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There Wasn’t Enough Data About Gender Diversity In Planning, So This Woman Went Out And Found It


When Charlotte Morphet started out in the planning industry at the beginning of the last decade, she felt, as she put it, “a bit miffed”. 

“My friend Alison Mackey [a senior planner at CBRE] and I knew there were a lot of great women working in planning, but we didn’t see them at events or meetings,” she said. “So we wanted to find a place for them.”

So in 2012, Morphet, who is the principal planning policy officer at the London Borough of Waltham Forest, set up her own networking organisation, Women In Planning. In 2018, she went further, and created something that will be vital if the planning industry, and indeed commercial property as a whole, is to achieve its diversity aims: data. 

London Borough of Waltham Forest's Charlotte Morphet

The work she has undertaken earned Morphet the British Property Federation Futures Tomorrow’s Leaders Rising Star award for 2019 in a ceremony at the Houses of Parliament, an awards programme for which Bisnow was a partner.

Together with BPF Chief Executive Melanie Leech, she told Bisnow what she learned from her study of diversity in planning, how the industry has changed in the past eight years, and why in spite of the havoc the coronavirus is wreaking, now is a moment of creativity as well as chaos. 

“There wasn’t much data [on gender diversity in planning] compared to other industries, especially about the senior levels of private sector companies,” Morphet said.

And so she undertook the first major study of gender diversity in the UK planning sector, contacting hundreds of companies to paint a picture of the balance between men and women in the sector.

She found that just 17% of those in senior positions in planning are female, a gap that might have been unexpected to those outside the sector. 

“Planning is sometimes held up as a panacea and example of where diversity is thriving, but that doesn’t seem to be backed up by the data,” she said.

She pointed to a recent survey by the Royal Town Planning Institute that highlighted how female planners are still subject to sexism and harassment in the sector.

“Women in the sector still don’t seem to have the best working life,” she said. 

British Property Federation Chief Executive Melanie Leech

In spite of this, she said positive strides have been made during her time in the industry in terms of diversity, as shown by the emergence of myriad groups focusing on the topic, such as Women In Planning, BAME In Property and Planning Out, a soon-to-be-launched group for LGBQT+ planning professionals. She also pointed to the initiatives being undertaken within individual businesses, and the focus on increasing the number of women in senior leadership positions, rather than simply increasing the number of women overall.

Leech added that for property in general, the challenge now is to see words translate into action, throughout organisations and not just at the top level.

“We have to take the message through the industry, beyond just the big players who have really grabbed the agenda,” she said. “We need to make sure it is an industry that respects its customers in all forms. There has been a clear change: Senior leaders have embraced the message, and you have a growing generation of leaders coming in to the industry starting their careers. But we need to make sure these two things meet in the middle, and that the middle management is on board as well.”

Morphet said winning the BPF award gave her confidence to apply for a Ph.D., where she will continue her research into the journeys of women in the planning sector. 

Morphet said the property industry needs to take the conversation it is having internally and apply it to the places which it builds, and make sure the planning process is more inclusive. Places like the former Olympic Park in Stratford are examples of how when it is done right, the built environment can benefit the population as a whole, no matter their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. 

The BPF's Melanie Leech, Waltham Forest's Charlotte Morphet and Argent's David Partridge.

“The issue we sometimes have in placemaking and delivering development is how we allow for communities to genuinely participate in the design of schemes,” she said. “This might be as simple as being able to decide what type of retail offer they want or how an open space could be used. This doesn’t happen often enough. I think greater use of technology will allow for this, such as Built-ID. We need greater use of these tools from both the public and private sector on delivering schemes.”

It is impossible to have a conversation today without talking about the coronavirus, and unfortunately, the outbreak means this year’s BPF Futures Tomorrow’s Leaders awards have been cancelled. And the outlook for large parts of commercial property of course looks grim.

But Morphet has some seeds of optimism. For one, she feels that diversity is too big an issue now to be derailed by the financial crisis that will afflict property in the coming months, especially as the idea has become commonplace that greater diversity brings economic benefits. But there is more.

“Times like these can often bring about greater innovation, and solutions for society’s problems,” she said. “You get greater collaboration, and find solutions that we might not have come up with before.”