“Despite decades of progress towards workplace equality, women remain woefully underrepresented in the UK’s technology workforce. The figures speak for themselves: only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women”, the Women’s Engineering Society revealed.
This gender gap in technology will have major repercussions on UK’s ability to remain competitive, especially when the present free flow of foreign technology talent is curbed by Brexit. Add to this the challenge real estate already has with digital innovation, as well as with attracting and retaining top talent amongst women, and the coming problems become evident. PwC’s Time to Close The Gender Gap report argues that if half the nation is missing in the UK’s technology talent-pool, we’re basically trying to compete internationally with one hand tied behind our backs in the world’s fastest growing sector – technology. As Liz Peace CBE says, “diversity is not a ‘women’s issue’ or a ‘HR issue’, it is a value issue and a cold, hard cash issue.”
Designing for Diversity In Innovation
PwC reported that 50% of women interviewed revealed the most important factor in a woman’s career is feeling they have an impact. With women’s EQ skills and strengths in problem-solving and service design, it is evident they add huge value when designing engaging products.
I asked innovation consultant and Founder of Umbel, Nathan Waterhouse, how he views the correlation between a team’s dynamic and diversity with innovation. “Stimulating fresh thinking and creative insights must be proactively encouraged by an organisation, first and foremost.” Nathan shared. Creativity can only truly come in to play when multiple unique insights are combined to create something novel – otherwise you’re merely painting a wheel and not reinventing it.
Can PropTech Lead the Way?
As tech-giants such as Facebook, Google and Uber get publicly slammed for their own gender imbalance within their engineering teams, can PropTech be any different? Could PropTech’s very nascency be the powerful lever in redressing real estate’s historic battles with diversity and embracing technology?
PropTech influencer Antony Slumbers believes it just might. “Today, real estate is a product business, but in the future it will be a service business” he shared on LinkedIn. Diversity in innovation is therefore critical if customer facing digital products power or enable a more service driven real estate in the future. And as we’ve already made clear, women might well capture the lead when it comes to such service driven design and development. Antony predicts it’s when incumbents ‘realise their culture and their organisational structure are not suited for this ‘new world’, and they will panic’.
We will now turn to what three women behind startups feel about their journey as PropTech founders and how they see women’s role evolving.
How (and when) did you first come up with the idea for HouseLetter?
I did a Masters’ in Computer Science before getting a job as a software developer. I knew I wanted to start my own business but didn’t know what exactly, so I joined Entrepreneur First: a programme for technical individuals to help them start up. A few months later (early 2016) I’d taken over the management of a rental property and quickly discovered how much time-consuming admin there is for landlords, and how many legal requirements they need to comply with. It occurred to me that many of these tasks could be automated and that’s how I came up with the idea for HouseLetter.
What differentiates HouseLetter from the competition, such as OpenRent and Purplebricks?
It really is a fragmented market, but there are two key differentiators. Firstly, HouseLetter assists landlords throughout the lifetime of a tenancy – whereas many online letting agents only help landlords find tenants but offer little or no support beyond that. Secondly, HouseLetter is a tool that empowers landlords to self-manage their properties so that they don’t need a letting agent, which means we’re considerably cheaper than any company that employs human agents.
Are there any women from the world of technology who have influenced you?
Not in tech no but from the ‘prop’ side yes – Tessa Shepperson, who writes and runs the website Landlord Law, which has been going for 15 years. Her blog is incredibly useful: it has so much information on it, which she updates daily (because the law is constantly changing). I think what’s she’s done is hugely influential and supportive to entrepreneurial women like myself.
Tell us about your background and what led you to this point?
I spent a few years working in marketing at Google while my brother (Co-Founder, Paul Young) worked in an estate agency, on the mortgage side. We’d always talked about developing in this sector and we felt like there was a new opportunity here – a next generation opportunity, where much more digitisation could be leveraged.
You’re obviously passionate about the impact of digitisation in real estate. Have you noticed any resistance in the market?
