It’s amazing that it only became illegal to discriminate against people identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual in the workplace in 2003. The property industry’s own landmark moment came in 2011, when Freehold was launched as a networking forum for UK real estate LGBTQI+ professionals.
It all started when co-founders David Mann, a surveyor and partner at Tuffin Ferraby Taylor, and Saleem Fazal, a lawyer and partner at Taylor Wessing, were working for the same client and met with their respective other halves (now husbands) in a bar. They acknowledged that as experienced real estate professionals they were hiding something important about their lives.
The property industry, they accepted, was not a place to acknowledge your sexuality unless you were straight, which meant that a lot of people must be feeling less than fulfilled at work, so they bravely decided to do something about it.
Freehold was launched with an event at Taylor Wessing in September 2011. Only 10 to 15 people were expected to turn up, but 60-plus people attended. David and Saleem realised they were tapping into something much bigger that was clearly needed in the industry.
My experience as a gay woman in the property industry has been mixed. I was in the closet until I met my now wife of 23 years. Since 2000, I have worked at Residential Land, whose founder and CEO, Bruce Ritchie, a straight ally, has co-hosted Freehold networking events with me. The Residential Land ethos is that we all have something to contribute and differences are embraced and championed.
There is still a long way to go and language is key within a working environment: it is good to be aware of who is around you and the impact your words may have. This includes social platforms and WhatsApp groups, where ‘banter’ can spill over into something damaging to individuals and company culture – discrimination in any form is wrong.
This has become so important to companies across the board that many have created diversity and inclusion teams to work with HR.
The tide began to turn for Freehold in the middle of the last decade, helped by laws offering protection and equality for people identifying as LGBTQI+. For the big agencies, the penny began to drop around 2015. I was worried in the early days about tokenism, but supporters such as Knight Frank, JLL, Cushman & Wakefield, Savills, CBRE, British Land, Landsec, Shaftesbury, Grosvenor and many others have proven to be very solid. But I can only speak for London – the regions still have a way to go.
Over the next 10 years, we would like to do more for women members (a minority within a minority in real estate) and I am currently organising a women-focused event with allies. Freehold has 1,000 members and is constantly growing. If you’d like to host an event, contact Freehold directly.
But for now, let’s raise a glass to Freehold at 10. A 10th anniversary gala was held yesterday, with profits going to LandAid. The industry has come a long way in the past 10 years, but let’s keep up the progress over the next 10.
Emma Whitby-Smith is head of investments at Residential Land