ken morrison ming long Rita Avdiev

Gender diversity is a hot issue. In the built environment it’s partly thanks to work underway through the Male Champions of Change program, and partly it just may have been intensified by the Hollywood sex scandals now rippling around the globe.

We’ve been talking to a cross section of people to gauge their views – remuneration consultant Rita Avdiev, AMP Capital board member Ming Long, and chief executive of the Property Council Ken Morrison.

Rita Avdiev is well known in the property industry as a remuneration consultant and as a salary survey publisher. But it’s also her background as an architect and connections with her alma mater that led to her “accidentally” become a mentor to a group of young female architects.

The group, which approached her after comments she made at an event in Melbourne, wanted to benefit from her experience in the industry, both as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated world and as an insider on the touchy topic of salaries and how to win pay rises and promotions without incurring a backlash for being “too ambitious” or too forward and so on.

Avdiev has been around a long time, and recalls the days when men not only dominated the property industry but turned a blind eye to behaviour that ranged from questionable to predatory.

In a recent phone interview Avdiev also shared some stories from the past, including her own quick-witted responses that were clever enough to take a firm stand on inappropriate behaviour while at the same time saving the subject person from embarrassment in front of his peers thereby, presumably, knowing how these things work, risking her own livelihood as a consultant (this writer’s view, not necessarily Avdiev’s).

Avdiev says, “All of the things that are happening in real life [today] have happened to me. I’ve been groped, I’ve been propositioned. Some bloke somewhere put his arms around my waist and started moving up to my breast so I grabbed one of his arms and said, ‘Why don’t we shake hands and introduce ourselves before you grope me again?’ And his mates fell over laughing.”

And the scenario today?

“The property industry is still suspicious about women. Architects are extremely badly paid and the women even more than the men.”

Avdiev says women have traditionally not been promoted fast enough to be eligible for senior executive positions with the exception of a few outstanding women.

“The guys get promoted first and the women don’t push for promotion. They are too timid or they are hold back because their careers are interrupted by having children; there’s any number of ways they can fall behind.”

Often they are paid “well below” what a company is prepared to offer, and are described as less assertive.

Avdiev says it’s almost “by accident” that she started to mentor a group of young architects who attended her alma mater.

The group was established after one its members said at the public that women needed a “safe space to ask silly questions”.

“This is the property industry,” Avdiev replied. “There are no safe spaces here and there is no such thing as a silly question.”

The upshot has been regular meetings, mostly at Avdiev’s house in Melbourne.

“I expected half a dozen and 14 turned up,” she says.

“There are always party pies in the freezer; my house expands to fit multitudes. I call them my flock now, and it’s settled down to fluctuating between eight and 10. We’ve been to see the Jane Jacobs movie. I’ve given them a reading list.”

Top of the list is the Barefoot Investor, “essential reading for all young women who don’t want to be homeless at 50.”

Other books include Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhause to My House, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“I see that my way of helping them is to give them tools to survive.”

She’s well placed to do so on the jobs front. The Avdiev reports are based on the salaries paid in 400 property industry positions.

“I share that with them and I advise them on how to ask for salaries.”

So what was the silly question?

“The question was, ‘I’m on my own in a team of men and I’m feeling isolated and I’m sort of part of the team, out on site, and they start swearing. That’s okay, but then they see I’m there and they start apologising and I feel even worse.’”

The answer? “Say NFW (no f…ing worries). Everyone moves on.”

Avdiev says women tend not to be as assertive as men. But to be head of an organisation “a woman has got to be persistent and thick-skinned and have a good sense of humour”, she says.

Change is on the way

Rita Avdiev’s views and recollections of gender disparity in the property industry are not unusual. But moves are being made to break down the barriers. Notably through the Male Champions of Change program initiated by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, taken up by the Property Council of Australia and Consult Australia, which represents consulting companies in the built environment sector.

In a recent announcement reported by The Fifth Estate, Engineers out in front with Male Champions of Change, Australia’s leading engineers promised strong action to create better flexibility for women in their companies, including working just during school terms and paying for partners to care for children.

Consult Australia’s chief executive Megan Motto said her members had been working hard on the problem for several years and employed a dedicated consultant to help shift the agenda.