It’s a shame, but traditional companies will sometimes view these changes as a threat. The reality is that industries evolve all the time and there is real opportunity in moving forward and thinking not just about what consumers want now, but how they’re changing and how they want to live in the future.
Are there any female digital entrepreneurs you think are particularly inspirational?
Martha Lane Fox is an amazing pioneer: when she started lastminute.com there were only three venture capitalists around she could raise money from. She is authentic too and says what she thinks, which is wonderful.
Diversity is an issue across technology and real estate. How are you trying to improve this at Settled?
I am passionate about having a very mixed team at Settled. We now have more women than men – although it is fairly evenly spread – and I am absolutely delighted to have recently hired two female developers. It took a bit of effort to find them and to reach out, but there are amazing support networks like Girls in Tech which help. People are beginning to see the problems of gender imbalance in some of these sectors: I don’t think it works as well if they are all women or all men, so I think it’s really good when companies look into any imbalance and try to promote a collaborative, gender-balanced workforce.
How did you first come up with the idea for Built-ID, which some may know by its former name ‘Industry Hub’?
I was working in property development in New York, running some commercial projects on Fifth Avenue and helping with some big ground-up developments, when I noticed how reliant everyone was on the word of mouth network to help them choose the right individuals for each project. It was very frustrating and I spoke to a lot of people who wished there was a more time-efficient solution that allowed them to hold up their phone and obtain the relevant data at the push of a button.
Are there any particular women in the fields of property or tech who have inspired you?
Individuals like Sarah Wyse at CBRE and Juliette Morgan at British Land, who until recently led the London technology team at Cushman & Wakefield. There are some great influential women who have carved that path [of senior leadership] and that’s really exciting to see.
Do you have any new ideas in terms of pipeline developments for your product?
We are really looking forward to expanding Built-ID globally to open up our market. We have some cool developments in the pipeline – like Pinterest-style features where you can collaborate with your team. We’re also using image recognition software and machine learning so that users will be able to see something they like in a building – like a lobby for example – and then find similar examples all over the world.
Building An Innovation Eco-System
When senior management in real estate takes the lead in creating a culture that embraces diversity, they are essentially making their organisation one which encourages speaking up, sharing ideas and being unafraid to raise challenging issues. This is not often easy for marginalised demographics to do, and must therefore be championed by the executive team. Think about the following:
Who’s the Inspiration?
“You can’t be what you can’t see”. These brilliant words from American activist Marian Wright Edelman show the importance of visible women role models at all levels, for all women – including real estate and technology. Which women are championed as innovators and leaders in your organisation?
Think Retention, Not Recruitment
Attracting more women into the sector is the first step, but HR and senior managers must make plans that enable career development once they join. Has your business got mentoring, coaching and maternity return to work schemes in place? These are all essential for retention.
Set A Target and Hit It
Have you got digital divisions working towards diversity and gender targets? If not, designate sponsors for this from HR and your technology team, with a senior executive overseeing progress – ideally one of the board.
Do your departments work together and actively cross collaborate? Opportunities to bring the digital team into the wider parts of your organisation will greatly expand product and service innovation. For example, whilst much marketing is now digital, it is primarily focused on gaining more customers or incentivising existing customers to buy more. Yet, it often sits far from the customer service team who are battling to retain customers and the digital team, working in sprints to fix the software problems getting the most complaints.
Bringing these teams together by someone designated to oversee collaborations needs planning and implementing to foster innovation. So when you do this, don’t think only of seniority, look at the women in your organisation and see who would excel in the leadership of this type of role.
Could you create a sponsorship programme for high performers? Could women in your organisation deepen their innovation skills through a secondment with a tech start-up? Could leadership coaching nurture engineers to become more visible through a programme of initiatives to support women to advance to more senior positions?
Working with organisations like the League of Intrapreneurs and creating side projects around internal innovation can be an excellent way to give it visibility, without threatening operating or revenue models with a bottom up innovation strategy.
Read more about PropTech & Innovation in our Insight Report here, A Brave New World? Innovating Real Estate