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Lack Of Gender Diversity Still A Problem For The Real Estate Industry

The panel for Urban Land Institute's Diversity & Inclusion event included Oxford Properties' Blake Hutcheson, Infrastructure Ontario's Toni Rossi and REALPAC's Michael Brooks.

Too few women in boardrooms and C-suites remains a big problem for the Canadian real estate industry, though there are signs things are finally turning around.

“I admit we’re not getting this right. Not as a society, not in this industry," Oxford Properties President and CEO Blake Hutcheson said at a recent Urban Land Institute panel discussion on diversity and inclusion at Deloitte’s downtown offices.

“But I have been a huge champion of both inclusion and diversity and I’ve just watched the company evolve. And I just know as a fact we make better decisions when we have a diverse group in the room. I just happen to believe the input from so many different angles just makes us that much better."

Statistics bear that out. A recent report from Osler found more women in leadership positions has resulted in higher return on equity and an improved bottom line, while companies with gender diversity have less turnover and are more effective in basic decision-making.

The Urban Land Institute's Diversity and Inclusion panel

Canadian real estate remains largely a white man’s world, especially at the top. The Canadian government is promoting a target of 30% of board membership be women by 2019. Yet, according to MediaEdge, in real estate, women make up only 22% of C-suite positions, and only 17% of board members. 

Not that that stat is a secret. The panelists can see it with their own eyes. 

“Part of what we’re trying to do in our organization is call it — and enable people to call it when they see it,” said Metrolinx Chief Planning and Development Officer Leslie Woo. “I have this very bad habit. When I go into a boardroom for a meeting, I take a picture and I show everybody — did you notice what our boardroom meeting looked like? Let’s mix it up a little.”

Michael Brooks, CEO of REALPAC, the Canadian real estate trade association, said he teaches a real estate course at Ryerson. The class features 72 students, 40% women and 60% visible minorities. 

“Put yourself in their shoes, looking for a job at any organization in Canada.  I think I’ll check out the C-suites and all you see is white men. That doesn’t send a reaffirming message about the future and what your opportunities are. Some of this is signals. How do we change the signals?”

Beyond setting quotas — most of the panel preferred the words "goals" or "targets" — solutions offered up included everything from stronger mentoring to better data.

REALPAC has created a new set of gender-oriented questions for the public and institutional investment companies it represents.

“We’ll be able to track how things are changing,” Brooks said. “Data is both a challenge and an opportunity.”

“Like everything, if it isn’t measured, it isn’t managed,” Hutcheson said.

The Diversity and Inclusion panel takes questions from the audience. Moderator Sheila Botting of Deloitte, Metrolinx' Leslie Woo, Oxford Properties' Blake Hutcheson, Infrastructure Ontario's Toni Rossi and REALPAC's Michael Brooks

For Infrastructure Ontario President Toni Rossi, workplace diversity and inclusion begin at the top.

“It does need to start with leadership; having leadership that sees the importance of the dialogue of what diversity brings to the table and, one step further, do something about it,” she said. “Four years ago, our board was nowhere near parity. Today, it is. And it had nothing to do with happenstance. “

But, Rossi cautioned, this is no time to be patting yourself on the back.

“Where we’re not doing a great job in mid-management. There’s something missing in our mid-management from a parity and diversity perspective. We’re very proud of the work that we’ve started to do, but we’re nowhere near done,” she said.

“We often say that we’re proud but never satisfied.”