Women prosper at the top of the property game

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Alison Mirams, Susan Lloyd Hurwitz and Leanne Pilkington have played a leading role promoting gender equity within the property sector. Photo: Jessica Hromas

Once, women dreaded walking past building sites or being patronised by real estate agents. But today, it’s increasingly likely that a fair number of those construction workers will be women, and the agents too. And, what’s more, they’ll often be the ones in charge, writes Sue Williams.

Early in Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz’s career in the property industry, she worked closely with a female colleague in a more senior position who proved a valuable mentor. Ten years on, however, she was shocked to discover the other woman had a secret life – as a mother – despite never once mentioning her children’s existence.

“It turned out she’d never spoken about them because she felt then she wouldn’t be taken seriously in her job,” says Susan. “As a result, she felt she couldn’t take that part of herself to work.

Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz

“That had a big impact on me. I realised how important it is to have a normalised environment where you can bring your whole self to work, and be part of creating a much healthier workplace.”

Today, Susan is the CEO of development giant Mirvac, a company she is proud to have just seen named the number one employer in the world for gender equity, after two years at number two.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on Tuesday (March 8), it’s heartening to see how far the property industry – once so dominated by men and entrenched in a mire of machismo – has now progressed.

These days, there’s a number of women heading the various sectors; planning, designing, developing, constructing, selling, buying, valuing and financing the nation’s homes and commercial real estate, and, together, they’re making a major difference to the end users. Only if the industry itself more accurately reflects wider society, they say, will the country’s real estate be the very best it can be.

As a result, there’s real hope for the future. The latest Champions of Change Impact report, from a globally recognised coalition aiming at gender equality, found that more than 70 per cent of the 24 organisations that make up the Australian property slice of the organisation have either improved or achieved equity. Half managed to achieve gender-balanced recruitment, 45 per cent to reach an equal balance of women in their workforce, and 43 per cent to award promotions to just as many females as males.

Gender equity pay reviews, better parental leave policies, introducing more flexibility into the workplace and targeted recruitment have all had an effect, but there’s still a long way left to go.

Leanne Pilkington

Alison Mirams, for example, the CEO of construction company Roberts Co, makes a concerted effort to bring women onto her staff, to the point where it’s now at a total of 39 per cent female, with 32 per cent of crane and hoist drivers women. “There are a lot of really talented women out there, but you have to go and find them,” Alison says. “But the industry has changed enormously.

“I think the biggest difference is in the interaction in the office and conversations between parties. Having women present removes a lot of the swearing and ego and chest-beating and table-thumping, and you can have a professional conversation about issues.”

When Alison started in the industry, she was often the only woman on the building sites, and had to trudge down the road to a commercial office to use a toilet. These days, the site offices have a breast-feeding room and, on one of her most recent projects, the redevelopment of Concord Hospital, she was delighted to note that a quarter of the team were females.   

“Bringing women in does make a difference,” she says. “They have really good attention to detail and pick up on those details and make sure things are being done properly. Generally, they’re also very well organised, especially if they’re working mums.

“It’s good to have women around. It’s hard for men to design a nursing room, for example, or a women’s locker room in a stadium where women tend to want hairdryers and hair-straighteners and back lighting. Men also tend to be taller, so what would be acceptable to them for a wardrobe or a kitchen benchtop might not be acceptable for a woman.”

Alison Mirams

Women tend to approach selling real estate differently too, believes Leanne Pilkington, the immediate past president of the Real Estate Institute of NSW and the CEO of agency Laing + Simmons.

“They want to build a relationship with customers they’re selling for or to,” she says. “They want to genuinely understand what they want and bring their empathy to that situation, so they can help.

“With men, it tends to be more of a transactional relationship: ‘Deal done!’ But while a lot of real estate decisions look as if they’re made by men, it’s women guiding them as they typically spend the most time at home and understand its flow and the needs of the family more.”

Laura Cockburn

At the Australian Institute of Architects’ NSW chapter, president Laura Cockburn, also a director at architects Conrad Garrett, argues that gender equity is vital as the best results for any project are attained when there’s a broad range of people involved.

“Do you get different designs from males and females?” she asks. “I would say, No; good designers create good spaces. But anyone would be crazy not to embrace the opportunity to have both men and women at the table because otherwise, you’re never going to get the full picture.

“As Mao Zedong once said, ‘Women hold up half the sky’, and architecture is a very collaborative design process by its nature. So you need all voices to be heard.”

While over 55 per cent of architecture graduates are now women, the difficulty is that many drop out later when the demands of the career, with its long hours and competing interests, make it difficult to pursue alongside the needs of family or elderly relatives. As a result, it becomes really important that women are mentored and supported to enable them to continue to work, Laura recommends.

Davina Rooney

By the same token, Green Building Council of Australia CEO Davina Rooney’s career as an engineer began, she reminisces, to the soundtrack of the snapping shut of men’s toolboxes as she approached, to hide the images that adorned the insides of scantily-clad women.

“The property industry has changed fundamentally from that time,” she laughs. “We see it with the great work of women like Susan Lloyd Hurwitz and Alison Mirams, and my own senior leadership team is now 50 per cent female.

“But we do need more women CEOs and, particularly with underemployment so high, we need to look out for all women across all of Australia, which is what International Women’s Day is about too. We have a real responsibility to create the footholds for the next generation.”

Daisy Stevens

For property-buyers, it’s important they feel as comfortable as possible while taking such major life-changing decisions, and that means having just as many women who can offer services, as men. Daisy Stevens, the head of lending operations at mortgage brokers Finspo, says around 25 per cent of brokers are now women.

But having more women would definitely improve the journey for customers, she believes. “Whenever someone is looking at making a big life decision or engaging with a property service, they need to feel as comfortable as possible and for some that might mean the opportunity to talk to a woman,” she says. “Some customers may have a preference so, in the end, everyone benefits from diversity.”

Michelle May

It’s the same for buyers’ agents, advises Michelle May, principal of her eponymous agency. She feels women are becoming bolder in saying what they want out of life, and how they want to be dealt with.

“Grace Tame has been a terrific role model in that, as well as Leanne Pilkington in our industry,” Michelle says. “It’s about us carving out our own path and forging new routes ahead for the women coming after us.

“Ironically, COVID has helped us in the flexibility it’s now put around work, and when you work, which means you can get the best person for the job rather than being tied so much to particular geographic areas or times. I think that does help the customer. Often they come to us when they’re bruised and disappointed by the market, so we can treat them with the most empathy and understanding.”

Belinda Botzolis

Similarly, valuer Belinda Botzolis of Metropole Property, hopes one day there’ll be more women coming into her industry too. It can actually be a huge advantage to be female as women alone in a house might feel a lot less intimidated, she says, while their husbands may also feel more comfortable at the prospect.

When she began, 16 years ago, she’d often turn up at houses she was valuing, and the home-owner would be looking over her shoulder asking where the real valuer might be.

“They’d say, ‘Are you the valuer?’” Belinda recounts. “Then, ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Is there no one with you?’ They were all expecting a typical grey-haired man with glasses. Now it’s a lot more even in the industry, but there’s still not enough of us. It’s a fantastic job for a woman, and you don’t want women to miss these opportunities.”

For having a more better gender balance is good for everyone, customers and companies alike, says Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz. “It’s academically well-proven that diversity leads to better decisions and outcomes for everyone,” she says.

“You’ll end up with a better-designed home or workplace that will suit people however they’ll want to use spaces.”   

This feature first appeared in Domain Magazine.

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