Last year, during the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” campaign, it had to be explained to some people why the slogan did not need to be “All Lives Matter”. This reminded me of my experience in the 1990s as a member (and then chairperson) of the local branch of “Women in Property”. I recalled how male colleagues at the time would say “Why is there a Women in Property? There isn’t a Men in Property! Ha ha!!”, clearly missing the point that literally everything else WAS Men in Property.
Women were, and continue to be, massively unrepresented in the property and construction industry. I was recently speaking to a young female building surveyor (born the year I left law school) who told me that only 11% of building surveyors were female. Similar under-representation applies across all aspects of the built environment sector.
Whilst at university, I worked part time typing up lab reports and assisting the office manager at a small branch of a large science company. I recall a visit from one of the big bosses; a woman who was one of the no-nonsense, straight-talking stereotypical female bosses of the late eighties/early nineties. When she heard I was a law student she said sternly “don’t let them force you into traditional female roles such as matrimonial law!”
I have mixed feelings about that advice now. She clearly meant well, however it does beg the question as to why traditionally female-dominated sectors of law are somehow deemed less worthy. Particularly when, working for Paris Smith, our family department is not seen as a poor relation at all but instead a massively successful and important team which is ranked the highest in Hampshire.
Whether I consciously took this advice on board or not is debatable; I chose to go into property law because the firm I trained with made it interesting and challenging, and I had previously done some gap year work at a local property agency which I had enjoyed.
It became apparent quickly that this was a male-dominated industry. Then, and now, the vast majority of my clients and contacts are men. Everyone knows how difficult it can be walking on your own into a room of people at a networking event – add to this being a young woman and everyone else in the room are older men who all seem to know each other, it can be terrifying.
Many corporate events in the property world are geared towards traditional male interests. Fortunately I quite like both football and cricket and even managed to quite enjoy the go-karting which seemed to be the go-to fun corporate event of the nineties. However, many networking events are largely of the stand-around-drinking-and-chatting type which, as above, can be difficult to break into for young female entrants into the industry, and are not diary-friendly for mothers trying to juggle the demands of both a career and childcare whose lives are essentially a constant race against the clock.
Alcohol still plays a large role in such events, although that is decreasing, and I have found myself in some uncomfortable situations as a result, and would very much hope that that is not something that my younger female colleagues have to endure as their careers grow.
All that said, I am equally not a big fan of some stereotypical “women’s” events. In my days on the Women In Property committee we did proper serious events that both men and women could enjoy, for example a tour of the partially built Southampton Football Club stadium and a presentation by the developers of the West Quay shopping centre. More of that please!
Positive discrimination is controversial. I strongly believe in equality, and a fundamental aspect of that is that success must be entirely based on merit and expertise, and not gender (or any other factor). However, it is right that firms and organisations must do the best they can to promote diversity.
I joined the board of NFEC directly as a result of positive discrimination. They had historically always been made of older men and they recognised the need for a bit of diversity on the board due to the fact that they had female employees, and felt that a woman (and particularly a younger woman) would add this. 10 years later I very much hope that I have completely proven my worth!
Interestingly, despite the under-representation of women in the property industry as a whole, this is not (now) reflected in the legal profession. The number of women solicitors now exceeds the number of men and, in 2019, of newly-qualified solicitors 4,421 were female and only 2,551 were male. Though most of my clients and contacts remain overwhelmingly male, I would say the majority of other property lawyers I deal with are now women.
I was speaking with a client the other day and discussing the attitude which the other party’s solicitor (of unknown identity) might take to some of the drafting we were putting together. I realised afterwards that I had used the “she” pronoun throughout to refer to this person. I wonder whether he had noticed? Most clients now do not bat an eyelid that they have a female lawyer (unlike a prospective client I encountered as a trainee who rolled his eyes and said “a woman”).
I very much hope that women will continue to be attracted into the property and construction industry which I continue to find as enjoyable and interesting as when I first set out on my career.