Ming Long on why social change takes time

Ming Long, who sits on various boards including that of AMP Capital Funds Management and was previously joint managing director and chief executive of Investa Property Group, says that as a female and Asian she wants to crack the cultural glass ceiling as well as the gender ceiling.

Long is already well known on gender issues. She led the establishment of the Male Champions program at the Property Council.

“There were a number of things we had to do to get it done and obviously we had to get the Property Council to support it, and the CEOs,” Long recalls.

“It was the first in effect that was franchised out of the original founding group.” (A new national group has recently been convened to focus on heavy industry, manufacturing and transport.)

Long, who spoke at Consult Australia’s event to release the action report on gender, says engineers have clearly understood the issue at “not just the business case level but at the social justice level, which is fantastic”.

“I talked about why it’s important to have gender equality for me. Everyone assumes it’s only women who benefit. That’s not the case.”

Long says it’s actually critical to care about it from a man’s perspective, especially for Millennials who want the benefits of flexibility with stronger family connections.

The suicide rate of men suggests there is something fundamentally wrong where people are still defined by society that says “men have no feelings and they can work till they drop and they can’t show they deeply care for and want to spend time with their family”.

This is not sustainable, Long says.

“Men are also a gender and they have a very important role to play.”

Long says the property industry too is working on turning around a very “blokey” industry and has recognised it needs to get involved.

A big agenda item for the Male Champions program is the “everyday sexism” or incidental sexism that people may not be aware they are participating in, but this is about social change, which takes time, Long points out.

“CEOs are going through different stage of their journeys. We need to give them the time and the space to do that.”

It might be they’ve always known a certain thing to be right but presenting them with a perspective can help them see their habitual way of seeing things might be framed by a bias.

It might not even be their fault, because they’ve grown up being taught to see things in a particular way, or it’s a view that has been hammered in the media, in advertising and in leadership and that’s all you know, she says.

Equality fatigue?

What about the push back we’ve heard has been coming from a kind of “fatigue” with the Male Champions program in some quarters?

There’s pushback generally in the community, she says, and this needs to be tackled “in terms of people coming out and being very clear that this is not acceptable, that this is what people did 30 or 40 years ago”.

Long says it’s important for people in leadership to understand the power dynamics of leadership and that they are sensitive to the potential abuse of power and how easy that is.

“This takes time and reinforcement in schools and in universities and the whole lifecycle of existence.”

Long says the same lessons and behaviour change can be applied to the cultural question and she wants diversity programs to tackle other inequality issues such as those faced by people from Asian or other ethnic backgrounds.

“So we’re talking about gender and culture… and the intersectionality that will put in place leaders that straddle these different groups.

“We are living that Asian century and we’re not using the capability of these people.”

Ken Morrison and the Property Council

From the Property Council’s perspective, chief executive Ken Morrison acknowledges it’s a long haul to make change but says they’re already been “great progress” with a “very active group that’s been in existence since 2015 and is part of a community of Male Champions of Change that Elizabeth Broderick founded”.

The council’s group has published an extensive report on progress and initiatives.

And yes, progress might not be as fast as is ideal, he says.

“Not everyone is as fast [as others] and sometimes they slip back on things.”

But there are working groups focused “on a bunch of different areas”, including closing the pay gap and an inclusionary culture, with “lots of legwork” being done to support the groups to implement programs and pursue initiatives, he says.

“It’s an incredibly active network.”

There is a diversity resource centres, checklists, regular reports and lots of results to lay testament to the work, he says.

A consultant, Lisa Pusey, has been brought on board to assist (Pusey has worked for Elizabeth Broderick) and the Male Champions group is led by the Carol Schwartz, who is well known as a formidable force on gender equality issues.

The group is not producing a “PR puff piece” with its reports, Morrison insists. “We’re not putting it in the media but every fortnight we’ve got them with their sleeves rolled up and focused.”

Morrison says the program is already showing transformation in the industry in levels of awareness, “and we’re seeing more women coming through the senior roles”.

“And we’re seeing people utilising strategies for bringing women through, focused on talent.”

Morrison also points to the Property Council’s vast committee network of 1600 people that after the most recent spill of positions now has 43 per cent women, up from 22 per cent three years ago.

“Each committee spill moved the dial up.”

“If you have a minimum of 40 per cent female, you have a diverse group,” Morrison says.

“It’s all about critical mass.”

And when that happens, the Male Champions program will hopefully have worked its way out of a job.

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