The conversation about women in property’s leadership isn’t over

The data doesn’t lie: when women occupy positions of leadership, businesses are more resilient, employees more engaged, and bottom lines more robust. Research conducted across a wide range of sectors and geographic locations offers evidence of this, and yet women are still often unempowered, boardrooms mostly dominated by men, and the gender pay gap largely unresolved.

In South Africa’s property sector, women have historically occupied roles in residential sales and marketing, very rarely moving into positions of leadership. While important strides have been made to reverse this tide in the last five to ten years, more remains to be done. On the whole, the sector’s successes in this space are still paltry and piecemeal, and inadequate if it is going to live up to its potential and contribute to the economic upswing South Africa so desperately needs.

The status quo

A 2019 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) surveyed gender diversity in nearly 13,000 enterprises worldwide. It found that all businesses with a fair representation of men and women “stand to benefit from higher profitability and productivity; increased ability to attract and retain talent; greater creativity, innovation and openness; enhanced reputation; and the ability to better gauge consumer interest and demand”.

It reports that almost 75% of businesses that pointed to an improved bottom line as a result of gender diversity indicated an increase in profits of between 5 and 20%. And added that “when boardrooms are gender-balanced, enterprises are 20% more likely to have improved business outcomes”.

And yet, across Africa, only 20.1% of boards are chaired by women. In South Africa, among the property companies that are listed on the JSE, not a single one has a female CEO at its helm.

The sector is not unaware of this problematic status quo. Through the work of the Property Sector Charter Council, an industry body that promotes transformation and inclusion in the industry, women hold an increasingly central position in conversations about the future. At its various events and through its wide and established network, the council is encouraging companies to comply with the B- BBEE Act, and is promoting the employment and upliftment of women.

That said, the Council is not a regulatory body, and can only guide these changes not enforce them. Responsibility for meaningful transformation therefore rests with industry players themselves – and with the individual men and women who make up these businesses.

Avenues for transformation

The commercial property space has rarely prioritised the implementation of mentoring and upskilling programmes, particularly those that benefit women. Internal training and development is usually incidental, and is not specifically targeted to ensure that women are given the opportunities and skills they require to become leaders.

But there are existing platforms that could be better explored to this end. Enterprise development and internship programmes are widespread in the sector, and have largely proven to be successful. Assistance on everything from property valuation and marketing to financial management and the drawing up of legal contracts helps young property entrepreneurs and graduates to gain a foothold in the sector and to contribute to its development.

If these avenues were harnessed to focus – partially or, in some instances, in full – on advancing women, this would gradually lead to the step change required for meaningful transformation. This approach, of course, needs to continue as women rise through the ranks. The more women are consistently empowered, the more likely they are to reach senior and executive positions.

Every company in the sector is responsible for ensuring this change, whether through the avenues described above, or by making the requisite internal policy amendments. Listed property companies should be leading by example in this regard. Men, particularly those in leadership positions, need to drive this agenda, as do the women who are already in positions of leadership. These women have the opportunity to inspire and help women at more junior levels, and to push for inclusion and balanced representation across their businesses.

The economic ripple effect

No sector is an island. The commercial property industry works together with the rest of South Africa’s industries to contribute to the GDP. In its research, the ILO found that, on average, every 1% of female employment growth is associated with an annual GDP growth of 0.16%. In Africa, however, where GDP growth is more sensitive to changes in female employment than anywhere else in the world, this figure jumps to 0.21%.

Empowering women in the workplace – and particularly into positions of leadership – causes an economic ripple effect that extends beyond businesses, into the households and communities they support and society as a whole. When the South African commercial property sector deliberately prioritises the advancement of women, the benefits that arise are far reaching in their scope and impact.

If we are looking to South Africa’s long-term prosperity, prioritising women in leadership isn’t merely a business necessity, it is a macroeconomic imperative.

By Thuli Mpuntshe – Women’s Property Network (WPN) Gauteng Regional Chair and the Senior Manager: Indirect Investment at the Public Investment Corporation.

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