Why property firms still need to build diversity in the workplace

Homophobic attitudes in the construction and property sectors are shockingly prevalent, according to research this week.  Joanna Bourke reports on the moves to shed the industry's 'male, pale and stale' image

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Wealthy, suited and booted, loutish, sexist and male – that’s often the image that springs to mind for professionals in the property and construction industries.

It’s a stereotype but it might be a lot closer to the truth than many in those sectors would be happy to admit, with a new survey this week from Architects’ Journal and Construction News finding that 85 per cent of gay men and women in the construction industry have encountered homophobic comments in the workplace in the past year.  The property sector fared only slightly better in the survey, with 63 per cent of gay staff hearing homophobic remarks.

Meanwhile, no construction companies and just nine property businesses made it on to a 2015 list of Britain’s 100 most gay-friendly workplaces compiled by the charity Stonewall.

The property groups that did appear on the list largely comprised housing associations or public-sector groups such as Affinity Sutton and Tower Hamlets Homes. Not one of the big property agencies or listed property developers were included.

By contrast, 14 councils and 10 banking and finance companies – including HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group – were on the list. Big law firms were also prominent.

However, that could be starting to change as some of the biggest names in property start to sit up and take notice.

This summer, JLL – which employs 58,000 people globally and has a big UK presence – claimed to be the first property advisory and investment management company to have a walking group at the Pride in London Parade.

That might signal a change in attitudes, but why is the industry perceived as being behind the curve on diversity, and can it shed this reputation?

Brian Bickell, the chief executive of FTSE 250 landlord Shaftesbury, who is also gay, believes that other industries were quicker to embrace diversity, and that property can still be dubbed as old-fashioned by some observers.

He told The Independent: “It is actually quite a small and enclosed industry and fragmented across a range of professions. We are still often seen as having a ‘male, pale and slightly stale’ stereotype, which deters some people from entering the sector. We deliver the built environment for society but our membership doesn’t yet represent it.”

David Mann, a partner at the property consultancy Tuffin Ferraby Taylor, is also co-founder of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) property networking forum Freehold. He said: “When we started Freehold four years ago, I think there was a general feeling that diversity was not on the agenda at all, and a lot of people were afraid to come out because the gay community had no visibility in the property industry.”

He added that big City corporate names such as the accountancy firms KPMG, EY and PwC have long had LGBT networks, “so property has a long way to catch up”.

But Freehold, Mr Mann believes, is now getting more support from the industry. It now has around 750 members and a number of its events have been sponsored by companies such as the property agent CBRE and FTSE 100 developer British Land.

Meanwhile, JLL has introduced its own in-house LGBT forum called Building Pride. Its co-chairman, Dave Carlos, thinks his employer has realised the importance of embracing diversity and encouraging staff to be open.

Mr Carlos explained: “Employees feel happier in their work and are more likely to stay if they feel they don’t have to hide aspects of their personality. It has to be right for people to feel they can be themselves.”

Measures implemented by JLL over the past 12 months include launching a campaign to highlight the subtle (and not so subtle) comments and behaviour that can make people feel uncomfortable or excluded in the workplace.

It has also reviewed its human resources policies to ensure that the terminology used is explicitly inclusive of gay employees, while LGBT staff are encouraged to join Diversity Role Models – a charity that seeks to prevent homophobic and transphobic bullying in British schools.

And it seems the effort is paying off. One graduate trainee at JLL recently came out as gay on the final stage of his training programme, which he had been on for a couple of years.

He said he had not wanted to come out earlier because he feared jeopardising his chances of being taken on by a particular department. However, he said that had he started now, he would have been more comfortable with being openly gay from the outset.

Freehold’s Mr Mann said he wanted to see a big property company or agent make the Stonewall top 100 list.

To do so, companies need to complete a Workplace Equality Index that measures 10 criteria, including employee policy, training and career development.

Matteo Lissana, client account manager at Stonewall, said it is working with 10 organisations in the construction and built environment sector. But he added: “While these organisations are leading by example, the sector in general is comparatively disengaged.”

Mr Lissana believes it could be as long as three years before big property names start springing up on the list.

But does Mr Mann agree?

“I believe that for the first time ever there will be a race between some of the big property players to make the Stonewall list. But as for whether they can do so by 2016, it will be tough. Doable, but tough.”