COMMENT Female representation in the property industry has improved markedly in recent years, but the headway we have made now risks being derailed by Covid-19. The pandemic has brought challenges for everyone, but as the new year ushered in a return to national lockdowns, evidence suggests that women are bearing some of the biggest burdens.

Globally, the United Nations has warned that the pandemic could wipe out 25 years of gender equality progress and – for working women in particular – we are already seeing the knock-on effects that new restrictions are having in the UK.

A survey from the Trade Union Congress shows that 90% of working mothers have experienced increased levels of stress and anxiety during this latest lockdown, faced with challenges like falling incomes and school closures. Almost half of respondents said they feared negative treatment at work over increased childcare obligations.

The onus is on employers to allay those fears and for the property industry especially we need to see decisive action by businesses to help female colleagues emerge from the pandemic with their professional prospects unhindered. If not, we risk holding back talented women or, worse still, potentially losing them altogether if they drop out of the workforce. Only 30% of senior management positions in property are occupied by women, according to PwC and Real Estate Balance. It’s vital that team leaders provide the right support over the coming months – not only so women can meet the demands of work and home, but so their careers can continue to flourish.

Shared learnings

To encourage an open dialogue, senior management should be sharing their own experiences or challenges where possible. Efforts to better relate will help cultivate feedback that’s honest and constructive. We do work in an industry where male-dominated boards are still commonplace, so these senior leaders might not always have direct experience of dealing with the workplace challenges women face. In that case, special efforts must be made to empathise and understand despite this.

Anonymous surveys and polls can be useful in helping uncover the more difficult issues that perhaps people don’t feel empowered to talk openly about. But it’s really important that the learnings gained from this aren’t tucked away and forgotten about – they must be shared and with a realistic plan on the actions needed. At Navana we have appointed a culture director to ensure employee engagement is always a central aspect of how we are addressing challenges facing the industry such as gender equality.

PwC linked gender equality directly to the provision and acceptance of flexible working. From supervising homeschooling to dropping off the shopping for elderly relatives, flexible working patterns can help cater for changes in women’s responsibilities in ways that more stubborn 9-to-5 routines cannot.

Removing the stigma

For Navana, this has been central to ensuring our staff and customers get the support they need amid Covid-19. It has empowered our teams to find a schedule that works for them during the pandemic, working when they can focus and be at their best. It’s a model that supports their wellbeing too, which is vital. After all, a happier workforce will have the motivation and passion to deliver better service to our customers.

Our ‘Time for Tea’ initiative has been really effective at establishing a strong yet sensitive support network for colleagues. It’s designed to take the stigma out of asking for help – a member of our team can ask any colleague if they would like to join them for a virtual tea break, and the colleague invited will discretely know the team member is reaching out to talk. Under this initiative our people can talk to anybody in our business, regardless of their department or level of seniority. Homeworking means we are not able to catch up with colleagues on a coffee break and share our day-to-day stresses. This small but important connection that helps us navigate our professional lives is one we knew should be sustained amid homeworking.

As we hopefully enter the last chapter of Covid-19 this year, one thing’s for sure: 2021 must see a real focus from the sector on making strides forward on gender equality, as a business essential that we can’t let become another victim of the pandemic.

Kelly Bream is chief operating officer of Navana Property Group