Looking forwards, going backwards: class in the property sector

Paul Clark, Chief Investment Officer at The Crown Estate, argues that we neglect social class diversity in the property sector at our peril.


27 February 2016

Street filled with workers

I was recently at a high profile property event, hosted by the BBC’s John Humphrys, where he turned to room of about 150 property professionals and asked if they thought the UK was likely to leave the EU. There was a resounding show of hands against our exit. Humphrys expressed surprise that this response was far from the public opinion polls which were showing around a 50-50 split. The same pattern was repeated when he asked about Heathrow Airport extension proposals, with the room convinced it would be successful against wider public opinion.

It may not be surprising to hear that the room was predominately filled with white men, who were in all probability likely to have been mostly middle-class. The experience illustrated succinctly to me that without diversity of background, in all its forms, we end up with similar people with similar views, reinforcing our own assumptions without challenge, and therefore leaving ourselves – individuals and organisations – vulnerable to our blind spots.

There have been many powerful studies, such as from the McKinsey Group, which validate that greater diversity in the work place leads to more successful businesses; and thankfully the property industry has rightly (if slowly) begun to address the issue. There are some great initiatives, such as the RICS’ Inclusive Employer Standard, Freehold and CBRE’s Women’s Network.

Class... particularly interests me because it is so much harder to define, interlinks with gender and ethnicity, with both groups disproportionately over-represented in lower paid and part time work.”

Paul Clark, Chief Investment Officer

However, it feels there is much less emphasis on issues of class. This particularly interests me because it is so much harder to define, interlinks with gender and ethnicity, with both groups disproportionately over-represented in lower paid and part-time work, and is not something which tends to be recorded as part of equal opportunity surveys.

Yet we know that UK social mobility has been in steady decline from the late 1950s, lower than the US(1), and inequality is worsening. Since 1980 the share of total income received by the top 1 per cent of British earners has almost doubled, to about 13 per cent in 2011, reversing a three-decades-long trend towards greater equality.(2)

We reinforce our bias towards people from the same socio-economic groups all the time: defining jobs as ‘graduate only’ where once people would have been able to work their way up a business, recruiting from the same small group of universities, perpetuating the treadmill of unpaid internships and the endurance of the ‘who you know, not what you know’. For example, five schools in the UK send the same number of students to Oxbridge as 1,800 state schools.(3)

Some of this is in the name of recruiting the best talent, it’s a competitive world after all, but as a consequence we are actually missing out and undermining our own competitive advantage through narrower thinking.

What can we do? For a start, programmes like the Reading Real Estate Foundation’s ‘Pathways to Property’, initiated by the private sector in partnership with the University of Reading, seek to address the crucial issue of awareness among academically high performing young people from less privileged backgrounds to the opportunities in the sector, such as through summer schools, graduate mentoring and careers fairs. We’ve also worked with them to hold a number of ‘outreach days’ with students from across central London.

The programme helps to overcome some of the barriers to entry through the cycle of ‘who you know’ by enabling work placements and helping find routes into the sector through further education and flagging bursaries available through the Foundation.

As a profession, we need to be more self-aware of our own in-built assumptions and patterns of behaviour that may cause us to only recruit in only our own image, as well as ensure a more open and transparent approach to the ‘informal opportunities’ our organisations may offer.

Not only is there a wealth of opportunity for young people in this sector, but our commercial success will only be secured if we have a truly diverse work place that supports different (and more representative) ideas, captures the best talent and ultimately supports the long term performance of the economy as a whole.


(1) The Sutton Trust fast facts
(2) Danny Dorling ‘Inequality and the 1%’
(3) The Sutton Trust, fast facts