The real estate industry is at a vital point when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

This article was first published by Bisnow on 08/03/2021

Much has changed: Conversations that wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago about the need to improve are being had in the open. But words need to be matched with actions — diversity of all types in the top ranks of real estate firms is still hard to find.

In honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, Bisnow listened in on a conversation with six female real estate professionals, from a variety of backgrounds and working in different parts of the industry, whose experience in the sector ranged from three years to almost 30.

They discussed the things that have changed for the better in real estate, the structural problems facing the industry, the power of seeing yourself reflected in senior positions, and how the coronavirus pandemic is both helping and hindering the quest for equality in property. Here is what they had to say on these vital questions. 

Clockwise from top left: Addleshaw Goddard's Alison Newton, NewRiver's Megan Ruffell, Bisnow's Mike Phillips, Bruntwood's Kate Lawlor, L&G's Rosie Toogood, M&S' Joelle Allotey and The Crown Estate's Nicole Campbell

Clockwise from top left: Addleshaw Goddard's Alison Newton, NewRiver's Megan Ruffell, Bisnow's Mike Phillips, Bruntwood's Kate Lawlor, L&G's Rosie Toogood, M&S' Joelle Allotey and The Crown Estate's Nicole Campbell

On what has changed for the better

Alison Newton, co-head of real estate at law firm Addleshaw Goddard

“I can vividly remember a conversation with my managing partner in the 1990s at a different firm, who went on to be senior partner: It was a toe-to-toe argument about whether there was any room for a partner who didn’t work full time. He thought there was no room for people to be part time. That has changed massively, the idea that flexible working is possible, and it doesn’t have to be covert.” 

Megan Ruffell, junior asset manager at retail investor NewRiver Retail

“With NewRiver being a relatively small company, it’s easier to see the changes coming through than in a big company. I’m really lucky to have some amazing mentors like Margaret Ford and Emma Mackenzie, and in a smaller company it is probably easier to see that. 

“I’ve never felt that coming in to the industry I’ll come against things that will hinder my career. Maybe that’s because I’m relatively new, and I’ve come into the industry when it’s evolving. Maybe I’ll come up against it later in my career, but not so far.” 

Nicole Campbell, asset manager at London and regional investor The Crown Estate

“In my 16 years in the industry, I’ve definitely seen some positive change. I think the point we are at now, there is a general realisation that things need to change, and it’s about not just talking, it’s about doing something about it. At my company, the chief executive is chairing a diversity and inclusion group, and it is about seeing leadership driving things forward and doing practical things to bring about change. Feeding into that group we have various networks looking at all elements of diversity, not just gender, and I think there’s a feeling that we have maybe started to deliver on the gender piece, but we need to raise the bar in all other areas of diversity like race, ethnicity, culture, accessibility.”

Rosie Toogood, chief executive at Legal & General Modular Homes, the modular division of the UK pension fund

“Attitudes have changed, not just in business but in society. A lot of it is structures and policies, but a lot of it is just peer pressure and cultural norms. I look at the workplace when I started and how different it is now, the things people used to do and say, it was just unbelievable. Now I’ve got a son and daughter and I talk to them about diversity and my son says, Mum, it’s just not cool any more. But we can’t just wait until that group comes into the workforce, society in general needs to challenge its attitudes now. Look at the Taylor Swift thing, it’s just too easy to have a go at women. When people keep landing these slights, we need to challenge that, and people are challenging it, saying you wouldn’t say that about a guy. The rate of change in society will help. It needs to be a choice as to whether the man or the woman stays home to look after kids, and society needs to change that view of whose role it is to stay at home and look after a child.”

