My experience: DEI in real estate

Joanna Turner, Head of Property Research at Canada Life Asset Management, reflects on her experience as a senior woman in the predominately male real estate sector and offers advice to newcomers.

I’ve had a 25-year career in real estate investment strategy and research, working for major global organisations. My experience has been mixed, but overall it has been very rewarding.

I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to develop my career while constantly challenging myself, acquiring new skills and grasping new opportunities. Since I’ve spent most of this time in international research and strategy environments, I’ve worked with people from many different backgrounds and cultures. I’ve also travelled a lot, mainly in Europe and Asia. This has allowed me to widen my experience, which I think has helped me to develop a broader, more inclusive mindset.

I’ve also faced obstacles and challenges, but I think that I’ve been able to overcome them by working hard, being determined that what I was doing was right and remaining true to myself and my values. I think I’ve become a stronger, more resilient person because of all the difficult situations that I’ve faced. I’ve also not been afraid of making mistakes and learning from them.

Be curious

My advice to other women in the sector would be always to look for opportunities to learn something new, whether from people - both peers and senior managers - or through research, structured mentorship and coaching schemes and educational programmes. I would recommend networking as much as possible, joining external organisations to suit your interests and attending industry events to help broaden your knowledge and experience.

Real estate and the built environment are everywhere around you, constantly evolving and changing, so look for any opportunity to explore them and relate them to your role at work, personal interests and experience. There is a wealth of opportunities available to suit people from all backgrounds, skills and experience in such a diverse, exciting sector.

Changing times

I think that attitudes towards women have changed, as well as the visibility of women in the industry. At the beginning of my career in real estate I was often the only professional woman in the room and there were very few female role models, with only a handful of women in senior leadership positions in any organisation.

I’ve noticed a big change in recent years, with the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) agenda becoming much more of a focus for organisations. There is a much greater awareness now of the lack of diversity and equality in many areas of the real estate and wider financial services industries, such as the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling for many women in middle management roles wishing to advance to senior leadership positions. This also applies to many women who’ve returned after a career break, or for mothers returning after maternity leave or with caring responsibilities with elderly parents.

We now have a less male-dominated, more flexible workplace culture (especially post-Covid-19), with the ability to work in a hybrid or remote way leading to a better work/life balance and more opportunities for women to have a fulfilling career in the industry.

There is also now greater awareness of the need for better health and wellbeing through societal pressures, social media and movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, which has filtered through into workplace cultures and policies.

Until about five years ago it was still rare to see professional women in my industry as speakers and panellists at external conferences and seminars, but now it has become the norm. There has been a big push by organisations to give a platform to female voices. I’m glad to see more women coming forward and being included as speakers, thought leaders and panellists at these events, both for their own career progression and for the benefit of the industry as a whole.

More initiatives like this, as well as recruiting from a wider talent pool, will help. More mentorships and coaching opportunities would also empower women at all stages of their career, give them confidence and to coach them into senior leadership positions, if they want to achieve that.

A long way to go

However, although we have come a long way, I believe there is still a long way to go on DEI in real estate, with many issues still to be addressed. Progress has been too slow so far. It must come from senior management within organisations and filter down into employees at every level.  

It’s great that many more people in the industry recognise that there is still an imbalance caused by too few women in middle management and senior leadership roles within organisations, and there are many more male champions supporting measures to improve this, and guidelines and goals set out for organisations and individuals to follow (such as those set out by Real Estate Balance).

However, minority groups are still very under-represented in the workforce at all levels. People from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, those who are LGBTQ+, disabled people and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, still face many barriers, so this needs to change.

However, I am hopeful that, as time goes on, the real estate industry and people working in it will better reflect the society that we’re operating in. I have seen positive change during my career, and I think that greater opportunities to work in the industry will come from a more diverse, inclusive workforce, and continually evolving developments in technology will enable that.


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Promotion approved 17/08/23

An edited version of this article was originally published in Professional Investor.