Amanda Steele, CBRE; Photo: Michele Mossop

The sustainability career path attracts many women. However, despite the large numbers of women entering the industry, few hold positions at the most senior levels.

Amanda Steele, managing director asset services at CBRE, believes gender diversity needs to become a business strategy with targets and quotas, rather than a social program, if we want more women to attain top positions.

According to Steele, a lot of women are good at big-picture systems thinking.

“That’s exactly what you need to be successful in sustainability,” she says. “All of a sudden at that very highest level there is a disproportionate number of men compared to what there was at the lowest levels. It’s a great indicator for the fact that we still have a long way to go with job equality.

“There are still some big industry challenges that we still need to overcome, which is why the Male Champions of Change is so important.”

“I think the enlightened companies – and thankfully there are more and more of those – recognise that [and are] making some systemic changes to ensure that women are promoted to more senior roles.”

Steele has a strong sustainability background, rising through the ranks from a senior policy officer with Sydney Water to sustainability manager roles at IAG, Suncorp and Stockland. In 2013 she moved to CBRE as head of sustainability, Pacific before ascending to managing director of the asset services business in 2015.

She’d like to see more women in a broader range of senior roles.

“I’d like to see more senior sustainability practitioners transfer into other business line roles like I have been able to do, rather than just see it as a linear progression. Some sideways progression is also needed.”

Property industry making headway

According to the 2016 Grow the Talent Pool: Insights on Gender Representation in Property report, women make up more than half (52 per cent) of non-leadership roles, but only hold 28 per cent of leadership positions.

Steele believes the industry was “slow to the race” but is now “making good headway”.

“I do think there are some systemic challenges that have limited women, not just in sustainability but across the property sector as a whole from senior roles,” she says.

Steele says the Property Council is “doing an excellent job”.

“I think those industry bodies play a significant role in how we progress towards better gender equality. What I like most about the property sector and its approach to women is it’s very transparent.

“There’s really open conversations happening and I think that’s really healthy and also assisting women in ensuring that their voice is heard at the table.”

The glass ceiling and the glass cliff

Having a family reduces leadership opportunities for women. According to Grow the Talent Pool, 72 per cent of male leaders have children whereas only 57 per cent of female leaders do. Many women have worked for less time in the industry and hit a glass ceiling at manager level.

A mother of two children, Steele has always pushed for flexibility.

“I’ve negotiated on wage around flexibility,” she says. “So asked for an increased wage and been told ‘no’ and so said, ‘Well, I’ll take one day off on flexible terms.’ And that’s really worked for me.”

When she took maternity leave for her second child, Steele returned to a more senior role.

“I think that glass ceiling can be challenged and needs to be challenged.”

She also notes the dangers of the “glass cliff” – where women are put into very senior roles at times of increased difficulty.

“So when there’s a big problem, put a woman in the job and see if she can fix it,” she says. “Which of course is exposing her to increased risk of failure as well. I think that is a big issue that we need to be looking at more and more. I think the industry is very intolerant of women failing and very tolerant of men failing.”

Dealing with the tough times

“I don’t think you would find any senior woman within corporate Australia that couldn’t talk about a tough time where they have been on the receiving end of discrimination,” Steele says.

However, it’s how you handle it that’s important.

“The most difficult part is not the people who will say outwardly to your face that they are not sure you’re up for the job,” she says.

“It’s the unconscious bias that’s the most difficult to actually challenge. People who are behaving in a way that is so obviously discriminatory but with no self-awareness of it, and it’s very difficult to call it out.”

Dealing with promotion backlash can be very challenging.

“I think the secret is to not let it get to you – certainly not publicly – and to just over and over again prove to the audience that you are the right person for the job and that you are doing a very good job of it.”

How to stimulate change

According to Steele, programs in corporate Australia look at the lack of women in senior roles as a result of a woman’s deficit rather than the organisational deficit.

“There are a lot of programs for women on how to achieve senior roles and I think that’s quite insidious because there are some very capable women who could do very well in senior roles but the organisational process and structure and systems are holding them back.”

Panels for job interviews need to be carefully considered.

“Making sure there is equality in interviewers and interviewees so that you are not having a panel of just men interview women or just women interview men,” Steele says.

“There needs to be broader diversity on both sides.”

More flexibility for working parents is crucial.

“I think parental leave rather than just maternity leave is a really important aspect as well – looking at parenting as a joint role rather than just a burden on women. That gives a relief to both men and women to look at flexibility while they’re at that prime parenting stage of their lives.”

Improvements are coming.

“The big workplaces are getting better, but then I think there are smaller workplaces that are still leagues behind where they need to be in providing facilities, assistance and programs for working parents to return back to work.”

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