouraging signals to be found. ULI Toronto’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) recently marked an important milestone as it strives to do its part to promote gender parity in the local real estate and development industry through its She With He campaign. Having made a concerted effort to increase its female ranks, ULI Toronto now claims the highest level of women members globally — 36 per cent — among ULI’s district councils of comparable size.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.