Dear Sirs: the U.K. property industry needs a paradigm shift. Now.

Words by

Ellie Rees

As the world takes sluggish steps toward equality, some practices stand out as positively archaic. Addressing everyone ‘Dear Sirs’ seems a fairly obvious one, as it refuses to recognise at least 50% of the population or indeed anyone who identifies as anything other than a man or knight of the round table. Yet, it is still common practice amongst solicitors of all genders and shows real resistance to joining the 21st century.

You may wonder why this relatively trivial question of semantics matters. The answer is because it’s far from trivial. This Dickensian-sounding practice is indicative of a much wider problem that the property industry has with equality. I’m devoted to my profession, but it also has a reputation for being monocultural, and when you look at the almost total absence of women in the boardrooms of many of the biggest corporate agents, I’m afraid it’s a reputation that is well deserved.

To put it bluntly, we need more diversity. In 2022, 75% of the lowest-paid jobs in large real estate companies will go to women, despite women making up 46% of the workforce in the industry. Unsurprisingly, men dominate leadership teams, and when you consider that those at the top set the tone, it’s not a huge leap to understand why macho culture so often prevails. Ambitious women's chances of entering the C-suite are currently slim to none, and when they do arrive, often as non-executives, they have to shout loudly to gain any influence.

And then there’s the bonus gap – in two of the most well-known high street agencies there has been a median bonus gap of 80% in recent years, meaning women receive 20p for every £1 men get. I’ll just let that sit with you for a while.

Let’s get it straight, there is no competence gap here. We know women are just as capable as men, and while estate agency is merely a microcosm of society and its wider issues, the property industry appears to be a bastion of outdated attitudes. And while we wait for government policy to tackle head-on some of the root causes of women falling out of the labour market, as estate agents, we have a responsibility to make a change.

But the industry doesn’t just need to take action to balance the numbers, equality is better for business too. The PWC report Fast Tracking gender balance across Real Estate outlined the associated benefits of a changing culture and harnessing female talent, and the Mckinsey Institute outlines how tapping into women's potential could add as much as €146 billion in annual GDP by 2030 across Europe. Any agent who doesn’t reflect the dynamism and diversity of their community is missing out on a richness of perspectives and insights that can make a business really thrive.

Change is possible. Just look at the transformation the fashion and food industry has undergone since the dark days when little to no attention was paid to the environmental impact and ethical treatment of workers. Today, we are in a place where increased transparency across the supply chain in both industries has led to sustainability being firmly on the agenda.

Football too is facing its own day of reckoning. As racism came to the world’s attention at last year’s Euros, so too has misogyny aimed at the women’s squad representing the country. Now, with a European win in the bag, it appears that a gender revolution and culture change in football is finally afoot. Signalling that we have reached a tipping point, where the scales imperceptibly shift and collectively it is decided we will no longer tolerate 'business as usual'.

Calling out bad practice is challenging and can lead to uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations. For these industries, it could no longer be avoided. Consumers and fans demanded action that would improve the impact on an individual, societal and environmental level. The property sector is overdue a similar recalibration. But for real change, serious disruption is needed.

I feel it’s my duty to engage in activism. I’m lucky enough to be able to use my platform to shout about issues like gender equality and the environment. And when it comes to how Brickworks operates, I like to think we walk the talk. As well as banning environmentally unfriendly sales boards, the Brickworks team bucks the trend by being majority female.

As a property business owner, I make it my business to bang the drum loudly for women in the industry. And whilst we undoubtedly need a shift at the top, the seeds of change often start elsewhere. Women telling their stories and owning the narrative can be a powerful tool. And these experiences within the industry need to be shared - with each other and with male peers and employers, many of whom want to be part of the solution.

Happily, there is already an appetite for this. Within PWC’s report 80% of employees, both men and women, believe that action should be taken by their company to address gender issues. Change appears to be on the horizon with a new wave of estate agents who care about people over profit, and strive for better standards to offer an alternative service for the conscientious consumer. But the pace of progress is glacially slow, and there is much work to do. Last year the Office of National Statistics reported that managers in the property industry were experiencing a 21% gender pay gap.

And so, consider this my call to arms. If you receive an antiquated ‘Dear Sirs’ email, suggest they use ‘Dear All’ instead. It’s a simple act of defiance that signals it’s time for change. Because it’s only when each of us starts to challenge the accepted norms, that we can all move forward.

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