The struggle for gender equality in the Canadian workplace is a matter of continuing priority as recent studies reveal a lack of women in corporate leadership roles. Prime Minister Trudeau touched upon this issue at a United Nations women’s conference last week. While he spoke about a promising generational shift happening across Canada, he also acknowledged the work ahead in accomplishing gender parity in the workplace. The commercial real estate industry deserves no slack in this regard.
Recent findings from the 11th Annual Rosenzweig Report on Women at the Top Levels of Corporate Canada, a study that tracks Canada’s 100 largest publicly traded companies (some real estate and real-estate related), show that of the 526 top executives, 484 are men and only 42 are women.
That translates to eight per cent of women holding the highest paid executive jobs—a number that dropped in 2015 from 8.5 per cent the previous year.
Meanwhile, a report from the Canadian Board Diversity Council issued in late 2015 also points to a progress decline. GMI Rating ranked Canada 15th out of 23 industrialized economies in terms of gender diversity on corporate boards, a drop from sixth place in 2009.
More specifically, new global statistics from ESM: The European Supermarket Magazine (ESM) reveal a major shortage of women in the highest levels of the grocery retail and fast-moving consumer goods industry.
While statistics continue to roll in, they offer a platform for conscious effort, to find avenues for women in executive roles within the real estate industry.
Statistics inspire action
Of the Rosenzweig Report, Heather Munroe-Blum, chair of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and director of RBC Financial Group, noted that the numbers expose Canadian businesses to the benefits of advancing women into the C-suite and onto corporate boards.
“To make broad meaningful progress requires us to understand the current gaps that exist with a lack of diversity at the top of many Canadian corporations, along with the great competitive value to be had in championing progress in this area,” she said.
Meanwhile, Don Guloien, president and chief executive officer of Manulife Financial Corp., also commented on the report, stating that among matters of diversity, “promoting women is just smart business.”
In fact, a study from the Peterson Institute for International Economics released in February 2016, found that the presence of more female leaders in top positions of corporate management correlates with increased profitability based on a review of about 22,000 public companies in 91 countries.
But what should seem like common knowledge isn’t always common, which is why leaders in the industry are stepping up initiatives to help women rise in rank.
For instance, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) launched the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) in 2012, a network promoting the advancement of women in real estate and development.
Toni Rossi and Emma West, real estate industry professionals and co-chairs of the WLI Toronto Chapter, say that a conscious effort to focus on women within the industry increased ULI’s female membership in Toronto from ten per cent more than two years ago to 32 per cent as of today. In turn, this female representation has resulted in more parity at ULI programming events and panel discussions, and helped respond to both women’s industry observations.
Rossi, who is also the divisional president, real estate and lending at Infrastructure Ontario, suggests that women may be held back from decision-making roles in the industry for reasons that are three-fold.
“The commercial real estate industry in Toronto is not that old,” she says. “The city is not that old itself, so the industry as a whole was still growing up over the last 25 to 30 years. You can see that in the shopping centres, associations like NAIOP, ICSC and the BOMAs, most of which are not older than 20 or 25 years.”
Secondly, Rossi noted it will take a generation to get more women into senior positions. About 20 years ago, when leaders today would have started in the industry, there weren’t that many females coming in—women who would today be senior leaders through experience and knowledge.
Third, for those who have entered the industry, there has been a difference in mentoring and role modelling in society, but females have tended not to have other female role models in such senior positions.
“I think opportunities are popping up and there will be more and more as we come,” says Rossi, “but it’s not happening quickly and there still needs to be a conscious effort to get those opportunities in play.”
West, who is also senior associate at Bousfields, says two Toronto-born WLI initiatives spotlight why this process needs to be supported and stresses the importance of having a mentor or sponsor looking out for women in their own organization and elsewhere.
The Championship Team, launched in Toronto two years ago, identifies female leaders in the real estate industry and “shines a light” on their notable achievements. ULI’s third annual event this upcoming June will spotlight WLI champions chosen through a nomination process ending March 31.
Currently, there are 120 champions, and nominations are on track for another 20 this year.
Another Toronto-born WLI initiative is the She With He program, conceived under the guise of the He For She global pledge effort.
“We were very conscious in how we described our She With He initiative because we really want to have members of the real estate and development industry and members of the community recognize the importance of having both females and males support and pledge women’s gender equality,” adds Rossi.
The She With He pledge includes 11 actions to support women, from mentoring a female colleague to facilitating the placement of women on a speaking panel. Original ideas are also accepted.
The event launched in late February 2016 and has since resonated with individuals within and outside the industry. West adds that the team will follow up with people during the process as there is an estimated time frame to take the action. Support can apply to ULI members and non-members, with the ultimate goal for other ULI districts to adopt the initiative.
“It’s a very conscious and deliberate effort to try to get to parity of women in varying levels in the real estate and development industry,” says Rossi. “We’re nowhere near getting gender parity at our c-suites and at our boards, but we’re making strides and this is an effort to do that.”
Progress on the horizon
WSP, a global company listed among the 100 largest publicly traded companies in the Rosenzweig Report, states that they have a number of female corporate and technical role models in the company, from female board members and senior leaders, to renowned female engineers.
Yet, from a statistical perspective, numbers mirror many other companies. Two out of eight WSP directors are women, representing 25.2 per cent of directors, while there is one woman out of the eight executive officers at the corporation. Out of its nine members on the senior management team, five are women, showing a progress towards parity.
Meanwhile, on a government level, leaders are also making efforts in gender equality, with Quebec positioning itself to tackle inequality through financial support.
A highlight of the province’s new 2016-2017 budget announced March 17 is the $4.9 million investment for new initiatives to support gender equality and combat sexual violence.
The government has implemented a strategy for the equality of women and men for 2016-2021 to target key areas like gender balance in training and employment, specifically in occupational sectors like construction and engineering, and to address the representation of women in places of influence.
Such efforts are expected to “ensure concrete results for women in Quebec,” and involve “men in the achievement of equality.” Further details will be unveiled this fall by the Minister responsible for the Status of Women.
Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management @rebeccachirp