The women who are scaling the ladder
It’s a good question Ming Long, the Malaysian-born mother of two asks. Ming leads the $3.3 billion Investa Office Fund in an industry reputed to be the nation’s biggest laggard in gender equality. Data from professional services firm EY shows women have less than a quarter of management positions and less than 10 per cent of leadership roles in the $182bn industry.
Fifteen years after Qantas’s Margaret Jackson became the first woman to chair the board of one of Australia’s top 50 companies, women lead just two out of the 17 largest listed property groups. Female executives in the sector still complain of high drop-out rates of mothers, particularly after the birth of their second child, and the challenges of working in a system by-and-large run by men who are able to manage the multiple demands of business and family, largely by the grace of stay-at-home wives.
“We work in an industry and in a system that has been designed by men, for men, and it’s as if we’re the wrong shape for the positions that we have to fill,” Ming says. “Which means that at every step we have had to bend ourselves, shapesourselves to fit.”
But there has been a vast improvement in the past five years, with Mirvac’s Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz and Ardent Leisure’s Deborah Thomas emerging as the sector’s first two female chief executives. Elsewhere in the sector, the appointments of Carolyn Viney to head builder and developer Grocon, and Raynuha Sinnathamby as the head of Greater Springfield Land Corporation have challenged the age-old caricature of the hardened construction and development boss.
Sustainability champions including the Green Building Council chief executive Romilly Madew, Lend Lease sustainability executive Anita Mitchell and Mirvac board
member Sam Mostyn are also pioneering new standards and practices in building and construction.
“The reality is it’s not just the leaders, but the nature of the industry that’s rapidly changing,” says Property Council of Queensland executive director Kathy MacDermott. “When you look at the size and the weight of money and international investment flowing into it, you can see that the skill base is far different from what is used to be … it requires a whole new set of skills.”
Take, for example, Ardent Leisure’s chief executive Deborah Thomas, who left a 20-year career in publishing to work under a board that is convinced her skills in sales and marketing and her incomparable media nous are exactly what the theme park and cinema owner and operator needs. Analysts, while surprised by the appointment, noted that 85 per cent of the bookings made through the company were women and for that reason made sense. And, It’s a realisation more and more companies are having, says Stockland director Carol Schwartz.
“These companies are far more complex than they have ever been before, and they know they’re needing a far better equipped executive than they have ever had before,” she says. “Directors know that to get the best possible insight, their management teams need to reflect the customers.”
Schwartz, who is also a director of private developer Qualitas and a former president of the Property Council of Australia, is a chief proponent of the Male Property Champions of Change program. The program – the first industry specific Male Champions of Change – is changing attitudes, she says. But industry change and rising competition is also bringing about a more diverse approach to hiring.
“The reality is that there’s a business case for diversity, and it’s been conclusively proven time and time again,” she says.
Numerous studies, including a recent survey of 366 public companies in North America, South America and Britain by McKinsey & Company, report a statistical relationship between companies with more women in their upper ranks and better financial performance measured by earnings. Businesses with a more gender diverse leadership were 15 per cent more likely to deliver returns above the national
industry median, according to the McKinsey study. Ethnic diversity delivered an even more striking finding, with the most ethnically diverse companies 30 per cent more likely to deliver earnings higher than the industry median.
“More diverse companies are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, leading to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns,” the study authors wrote.
Other advocates list diversity as a powerful driver of more sustainable, resilient organisations. Sam Mostyn, a leading sustainability practitioner and director of Mirvac, Transurban and Virgin Australia, says diversity is not only a prerequisite for performance, it is invaluable for risk management.
“We tend to think about risk in the negative and be fearful, but it can be seen as an opportunity,” the prominent executive wrote in the book New Women, New Men, New Economy: how creativity, openness, diversity and equity are driving prosperity now [see extract on Page 19]. “The more diversity you have, the more perspectives to challenge some of the things that lead to blind spots.”
Narelle Hooper, the author, agrees: “There’s really no excuse for ignoring the gains from diversity anymore … if companies are focused on performance, they should be focused on it.”
