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How women are using real estate to break international molds

More and more women are breaking free of societal chains, yet many still remain weighed down by orthodox occupations

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There are almost as many women in the world as men. So why is it that we see so few as our bosses, GMs and CEOs?

A report by Pearl Initiative (PI), titled “Women’s Careers in the GCC” and released in April 2015, revealed that though women almost matched men in population numbers, their contribution to the global workforce stood only at 32 percent. The report said only 12 percent of CEOs are women, only 17 percent acted as board members, and a meager 24 percent were found working in senior management positions.

According to a 2010 UN report, having women on a board leads to better decision-making and better board governance. A McKinsey study cited by PI said corporations with the highest proportions of women outperformed by an average of 47 percent on return on equity and 55 percent on earnings before interest and tax.

But if these are the gains from having women in senior positions, why is it not happening on the ground?

A man’s world

Workplace marginalization still holds many women back. Bayut.com got in touch with several female real estate agents, including Alexis* in Abu Dhabi, who said carving a place for herself among hordes of men was tough calling.

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“Everyone discouraged me at first,” she said. “My mother told me it was ‘too tough’ for a girl to go about town, meeting and greeting people all the time.” Several potential employers offered secretarial positions, or ones confined to a desk, she added. “I felt angry and frustrated; I started to doubt my abilities and questioned if I could ever do what I wanted.”

Alexis said her first job was a reluctant offer by an overanalyzing employer, but she took it as a chance to prove her worth. Four job changes and 12 years later, she said a lot has changed in the market.

“People are not taken aback these days,” she said. “A female real estate broker is fiction no more.

“I feel the employers who rejected me never doubted my skills — they just thought my skills were meant for someplace more traditional and that a woman could do not do a (traditionally) man’s job.”

The PI data also hinted at marginalization, revealing that 80 percent of women in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states feel that simply being a woman put them at a disadvantage at work — though 75 percent believe their advancement was not as quick as a man’s. These are large numbers, considering that many cities in the GCC, such as Dubai and Doha, aim at becoming global cities soon.

Women feeling held down by their gender only indicate underutilized resources and opportunities lost — not only for the individuals involved, but for the GCC and South Asian states, as well.

Growth gridlocks

Some women also find it hard to balance personal and professional responsibilities, especially in GCC and South Asia, where many women still sacrifice professional gains to fit into traditional societal.

Sara* is a Pakistani doctor married into a British-Pakistani family in London. She has two kids, a 7-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. “I was really sad over leaving Pakistan, mainly because of moving away from my family, but also because I could not continue with my work as a medical practitioner in Lahore anymore,” she said.

“It was a great experience,” Sara said. “Working, helping others, serving in field hospitals, learning new things every day — it was what I always wanted. I had planned on enrolling for a specialization but got married and had to move to England.”

Sara said she tried taking the proficiency test in the U.K. to continue with her work, but the birth of her son meant she had to reserve her energies for the child. “I’ve been a mother ever since,” she said. “It’s the best job in the world, but I still long for the time I spent as a doctor in Lahore looking after the sick. I hope I can reconnect with my profession someday.”

Like Sara in London, there are many around the world who fail to strike a work-life balance. In the GCC, for example, 34 percent of the women questioned by PI said they did not wish to sacrifice family and children for profession, while 49 percent said their families were a hindrance in getting ahead in their professions.

There were other factors, such as inability to relocate and making decisions in favor of the spouse’s career. The report also said that 29 percent of working women refused promotions, as increased job responsibility often demands a substantial sacrifice in work-life balance.

Silver lining

However, there remain several glimmers of hope, as explained by Marcella Harrera, an agent with Driven Properties, Dubai.

“A majority of clients respond according to your knowledge and behavior,” she said. “Investors invest in the professionalism and presentations, not gender.”

Marcella added that she doesn’t think being a woman has made her career easier or more difficult in comparison to a man’s.

However, members of our own company said that women still had to work a little harder to be taken seriously, especially when dealing with clients from cultures where females worked in more traditional professions such as teaching or nursing.

“When I first contacted a real estate firm in Dubai for some investment advice, I was a little surprised when greeted by a woman. I thought the agents were blowing me off, but the deeper I got into the conversation with the agent, the more I was impressed with her knowledge and her informed recommendations,” Ahmed*, an investment banker in Lahore, told Zameen.com, our sister arm in Pakistan. “Frankly, I had never before come across a female real estate agent in Pakistan.”

Just like in other parts of the world, women in GCC feel ambitious, and more than half surveyed by PI wanted to grow into senior roles. Although Bahrain, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates topped the list of GCC countries with women in leading legislative and official roles, a meager number of women populate organizational boards.

The PI study indicated that even though three-quarters of the respondents felt supported by their families, traditional role models are still a blockade, and social attitudes are changing at a slow pace.

The way ahead

Employers can help high achievers maintain that work-life balance by offering flexible hours, which 51 percent of the women in PI survey supported. The notion that this practice favors women can be eliminated by extending the same opportunities to male staff, ushering a sense of equity across the board. Plus, focusing on output rather than input can bring a win-win solution for both the employee and the employer.

Organizations should make pay, promotions and remuneration policies equal for professionals of both genders, so that women do not feel marginalized and quit their jobs in frustration.

Women also need to fight for themselves and not feel bogged down by their gender. Of the PI survey respondents, 10 percent said they refused a promotion, and less-deserving colleagues were promoted instead, and 9 percent said the rejected promotion did not align with their expectations.

Cases such as these are an unfortunate reality of the working world, and the phenomenon has been felt by almost all workers at some point in their careers — male and female alike. Women should not be disheartened; rather, they must prove management wrong with hard work and high-quality output.

Changing social perceptions through education is also extremely important. Coursework and syllabi in more traditional societies, as well as in developed ones, must promote the professional acumen and achievements of women. It should highlight female role models, high achievers and trendsetters such as Zaha Hadid or world leaders including Aung Suu Kyi so that the younger generations do not feel intimidated or surprised to see women in leading political, business and industrial roles.

Women who matter in their respective professions must also do their part to alter the societal ceilings and help other women up the professional ladder. They must demand equality and opportunities for professional women.

They must share their achievements to motivate, and failures to guide, the younger generation of women as they head out to make their mark in the professional sphere.

With everyone playing a part and setting in motion the right interventions, the world as we know it can become more just and equitable. We can make women more confident, able, driven and much more of a resource in the global economy if women across the globe feel valued for their abilities despite their gender.

*The names have been changed in some instances to maintain privacy.

Azam is the editor at Bayut.com, United Arab Emirate’s leading real estate portal. He is an MBA and has been associated with the retail, media and real estate industries.

Email Azam Mahmood Butt.