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Institutional sexism?

A recent sex discrimination case won by a female property professional illustrates some deep-seated attitudes afflicting the property industry, says Nigel Lewis.

Nigel Lewis

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For many years I have been perplexed by the property industry’s approach to women, who make up 42 per cent of its workforce. For example, not that long ago I asked a female trade organisation chief if she thought the sector needed to move forward when it came to matters such as working conditions, the gender pay gap and the sometimes unthinking attitudes among men towards serious issues such as maternity leave. To my surprise, the question was greeted with a very furrowed brow; it was clear she had not considered such topics before and her answer was that it was competitive, sales-led industry which had little room for niceties such as gender equality. Women should win equality by working as hard as, if not harder than, the men they compete with for instructions, she implied.

When her daughter gets to working age, she shouldn’t have to face the same battles…

There are plenty of people in the industry who hold to that view, but there is also a growing number both inside and outside the estate agency sector who don’t. And that includes Employment Tribunal judges. Early last month Alice Thompson, a senior and successful high flyer at Foxtons who later joined what she called a ‘boutique’ central London estate agency called Manors, won £185,000 in compensation from the one-branch firm after winning her tribunal case for indirect sexual discrimination.

Complicated case

In case you’re not sure what that means, the Citizens Advice Bureau puts it succinctly; “to have a rule, policy or practice which someone of a particular sex is less likely to be able to meet than and this places them at a disadvantage to the opposite sex”.

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Nigel Lewis

Reading the tribunal papers, the case is clearly a complicated one, but the national newspaper headlines didn’t do it justice; many unkindly suggested her request for more flexible working arrangements was somehow bothersome or unjustified.

Thompson had resigned after Manors proved reluctant to deal with her requests for flexible working, particularly because she wanted to pick her daughter up from school and move to a four-day week, and her pay-out reflected the high salary she lost.

This Morning interview

As an aside, Thompson has now joined hybrid agency Keller Williams, which makes much of its partners’ ability to choose when and where they do their work.

While the newspaper reports did their best to summarise the case, the ITV This Morning interview with her was much more revealing, and if you can find it on the ITV website, it’s worth a watch.

Taking a former employer to an Employment Tribunal is no mean feat and, in her case, not one that was guaranteed to succeed in the tricky area of indirect sex discrimination. But her patient and thoughtful answers to Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby’s sometimes provocative questioning, including that such a huge pay-out is too large for a small one-branch agency to suffer, were impressive – I’m not sure I’d stay so calm under the heat of studio lights and a live audience.

She told the programme that £185,000 is what she would have been paid had she stayed at the company. Thompson also made the point that when her daughter gets to working age, she shouldn’t face the same battles her mother did, citing it as one reason why she took her employer to task.

During the interview she also criticises the London estate agency world for being heavily dominated by men, including the boards of many of its companies – a point industry trainer and gender campaigner Nicola Broomfield and others have made on many occasions.

Thompson also told viewers that she hoped the case will make other employers think twice about refusing more flexible working arrangements when female employees return from maternity leave, and that she’s been contacted by many mothers who say she has ‘given them a voice’.

I am often told that the property industry is a ‘people industry’ (usually by those who are wary of tech’s encroaching influence) but this doesn’t appear to apply to the thousands of women who work within it, particularly if they want to start a family.

It is not time to have a wider debate about this, rather than relying on brave souls such as Alice Thompson to call out the problem?

November 1, 2021

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