By Sohini Bhattacharya

“I don’t want my girls to be prevented from getting to the top. I don’t want them to face any artificial barriers and intimidations. I want them to have a path where if they have the merit, they get to the top. And that’s why I’m here,” said Michael Brooks, CEO of Real Property Association of Canada (RealPAC), during his introduction at an International Women’s Day leadership panel organized by the Toronto Urban Land Institute’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI).

The panel titled She with He: Agents of Change: On the Path to Gender Parity addressed the gender gap and diversity problems within real estate leadership, focusing on how WLI’s She with He campaign is galvanizing efforts to achieve greater gender parity in the industry.



Forum moderator Sheila Botting, senior partner and Canadian real estate leader at Deloitte, presented the stark reality of Canadian commercial real estate, where women represent 22 per cent of C-suite positions, and an even lower 17 per cent of board ranks. MediaEdge’s 2017 Who’s Who in Canadian Real Estate study found that of the 62 companies surveyed, 14 companies have no women in senior management positions. While the Canadian government is promoting a target of 30 per cent of board membership to be female by 2019, the tall order of filling the gaping gender chasm cannot be denied.

Bolstering the business case for gender diversity in real estate, Botting cited Canadian Property Management’s report that states, “Companies with higher proportions of female executives and at least three women directors/trustees on their boards have achieved better return on equity and earnings per share than predominantly male bastions.”

Leslie Woo, chief planning and development officer of Metrolinx, said, “Metrolinx has attacked the issue of gender representation from the perspective of little ideas and big ideas.” Their mostly women-led “little ideas” have included creating a calendar of diverse cultural celebrations, showcasing employees from different ethnic backgrounds. On a bigger scale Metrolinx laid down a strategic objective to achieve 50-per-cent representation within its senior management over the next three years, Woo said. With current diversity numbers in management being reported at 28 per cent, the executive team is 60 per cent women and the board is slightly over 50-50.

While this is a starting point better than most, Woo was candid in admitting that Metrolinx “is late in coming to the party”. Its diversity and inclusion council was established only a year and half ago.

Blake Hutcheson, CIO of real estate and strategic investments, OMERS announced the seeding of a start-up venture in partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada. It is a $100-million commitment from each party to invest in an exchange-traded fund (ETF) to promote gender equality and women-owned businesses.

“That is a huge commitment from us. And it’s not enough,” said Hutcheson. “We’re starting to draft best practices to make it a priority. Today, I hope is a wake-up call for many of us in our industry.”

During the past three years, Infrastructure Ontario’s (IO) board chair Linda Robinson has led an effort to question the organization’s commitment to gender diversity, said Toni Rossi, president of IO, real estate division.

“Four years ago, our board was in no way near parity, but today it is,” said Rossi. “But we’re not doing a great job with achieving parity within mid-management.” Rossi said some of the reasons for this discrepancy could be attributed to the fact that women in mid-management aren’t willing to wait indefinitely for top executives to vacate their positions, or they may be new mothers seeking greater work-life balance. To fix this, IO is exploring the possibility of a new career framework where developmental opportunities can be created laterally.

Brooks said the legal arena has also suffered the loss of mid-management women because of poor work-life offerings at organizations. “I don’t think that women today want to work as the men of yesterday. They want to work the way they feel comfortable,” he said.

To achieve parity from a programming perspective, IO is also spearheading a move away from the use of the term “quota”.

“I have a visceral reaction when I hear that word. Quotas are not meant to make real change,” said Rossi. “Quotas are not the first thing to do. It masks the diversity problem.”

Rossi’s research, both within IO and through empirical data, revealed that women shun quotas because belonging to one diminishes their relevance and credibility. “What happens when you don’t meet a diversity quota?” she asked rhetorically. “Someone has to be assigned to police it. You don’t want to get into policing diversity mandates.”

Her argument against quotas hit its mark when she pointed out what’s often overlooked in diversity and inclusion mandates – continual progress. That’s what the programs should be aiming for, and quotas are restrictive to that process, she said.

Brooks and his data team at RealPAC are conducting a compensation survey – the biggest of it’s kind in the country, he said. The team aims to access better data to be able to track the gender breakdown more definitively, and for bigger long-term impacts.

In summing up the evening’s discussion, Hutcheson’s said diversity and inclusion practices in the Canadian real estate industry are ready for disruption, and that leading organizations have started making headway in that direction. That RealPAC – the largest real estate organization in the country – has put gender parity on its agenda, is significant.

“While land transfer tax and parking taxes are big issues to lobby for, diversity and inclusion is now on the agenda too,” he said. “This is a tangential priority, but the dialogue has begun. While we don’t want to promise too much and not deliver, we are here to learn about what we can implement realistically.”

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