In the salubrious surroundings of the Park Plaza Riverbank on London's Albert Embankment last week, 220 people attended the National Landlords Association Property Women Awards, hosted by celebrity property entrepreneur Melissa Porter. They gathered to celebrate the achievements of women in property and to acknowledge 11 women from across the UK, honouring one as the overall Property Woman of the Year - this year, Gateshead landlady Juliet Ashton-Taylor - and four further category winners.
Women make up only 15% of the property and construction industry workforce - a ratio that such accolades as the PWAs and organisations such as Women In Property aim to address. But now that equality is high on the average company's agenda, have women-focused groups and recognition of female achievement become outdated concepts?
Carole Taylor, senior director of Birmingham industrial agency at BNP Paribas Real Estate, has her doubts. She says: "Organisations like Women In Property do facilitate networking in the industry, and can be especially helpful to those who are just starting out or have moved to a different area. However, women are increasingly raising their profiles in this male-dominated industry, demonstrating that they are equal to their male counterparts, and perhaps single-sex organisations aren't the best way to ensure that this continues."
But professionals such as Monique Royle, an associate in valuation services with GVA Grimley and a WIP member, are sure that they do have a place. She found the organisation invaluable when she moved from the brewing industry to become a surveyor in Birmingham.
As a new starter, without any contacts, she turned to WIP to get to know her peers. Royle found herself forging valuable relationships from the start, and her involvement led to a place on the committee before she became regional chair. She says: "I have never found that being a woman holds me back or that there has been a glass ceiling."
More than anything, Royle sees WIP as a networking base. She explains: "Men are very good at going to the pub, but this is an organised structure with events such as talks but also things like Sex and the City-themed cocktail evenings."
She adds: "Men and women network in different ways. Men tend to orient more around sport, whereas we don't. When they come to our events, they comment on how well organised they are."
WIP founding member Joanna Embling, a Cushman & Wakefield partner, stresses that it is not just women who need such groups. She says: "Everyone needs a supportive network - this just happens to be one for females. It is not a feminist or lobbying organisation, though it does stand up for its members. The role is to educate and provide networking opportunities."
It is also about providing role models, as large parts of the industry are still male-dominated. Having been a partner in a large firm, Embling says that women are facing challenges. "It can be lonely as a woman," she says. "The culture can be intimidating - although this has changed hugely. It's good to have this type of organisation at the start of your career."
Property may be changing but there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of gender balance, to encourage women to see property as a long-term career and to reach senior positions. Theresa Salter, director of human resources for Jones Lang LaSalle England, thinks that, as long as any organisation is focused on positive initiatives and engaged with the wider industry, it can have a positive effect.
It is for such reasons that WIP spends time visiting schools and universities to raise awareness of the sector and all the opportunities that it offers.
Salter acknowledges: "There is a lot of support for these types of organisations across the board." But she believes that women still have a need for their own groups, and says: "If these organisations succeed in attracting women into the industry, and help create an environment where they can progress and succeed, they are doing a valuable job."
US-based property investor Maria Davies gives a good appraisal of the female professional's dilemma. She says: "On one hand, women are exceptionally good at property once they get going. On the other, they frequently need reassurance that they're on the right track."
WIP describes its approach as offering "friendly support and a nurturing backdrop to the professional lives of our diverse membership". For the foreseeable future at least, it seems its role will continue to be appreciated by men and women alike.
The male perspective
Paul Salmon, joint managing director at project manager Byrne Brothers, has been on the judging panel of Women in Property's student awards and was greatly impressed by some of the candidates.
He says: "We have taken them on and they have fulfilled valuable logistical and field roles, rather than token ones. In most industries, women are under-represented, and this starts at career entry level. Women in Property provides mentors and shows what is possible.
"Men call networking going down the pub, whereas women tend not to form those types of groups. This fulfils a need for them by putting up-and-coming women in touch with those who are more established. They are filling a gap. There is nothing else, and ours is not exactly a fair industry."
Nick Ebbs is chief executive of Nottingham-based regeneration partnership Blueprint and a director of Igloo. When his surveyor daughter was made redundant in the recession, he introduced her to Women in Property. The organisation arranged APC training for her and gave practical support.
Ebbs says: "There are barriers to entry and WIP helps redress the balance. That can only be a good thing. This is the 21st century, and it is nonsense that there is not more gender balance in the profession.
"I don't think it is purely about networking. The function of the organisation should be to promote the benefits of surveying, specifically to women. I still think they need to make more inroads into universities and do even more to promote the benefits of the profession to females."
EG Feature 03/07/2010.