Lisa Pennell: Uprooting unconscious bias and providing opportunity

As International Women’s Week winds to a close, it’s a timely reminder for us all to keep an open mind and consider how unconscious bias affects women in the real estate industry.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s a great time to think about how leaders can provide a healthier environment that supports all genders to build thriving real estate careers.

I was once again dumbfounded by the latest Global Gender Gap Report 2022 released by the World Economic Forum, where Australia ranks at number 43 in the world in terms of gender equality.

This compares to New Zealand at number four and shows that things are getting worse, not better – in 2006, Australia was ranked 15th. 

Today, girls growing up in third world countries like Rwanda, the Philippines and Mozambique have more gender equality than Australian girls.

As a country, we are actually backsliding. And that’s frightening.

It’s particularly worrying that the report reveals it will be another 132 years before the world closes the gender gap. 

Over my 23 years in real estate, I’ve experienced many great opportunities and worked with some amazing men and women, but, like many women, I’ve also regularly observed and been on the receiving end of many actions that can only be labelled as sexist.  

When I first started in the industry, successful women were few and far between outside of the property management sector, especially young women.

One of the early major media stories I managed with a leading group was about a young woman who had achieved an outstanding number of sales – it was so rare for a young woman to achieve what men regularly were that we had a number of news outlets fighting over the story. 

I can only think of one senior leader in a major corporate real estate entity who was a woman at that time, outside the traditional categories of property management, marketing or legal departments.

It’s been exciting to witness the real estate industry starting to change over the years, with women now regularly among the ranks of top agents and holding more senior corporate roles.  

But still we are far from having parity – women are still underrepresented in almost every category of our industry, particularly in business ownership and corporate leadership.

This is partly a legacy of past behaviours along with a continuing bias, either conscious or unconscious.

Fortunately, it’s easy to identify conscious sexism, and it’s becoming less and less acceptable for these behaviours at all levels.

Unconscious bias is far more insidious – it leads people to behave in a way that unintentionally results in inequality between the genders. 

There’s a really interesting piece of research from Columbia Business School whereby two separate mixed-gender groups of students were given different case studies, one for Howard and one for Heidi.

The students were asked to rate the competence and likeability of their respective case study. 

Both groups rated Heidi and Howard as competent, but while Howard was rated as likeable, Heide was not.

The trouble with this outcome is, the case studies each group had been given were identical, apart from the names and pronouns. 

This is a thing, and it is real. 

Equality is not a men versus women issue.

Gender bias is complex and both men and women can suffer from it.

But ultimately, the resulting inequality benefits only one sector of our society, while equality benefits everyone, men and women, on every level.

The internalised misogyny many women carry means they often feel they have to do it all, as they juggle the responsibilities of caring for families or elderly parents against the punishing hours that real estate success requires. 

Then there’s the unconscious bias that comes from others in their workplaces – both men and women – making career progression for women even harder.  

Whether people choose to believe it or not, the research is clear – bias is a tangible dynamic that is still rife today and it’s our collective responsibility to change this norm.

I feel incredibly fortunate to now be working beside Mike McCarthy, a leader who, despite having no obvious bias himself, has been completely open minded to seeing what almost every successful woman has experienced, often on a daily basis.

And not only that, to do something about it.

A long-standing and respected CEO in our industry, Mike has told me that having a female COO in the business for the first time has been eye opening for him.

We’ve had plenty of great discussions around equality and he says that he’s gained so much insight into the challenges that women face, particularly in the face of unconscious bias.

We’ve been together in meetings with other parties where afterwards I’ve been able to point out to him specific behaviours that he said would have passed him by previously, and it’s been surprising for him to come to understand how prevalent they still are.

As a father of two daughters in the workplace, he’s committed now to supporting the cause of gender equality in any way he can and to ensure the Barry Plant Group leads the industry in supporting women in meaningful ways.

As part of the group’s commitment to supporting women, Barry Plant recently became sponsors of the Afghan Women’s soccer team.

This is a group of women who escaped Afghanistan when the Taliban took over, many having to leave their families behind.

Women in Afghanistan suffer a level of discrimination, misogyny and exclusion that is devastating; many are not even allowed to leave the home without a male relative and are refused an education. 

We believe that helping these women continue to play the sport they love allows them to send a message of hope to all their sisterhood suffering under Taliban oppression.

What agencies can do to eliminate unconscious bias

But right here in Australia, there is a lot that agency owners can do to improve gender equality and to highlight and erase unconscious and conscious bias.

First of all, take the time to educate yourself – read or listen to books or podcasts and ask questions.

Most women will be happy to share if you really want to know!

It goes without saying that any example of conscious bias or sexist behaviour should be called out.

Introduce training on unconscious bias for your team members – of all genders.

Unconscious bias can be deep seated and often only when examples are given that people realise that they may well be harbouring a biased thought process.  

Form mentoring groups where women can express and find solutions for their gender based challenges and frustrations.

Allow workplace flexibility for women and men who have caring duties.

This isn’t favouritism, it’s being pragmatic about allowing talented team members to flourish and perform in the hours and locations that work for both parties.

If you have people who are working reduced hours or working some or even all of the time from home, ensure that you don’t overlook them for praise, inclusion in projects or promotion. 

Out of sight shouldn’t be out of mind.

We have so many great men and women who see each other as equals in our  industry, but we can all do more.

Barry Plant already has regular meetings for our professional women, but we will expand this so that our group becomes a true greenhouse for nurturing and growing the innate talents that women have for real estate success.

It’s what we all deserve. 

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Lisa Pennell

Lisa Pennell is the Chief Operating Officer for the Barry Plant Group.