Tanya Cox, GBCA chair

According to one of the “blokes” at the Green Building Council of Australia’s leading Green Women forum in Sydney on Monday there’s a big rush on gender and diversity issues right now. Especially in the past three months.

Tanya Cox, GBCA chair; Mark Steinert, Stockland; Natalie Isaacs, I Million Women

He could have point. The topic is doing the rounds in the major built environment associations and it drew around 900 people at a recent Property Council lunch.

Our observer was deep in thought, trying to piece together the significance, because he’s sure it’s significant. Possibly it’s got something to do with sustainability and risk management and harks right back to procurement issues, he proffered. Procurement?

Well, in the sense of procuring human capital, he said. A decision by a bunch of men to buy huge expensive equipment might have quite different outcomes if women (and other diverse representatives) were on the decision-making panel.

They might ask, is this necessary? Will it send us broke? What’s the risk factor here? Different people generally produce different decisions and we know that when it comes to quality of thought and decision-making, a diverse group beats a highly intelligent but homogenous group hands down.

Now, as GBCA chief executive Romilly Madew pointed out on in her introduction to the event, the data has started to come in thick and fast.

Just one of a spate of recent reports, from the Centre of Gender Economics and Innovation said companies with 25 per cent of women on the board outperformed those managed by homogenous boards by seven per cent.

Natalie Isaacs

Imagine what the shareholders think of the boys club now. Or tradition, or any other barrier you care to put in the way of getting better, more rationale, more risk-sensitive outcomes.

GBCA chair and now board member of several organisations Tanya Cox says the message is starting to get through. In five years, she says, there’s been more corporate change in relation to gender than in the past two decades.

As well there should. Cox told the audience that when she first reached executive positions, there were no toilets for women on the executive board levels because, well… there were no women to accommodate. As for the directors’ lunch after one meeting, Cox remembers being shepherded off to dine with the secretaries.

But then again there was wrong thinking in more ways than gender. Cox says in one company seniority was demonstrated by the size of your business card. So, you start to get the gist – get the thinking wrong on one important issue and it’s likely you get things wrong all over the place; ego instead of evidence-based decision making.

As some of the people in the audience said after the event, the economy is in a mess, the politics is in a mess, we’ve got the planet heading to disaster and we kill and maim thousands if not millions of people with damaging products and food, so you’re asking us to work with the current system, right?

For women the wrong thinking and unfairness is personal and patently obvious.

This week The Fifth Estate received an email from a woman apologising profusely that the last two calls included the whining intrusion of her two children. Imagine! Children in the background to a business conversation! She was nervously trying to quickly end the call so she could be on time to dial in to a work conference call with the CEO, terrified not being exactly on time would be bad for business. As it turned out another colleague was late and the boss was “less than impressed”.

Mark Steinert

With that kind of fear-based management created by people who probably never have to worry about how kids sound as backdrop, no wonder women choose not to go for the promotion; to stay in their box.

Cox exhorted the women in the room never to do what she did: examine the criteria for a new job, forensically evaluate her skills to find them wanting in some regards, and so withdraw from the race. Only to find a young man with half her qualifications airlifted into the role.

Go for the job, Cox said. Say yes to the speaking engagement, even though you may not like public speaking.

Stockland managing director and chief executive Mark Steinert, who is also the new president for the Property Council, said he started to better understand the nuanced difficulties faced by women and veiled discrimination when he started to have more informal conversations with the women in his company.

Steinert told the audience that “perceptions and misperceptions run deeply”.

It was imperative for the property industry in particular to have a diverse workforce and to present the industry as an exciting place to work. The industry did suffer from some “perception issues”, he said.

But nothing changes quickly. When he joined Stockland in 2013 there was a corporate push for diversity, with performance on diversity embedded in the KPIs (key performance indicators). The goal was to have 45 per cent of management roles held by women by 2017.

In 2014 the company got “just above 45 per cent” and it expected to soon reach the 50 per cent target.

Key was parental leave, staying in touch with staff while on leave and “making it feel like we really want them to come back”, Steinert said.

But despite all of this, many chats formal and informal over “brown paper bag lunches” revealed there was “a lot more to do”.

Steinert said he understood that flexibility needed to be more concrete, and that the leadership needed to provide an environment where staff felt safe to practice what it says in the manual.

Not always easy. Steinert said leaders needed to show it was “safe and fine to drop off the kids”. Perhaps by doing it themselves. “This might sound trivial but at a focus group he found women shocked that they could go to the dentist or get a haircut during office hours.

“I said I do those things anyway,” he says he told them.

Another speaker, Natalie Isaacs, who heads the 1 Million Women campaign, said so many of these issues didn’t arise in her team of nine women.

Meeting were not set at 8am nor at 5pm, and there was space for people to fit in child care or school commitments.

Isaacs’ background as a cosmetics manufacturer consisted of two decades working among mostly women so she for one said she was not scarred by the corporate experience that many other women express.

Cox said a fundamental problem was that the dominant paradigm was male, designed by men for men, so women had trouble fitting into the expectations.

But the bias against diversity in general also affected women. The audience heard there were many men keen to take a more flexible approach to work, whether because of parenting commitments or even a commitment to high end sport.

But to create change women (and men too no doubt) needed to take responsibility Cox said. The take home message was that for women 50 per cent of the responsibility lies with us, “whether you’re a man or a woman, you have to do your half.”

At the GBCA’s Green Cities event in Melbourne the organisers “really struggled” to find enough women to be the headline speakers for the event despite being strongly represented in the industry, she said.

But Cox thought the overall trend was encouraging.

“We’re in transition. I’m convinced it’s happening.”

UPDATE: 8 May 2015 –  The Property Council of Australia has invited its members to participate in an inaugural diversity survey. The purpose of this survey is to establish a base line of gender participation in the WA property industry. See this website for details