· 2 min read · Features

Gender bias in the property sector: Still a long way to go

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Only 14% of RICS' global membership are female, so the sector needs more than just fresh blood

When I was growing up, one headmistress suggested: “You’d be a good chartered surveyor”. That suggestion shaped my future. Young, determined and inspired, I wrote an expression of interest to what was then the Royal Agricultural College and was surprised by the rather curt response that it was a male-only establishment. Undeterred I replied and, following much correspondence, was delighted when a letter arrived telling me they would accept women in 1979.

While college years were fantastic – the three girls admitted were very well received and had great support – there were times when prejudice and disapproval were depressingly palpable. In 1981 we had a visiting lecturer who stomped in, noted the females in the room, and said: “Good morning gentlemen and, I regret to say, ladies.”

When I tell that story now people are rightly shocked. But is that attitude really extinct in the property and construction sector? I’ve enjoyed more than three decades in chartered surveying, working in both the public and private sector, and it has come a long way in addressing the gender imbalance. It is encouraging to see a steady increase in the number of women entering the profession. But we still have a long way to go.

According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), 50% of its global membership is over 50 and only 14% is female. A personal observation adds to my concern: the number of women in their 30s leaving the profession.

Last year RICS introduced the Inclusive Employer Quality Mark – an industry standard encouraging its members to be actively considerate of inclusivity and diversity. It’s not simply a good thing to do: genuinely embracing diversity and inclusivity is vital for future-proofing the sector.

It’s not about a facelift, it’s about a marked shift in culture. Flexible working is essential for so many women and we need to see more female directors. The statistics speak for themselves: companies with higher female board representation have 66% higher return on invested capital.

One reason I’m so passionate about this is because my daughter has now entered the profession and is enjoying her first job in a large multinational surveying company. She’s thriving in a culture of equality and diversity. However, some of her female friends in other firms in the industry have had a very different experience; struggling with a macho culture and subtle bias that has left them feeling incredibly disillusioned.

I warmly welcome what RICS is doing through the Inclusive Employer Quality Mark. It’s a great way of sharing best practice and highlighting the ‘still to do’. I recently heard Barack Obama say “the future rewards those who press on”. There’s no better time for the property and construction sector to press on and relentlessly pursue a more diverse and inclusive industry.

Sue Steer is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and runs a rural chartered surveying business