On what has not changed, and why seeing a diverse group of people ahead of you is important

Joelle Allotey, regional surveyor at retailer Marks & Spencer

“When I was a grad I was working in an agency, which is very much a laddy environment, and I thought it was important to know all the other women working in an agency, so I set up a ladies who lunch club. And it was great, and while there were women older than me, it trailed off after 29 or 30, so it was me and my cohort, and then at that age, a lot of people went on maternity leave or took time out. That’s fine of course, but that encouraged me to leave the agency, as I didn’t really have any visible example being set, so I didn’t really see a clear trajectory for what I can achieve. I don’t need to look to other people to know what I can aspire to, but already joining the industry, I’m Black and I’m a woman, so it would have been nice to see at least half of what I am being mirrored higher up. But it just wasn’t there, and that’s when I knew that element of the industry didn’t promote enough longevity for me, and I needed to go to a different part of the industry where I could see those examples and that I could see that I might get those accolades.” 

Nicole Campbell, The Crown Estate

“It was hugely inspiring working for a female chief executive [former Crown Estate CEO Alison Nimmo], and we have a lot of female leaders in our business more generally, and I find that hugely inspiring. I would like to rise through those ranks, and I would like to be a role model for people who are coming through that are female, and Black, and so do that with my own career.” 

On the structural problems the industry has, and a new appreciation of different skill sets

Nicole Campbell, The Crown Estate

“I worked in an agency as well, and especially in private practices there is a structural issue around fees — if you want to work flexibly, is that reflected in your fee requirement? Often it was pro-rated, which made meeting those targets difficult. But that is now changing, from what I can see. 

“There is also now greater respect for the skills women can bring. Previously maybe it was believed that only women can be emotionally intelligent, or only women can collaborate, but I think now people realise that those skills are needed across the board, especially at a time of change like right now. So hopefully there is a greater realisation of the skills that women bring, and that might mean you see a change and evening up at the top of the pyramid.” 

Alison Newton, Addleshaw Goddard 

“EQ is not just about getting on with people, it is about having those hard conversations with people and actually making the discipline around a teamwork. So it has graduated from being a soft skill to being a key delivery skill.”

On the impact of flex working and the pandemic

Kate Lawlor, chief executive at life sciences specialist Bruntwood SciTech

“Bruntwood is a very diverse business already, but the flexible work idea has made a huge difference. We were actually working flexibly before Covid, in different offices, and the fact that people were in different places at different times made it a lot more accepted to say, I need to work from home this morning as I need to drop the kids off, then I open up the laptop. I have friends in my old profession, accountancy, where that was a lot less accepted. ... This situation has worked wonders because we’ve been able to manage expectations more clearly, as everyone is in the same battle, and both men and women have to balance commitments — people realise that everyone has other commitments, not just one member of the family. We have to manage by outputs, rather than just by people being present.”

Alison Newton, Addleshaw Goddard 

“We need to make sure that we don’t end up with all the alphas back in the office, and the people who chose to work flexibly being seen as the worker bees, with some people still prioritising work over home and them being the top dogs.”

Megan Ruffell, NewRiver

“For me, I have missed the social side of things, and the stage I am at, it’s maybe hindered me learning as quickly because you can’t just ask someone a question, you need to call them, and you feel like you’re disturbing them. So from a learning perspective it’s maybe been a bit of a disadvantage, as someone who’s learning it is better to have that human contact rather than trying to do that through a Teams call. 

“From the senior leaders at NewRiver, I think the perception has changed in the past year. In March last year it was looking forward to getting everyone back in the office, now it’s much more relaxed, the likelihood is that people will spend a couple of days a week working from home. But it is key that you are in at the same time as all of the rest of your team.” 

On when to catch young people and bring them in to the real estate sector

Kate Lawlor, Bruntwood

“We’re focusing a lot on getting into schools and universities and promoting property as a career. I think back to when I was at university, my career choices were made by basically just walking around careers fair and seeing how much someone would pay me, and the property wasn’t an option. No one spoke to you about it, it just wasn’t there. The core property sectors, in particular, are still very male-led, and for a lot of those men, it wasn’t something that was offered to them, they did it because their dad did it. ... We are not getting down into the grassroots, and that is where we as a business are focusing.” 