But if the business benefits of diversity are apparent, perhaps the biggest challenge has been the effort to demonstrate what diversity means. Take the events of April 30 in Sydney. The Property Council of Australia had signed up 22 of the industry’s heaviest names to head its Male Champions of Change program, and in the packed ballroom of Sydney’s Westin Hotel, they were assembled for the first time to spruik the fruits of their efforts. It didn’t get off to an auspicious start. One panellist told the audience they needed to get more female team members involved in Friday beers. Another suggested he would restore the balance by teaching female colleagues how to play golf.
“It was apparent some of them were very much at the beginning of their understanding of gender equity,” moderator on the day, Hooper, says. “But seeing an imbalance is something that you can’t un-see … and when it’s finally pointed out to them, they see it every time.”
The change is already being felt in retail and shopping centres, where executives, including GPT’s Michelle Tierney and Mirvac’s Susan MacDonald, have emerged as some of the industry’s most formidable strategists with their ability to understand their customers.
But there is more to the rising tide of female leadership than moves to achieve diversity alone, says the Property Council's Kathy MacDermott. The fact that developers including GPT, Dexus, Lend Lease and Mirvac are likely to be just as reliant on profits from offices and billion dollar managed funds arms as they on churning out thousands of apartments each year, is also a factor changing the perception of who can do what roles.
“Historically, building companies became developers and then evolved into something else, and now because of the emergence of funds management, property is evolving into another part of the life cycle … it does open your talent pool,” says MacDemott.
‘There’s a business case for diversity, and it’s been proven time and time again’ CAROL SCHWARTZ
But more needs to be done to ensure a pipeline of women keeps coming through. None of the women interviewed for this article ever anticipated they would lead a company. All professed to being driven, to having a herculean work ethic and a passion for business. But none ever set out from day one with their eyes on the top job. Much of their success is due to being in the right place at the right time. Mirvac’s Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz credits the years she spent at Lend Lease in the late 1990s as those that positioned her best for eventual ascent to become an industry leader.
“It was the sort of place where there were just so many opportunities for people who demonstrated talent and a capacity to work really hard,” she says.
It’s a phenomenon Schwartz calls the job lottery: “It’s when you get a really good boss or a really enlightened organisation that it makes a world of difference to the trajectory of your entire career.”
For Lloyd-Hurwitz, it was open-minded managers who were prepared to make bold decisions when delegating work. For Investa’s Ming Long, it was an environment where employees were encouraged to speak their minds without fear of being talked down.
“It’s not as if we’re perfect, but its collaborative … we welcome people’s views and if they’re different – that’s great. I hadn’t come across anything like that,” she says.
Other respondents agreed that Investa had a reputation for inclusiveness. Other companies were mentioned too, including Lend Lease and Mirvac which has a new sustainability push with its “This Changes Everything” program that has a range of diversity targets.
Proactive hiring decisions have a role to play as well. In funds management, the high-profile appointment of former GPT fund manager Carmel Hourigan to lead AMP Capital’s property business alongside AMP’s retail portfolio head Louise Mason and aged care head Sally Evans has been received by analysts as a master stroke propelling the already high performing property business to the industry’s best.
But while change is afoot, others say it’s not happening fast enough.
“It’s interesting you see it as an unprecedented number of women, because I look at it from the other way around and say we haven’t come far enough,” Lloyd-Hurwitz says. “It’s a constant battle to keep it on the agenda. If anything has changed it’s from years and years and years of people pushing, because I don’t believe anything in the industry has fundamentally shifted.”
Privately, executives still talk of a reverence for the “propertyproperty person” in hiring decisions – industry shorthand for leaders such as Lend Lease founder Dick Dusseldorp or Frasers Property Australia chief Bob Johnston who rose through the ranks after starting as an engineer or development manager on a building site, or a city-based leasing agent.
“Some people talk about it, but it’s definitely fading,” MacDermott says. “The reality is when you’re running a billion dollar managed funds business alongside all the normal operations of a developer, you can’t afford to think like that.”
‘Property is evolving into another part of the life cycle ... it does open your talent pool’ KATHY MACDERMOTT
At the top of their game: Adrienne Revai, left, Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz and Deborah Thomas