When real estate debt fund managers need to hire, they often turn to Ghada Sousou, founder of executive search firm Sousou Partners.
“More often than not, clients say diversity is a priority for them,” she says. “For the most part, they mean it. But I always want to know why. Is it because the employer wants to tick a certain box, or do they really believe having a diverse workforce makes a real difference to their businesses? I would say it’s 50/50 with clients.
“There are some who come in and say: ‘we’re 90 percent pale, male and stale, and we need you to change that’.”
For Sousou, the problem is too many real estate firms want to prioritise diversity in recruitment, without doing the deeper thinking about how they can make their businesses genuinely welcoming places for people from a variety of backgrounds.
“We always need to be vocal, not just about the client’s hiring process, but also about their culture and their reputation in the market. We say to them: ‘We can get this person through your door, and here’s what it will take to get them over the line. But here is what it will take to keep them’.”
She recalls one private equity client that hired her to find a European head of real estate and explicitly told her to find a woman, which Sousou duly did. “She lasted nine months. The client did an amazing job showing her how keen they were to bring a woman in. But the reality was, it was just too difficult to work in that environment as a woman. They built flexibility into her schedule as she has kids, but it was really difficult for her to actually leave the office on time. She picked up on things from her colleagues.”
Sousou believes some employers miss the point when they seek diversity. “I’d love to say the idea of diversity in recruitment these days is about removing bias. But the reality, I think, is that it isn’t driven by that. I think, for some, diverse recruitment has become a goal, which actually introduces bias. But I understand why this happens.”
“I don’t see how the industry is going to succeed if it doesn’t go deeper in terms of change”
She says this means there are big opportunities in real estate, on both the debt and equity sides, for women and people from minority backgrounds because firms want to be seen to be doing the right thing.
“The important point is that, at the very top of these organisations, there is a real appetite and intention. But it doesn’t filter through to the rest of the organisation. It’s one thing to set goals – and I do agree with setting goals – but there is a lot more depth to genuinely fostering diversity. I don’t think you can say ‘this is our goal’ and then it happens. There is a lot of work to be done, specifically looking at your company’s internal processes and understanding your company’s culture.
“I don’t see how the industry is going to succeed if it doesn’t go deeper in terms of change.”
However, Sousou says there has been progress, particularly in terms of gender diversity. The covid-19 crisis, she believes, will spur the diversity drive rather than dampen it.
“Because of the challenges of this pandemic, we will see an increased focus on creativity and the ability to think outside the box. The real estate industry is not full of innovation and one way to improve that is through diversity. People of different backgrounds, because of their own experiences, approach things differently. There is no doubt creativity and innovation are aligned with diversity. This crisis will further increase the need to make companies more diverse.”