Joelle Allotey, M&S

“When I graduated [from Reading University] I think we were 35% female and two of us were from ethnic backgrounds. And I went back last year to speak to the first years and I was just shocked. I think the initiatives like Pathway to Property [set up to introduce property to a more diverse group of young people] are doing a great job because you see the stereotypical tweed jacket on the periphery, but it was kids who had come from so many different backgrounds. And on the gender side, you are seeing girls there that don’t want to do the typical law degree, accounting degree or medical degree but want to do something that gives them more of a vocation, where they can add to the built environment, to everyday life. 

“What I see is that on the female side, you have women who have risen to a position of influence, and they now want to inspire girls to go into property for a reason, not just because their mum or dad did it. [They are] seeing that they can change things and have influence no matter what shade, colour, creed, sexual orientation or gender they are.”

Nicole Campbell, The Crown Estate

“Even giving people work experience that otherwise wouldn’t have access to it through their families or connections is really important; that’s something we do at the Crown Estate.” 

On some practical solutions to improving diversity

Alison Newton, Addleshaw Goddard

“I think people are getting to the point where to make that change they are going to have specific targets. I know there are lots of arguments about tokenism, but if you don’t measure it, you won’t achieve it, so you say, we want x% of the senior partners to be diverse by this date. Setting a goal without an action plan is just making a wish.”

Kate Lawlor, Bruntwood

“I’ve flip-flopped a bit. I think before I worried about whether targets encouraged the wrong behaviour, but now I think they can be positive, especially setting smaller, interim targets. Rather than trying to deal with the problem once the bridge is already burning down, can you set smaller annual targets to help you achieve your lofty goals? If you don’t have a clear, target-driven approach you’ll just end up kicking the can down the road and won’t achieve those overall goals.” 

Alison Newton, Addleshaw Goddard 

“The BBC have a scheme called 50/50 that we’re now a partner in. All of the external comments that you make, whether that’s live comment, interviews, articles, we’ve extended it to pitches, you need to be aiming for 50/50 male and female voices. You record that, make a note of it in internal databases. Gosh, that’s made a difference already. 

“We’re feeding it back into our processes and it shows you very quickly those areas where without very much effort you can just as easily find a slightly younger female voice, who’s still an expert and knows her stuff, who’s done tons of deals or cases, or who can comment on the budget. But it also shows you those areas where you don’t have enough female professionals because you struggle to find those voices to make that comment.” 

Nicole Campbell, The Crown Estate

“An example from my CBRE days, they were one of the first firms to have an apprenticeship scheme. I was lucky enough to go into schools, and property has been a hidden industry. We were able to go in and tell them how we had helped to shape Westfield Stratford, or other parts of the built environment. Seeing their enthusiasm, and then being able to bring those people into the business, and help shape the industry in a different way, was brilliant — younger voices, different thinking, it is a way of getting different people in.”

Joelle Allotey, M&S

“I think it definitely made a difference. I remember when I was coming into the industry I would go to networking events and about joining some companies I would think, hell no. But seeing a lot of people I resonated with coming from CBRE, I thought, wow, this is a company that really cares about the ground up, they care about inception to completion of people’s careers, and even if you do the apprenticeship and decide you don’t want to stay at CBRE, you see an eclectic mix of people that want to work at a property company. That is quite revitalising.”

On role models

Alison Newton, Addleshaw Goddard 

“I think there are some characteristics of a great leader: identifiable character, obvious charisma, laughs out loud, gets stuff done, open to new ideas, believe in the strength of the team, trusted, brave. It looks like I am describing Richie McCaw, although not so many laughs … when it is actually Jacinda Ardern.”

Nicole Campbell, The Crown Estate

“My role model is Mary Seacole, in some ways she reminds me of my mother and grandmother who both served in the NHS. In the face of adversity and rejection, Mary held onto her purpose and focused on serving others. She remained resilient in pursuing her goals and although she was overlooked, she carved her own route to have a fulfilling nursing career with her achievements only being recognised much later in life.”

Key contact

Alison Newton

Alison Newton

Partner, Co-head of Real Estate Sector

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