Recruiting, developing and retaining talented staff is vital to the running of any business.

Mark Allen is chief executive of Unite Students

I find it incredible that so many businesses - the property sector in particular - limit their potential by ignoring, or at least not properly tackling, the issue of diversity in their workforces.

Whenever I ask senior managers whether they think it is a good idea to encourage diversity through recruitment, the answer is always the same: “We want to hire the best candidate for the job.”

So why are the best candidates overwhelmingly white and male? The experts call this unconscious, or cognitive, bias; our personal assessment of what constitutes the ‘best’ candidate is influenced by the internal wiring of our brains. Of course, on occasion it could just be prejudice, but either way awareness is the starting point for doing something about it.

There are some startling examples of unconscious bias. For example, a 2009 study by the Department for Work and Pensions found that when sending out fake CVs of candidates with identical qualifications and experience to a range of employers, the candidates with the white British-sounding names received a positive response on one in nine occasions. For ethnic minority names, the rate was one in 16.

And this unconscious bias also leads to some of the more familiar headlines such as the 28% gender pay gap revealed by the most recent Property Week salary survey.

At Unite Students, this is something we have been thinking seriously about for some time, and not purely through some sense of moral justice. It also makes sound business sense; we have a customer base of nearly 50,000 students, of which nearly 60% are female and more than a third are from overseas.

In a world in which businesses live or die by their ability to understand and respond to their customers’ needs, a senior management team that more closely reflects the diversity of our customer base will make better decisions more often.

Although diversity is about more than gender and ethnicity, it is striking that only 23% of our senior management team is female and less than 10% come from an ethnic minority background. This compares with 49% and 22% respectively when looking at our frontline teams.

We need to do something about this, and I think the wider property industry would be similarly well served by tackling the issue.

What gets measured gets done, and so we have declared a target to have a senior management team that is over 40% female by 2025. Ultimately I would like to see this reach 50%.

This will influence the way we think about all elements of our people practices - assessing performance, training and development, recruitment, working practices and policies, and so on - and I am certain that by tackling gender diversity first, other forms of workforce diversity will follow more naturally. Not only that, but I am also confident we will be a better business as a result.

Mark Allan is chief executive of Unite Students