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‘Diversity Is Being Invited To A Party, But Inclusion Is Being Asked To Dance.’

London

Shamez Alibhai was trying to work out why, in spite of his best efforts, all of the people responding to his job advert were men.

“We took the advert and ran it through an AI program that examines the nature of the language you are using,” the head of Community Housing and Portfolio Manager at hedge fund Man Group said. “Sadly I scored 10 out of 10 on male-dominated language, and that was a hard lesson about bias: Even though you are trying to do the right thing and look in a more diverse range of places, those biases that you bring can overwhelm your good intentions.”

Biases and culture were key topics on Bisnow’s webinar The Honest Truth About Making Real Estate More Diverse, which had a particular focus on ethnic diversity, an area in which the sector is particularly lacking.

A panel of professionals from all areas of real estate cited adjustments in company culture as crucial if real estate wants to make a real change. Without a culture that allows a diverse range of people to succeed, measures like quotas will do more harm than good. While companies have to be held to account in terms of promises to become more diverse, if the culture isn’t right, quotas can simply set candidates up to fail if they don’t come from the traditional real estate background of the white male.

“I compare diversity and inclusion to a party,” Landsec D&I Manager Mo Kebbay said. “Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance," referencing a term coined by diversity advocate Vernā Myers. "And dancing like no one is watching is feeling like you belong. And that is where you have to go a lot further on the culture piece, enabling people to stay in a company, feel like they belong and thrive.”

Clockwise from top left: Real Estate Women's Anouk Khan, Chelsfield's Rebeca Guzman Vidal, Man Group's Shamez Alibhai, Landsec's Mo Kebbay

In practice this takes many different forms. Partly it is about ensuring that senior level executives are a diverse group, so that staff can look at the top of an organisation and feel that, whoever they are, they have a chance of reaching the upper levels. Programmes promoting diverse hiring are crucial, but addressing and promoting the needs of diverse groups within an existing workforce are just as vital.

“There is a feeling that when a diverse group of people comes into a company or culture, then they have to change and adapt,” Chelsfield Group Head of Retail Rebeca Guzman Vidal said. “In reality, the culture has to adapt to the new landscape [and] accommodate them.”

“If you don’t address this, you just have a leaking bucket, where people come in the front door but just leak away via the back door, because you don’t keep people culturally engaged,” Kebbay said.

He cited a programme Landsec is running with inclusion allies for staff of all backgrounds who feel they want to advocate for greater diversity but don’t really know how, or don’t feel able to join existing networks. It gives them advice, information and practical tips on how to get involved as an ally.

“For people who might feel a bit shy, it helps them get involved in the discussion and upskill them,” he said. 

Moderator Anouk Khan, chief operating officer at Real Estate Women, cited data from McKinsey that showed that ethnically diverse companies perform up to 35% better than those that are less diverse.

“To me it is a no-brainer,” Guzman Vidal said. “Surely if you have people coming from different universities, different walks of life, when you bring them together then one plus one can equal seven, rather than the conventional thinking that one plus one equals two. It might take longer, but of course you are going to make more money because you have ideas that span a much wider range, rather than just the standard thinking.”

CORRECTION: SEP. 16, 3:58 P.M. ET: This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Vernā Myers first created the analogy of diversity being like an invite to a party, but inclusion being asked to dance.