Gender equality in view for real estate sector's next generation

But women not convinced quotas are the answer for balanced representation at executive level

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 March, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 March, 2015, 12:40pm

Stella Abraham had a stint in the hospitality industry but ended up pursuing a career in real estate.

She started about 15 years ago selling houses in Notting Hill, London. Not the nice places from the films one might be thinking of, but "the dumps", she recalled.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, but having lived in England, the United States and Australia, Abraham is now the national director and head of residential leasing and relocation services at JLL in Hong Kong, an unusual position for a woman.

Among 2,862 real estate companies listed globally, only 62 have women comprising 30 per cent or more of their board membership, Bloomberg Intelligence Asia analyst Robert Fong said.

But if board representation is rare, top executive positions are even scarcer. There are only two real estate firms in which women have made it to the top: Soho China, with Zhang Xin as chief executive and Yan Yan as president, and Longfor Properties, which is chaired by Wu Yajun.

Looking at such examples, "it seems you have to create the company to sit in that CEO spot", Fong said at a seminar organised by the Women's Foundation last month.

Three successful women shared with the South China Morning Post their views on gender equality in the real estate sector and how hopeful they were about the next generation.

Abraham said being a woman had not been a hurdle. "I can sense there is a difference between men and women in the workplace, but I personally haven't felt any discrimination," she said.

It seems you have to create the company to sit in that CEO spot
Robert Fong, Bloomberg Intelligence Asia analyst

However, she did admit that being a woman had made her put extra pressure on herself. "It's a little voice in my head, sadly it is. I am a female! Unfortunately, we question ourselves. We often don't stand up and say I want it. We need to get better at that."

Mabelle Ma, a development and valuations director at Swire Properties, also said she could not really find an example in which being a woman had disadvantaged her or held her back.

Ma started her career in 1990 with a development firm before moving to Swire, where she has worked for almost 20 years. She is a rare case of success in a lucrative industry that has always been largely male-dominated.

Ma was the first woman appointed a general manager at Swire and is now one of three women in its senior management group. "I really can't say there's any discrimination, at least in my world," she said.

Comparing real estate to other industries, Abraham does not find much difference in terms of gender equality. "I think the whole world is kind of seen as a man's world, unfortunately," she said. "It's not just real estate. I think it is all business."

In real estate, Abraham said, gender equality varied a lot from company to company. But establishing quotas did not seem to be the right solution to reduce disparity. "I sit on the fence when it comes to quotas," she said. "Sometimes I believe in a quota, and other times not. And it's all about individual situations, depending on which company you are with, maybe."

Christina Gaw, a managing principal and head of capital markets at Gaw Capital, shares a similar opinion. "I am not necessarily buying or focusing on the quota," she said. "Putting a number [on it] is not needed."

In March 2013, the chairmen of 35 international and local companies backed the launch of the 30 Percent Club by the Women's Foundation. The 30 Percent Club says it is not a call for a quota, but aims to bring more women onto corporate boards.

Although there is still a long way to go before there are as many female faces as male ones in top positions at the city's main companies, Ma said things were getting better.

"Nowadays, people do realise … the importance of gender diversity," she said. "The trend, I think, is to have a balance."

Abraham is also optimistic. “There are some men who will never change and that’s ok, they can be themselves,” she said. “But then are those men who will. They are the men you want to focus your energies on, the ones who will support you, the ones who will attend events that will make the difference.”

Abraham sees in her son the mirror of a new attitude. “I have a 12-year-old boy and I am absolutely positive that he will not discriminate between men and women,” she said.

Gaw said there was a need to develop joint efforts between women, employers and the rest of the society.

On the one hand, companies should have “the foresight and realise that having more balanced … staff is beneficial to the overall development of the companies because of the different way that men and women think and the things they are good at”.

On the other hand, women’s mentality also needed changing. “The females should not think that we are always at disadvantage,” she said. “We just need more people to come out and say: ‘It’s not! Get through it. Don’t have this in your head’.”

Gaw worked for 15 years in the investment baking industry with Goldman Sachs, and spent another six years at UBS, holding several senior positions. Meanwhile, she also managed to have two children.

For women who are considering having children but are afraid of doing so because of their careers, she had three pieces of advice: prioritise, organise and have the mindset to get through it.

“I encourage women, especially in Hong Kong having the ability to have help,” Gaw said. “There’s only a few years that are tougher, and then it’s all equal, the children will grow up and you are on an equal footing, no one will stop you.”

business-article-page