Inclusivity in real estate finance will take more than good intentions

Urgent issues around diversity and inclusion were discussed at CREFC’s London conference last week. The industry’s challenge is how to take meaningful action.

The opening panel discussion at the Commercial Real Estate Finance Council (CREFC) Europe’s London conference, held last week, represented a welcome break from the usual.

While the curtain-raising session of the biannual event typically serves as a state-of-the-market examination, with loan margins and property values mulled over, last week’s event put the spotlight on the state of the industry itself – diversity and inclusion (D&I) was the prevailing topic.

CREFC’s decision to put D&I front-and-centre of its agenda was a positive move, which led to an urgent discussion. It shows the co-chairs of the event, comprised of senior real estate finance people, recognise the need for the debate.

Many will argue the discussion is overdue. The Presidents Club scandal in January, which implicated property industry people in particular, illustrated just how far behind sections of the industry are when it comes to progress on D&I – albeit real estate finance folk were not in the crosshairs of the scandal.

Nevertheless, that exposé reinforced many people’s view of the real estate industry as an old-fashioned boys’ club. And, although the finance part of the industry does not deserve that label – people from many backgrounds are active in it, many in senior roles – few would claim sustained efforts at inclusivity have been made within most organisations.

The CREFC panel – more about which can be read in our upcoming coverage – brought together a former head of MI5, there to give the keynote speech on leadership, plus campaigners for disabled people in business, LGBT people in the property industry and social mobility in real estate workplaces, as well as senior women from within the finance sector.

The point of it was: businesses, including in real estate finance, are missing out on the skills of large sections of society because of inadequate measures to foster diverse and inclusive workplaces. Although the discussion provided plenty of food for thought, the challenge facing the property finance industry is putting such thought into action through company policies and initiatives.

The debate was peppered with plenty of suggestions: reviewing hiring practices to ensure candidates are sourced and evaluated without prejudice; engaging with colleges and universities to encourage a new, more diverse, generation of property finance professionals; and creating corporate cultures which give people the confidence to disclose mental health issues. Commercial decisions were also cited as a potential lever; investors refusing to back organisations which are refusing to make progress, for instance. Lenders choosing not to write loans to property firms which continue to tacitly back Presidents Club-esque events is another potential measure which springs to mind.

The solution is not straightforward. But it is clear the responsibility for creating a more diverse and inclusive real estate industry, including its finance segment, lies with every organisation active within it.

Discussing the D&I agenda in an auditorium full of influential property finance people was a good start, for which CREFC deserves acknowledgement. Real Estate Capital would like to hear from those organisations putting into place actual initiatives to make progress in this regard, the successes achieved, and the problems faced. After all, it will take more than signalling good intentions to make the industry truly diverse and inclusive.

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