The Sneetches by Dr Seuss is a parody of prejudice and diversity – both current property sector preoccupations.
In the story, published in 1953, there are two flocks of silly birds named Sneetches, one with stars on their bellies and the other plain-fronted. The Star-Bellies see the star as marking their superior status. So the Plain-Bellies imprint stars on their bellies. The Star-Bellies then remove the now-common stars. The newly starred group does the same – and so on “until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew whether this one was that one… or that one was this one… or which one was what one… or what one was who”.
I am a Sneetch. You are a Sneetch. We are all Sneetches. All of us are guilty of, at the very least, unconscious discrimination against those outside our sex, race, age, class, creed or sexual orientation group. My Sneetch-like prejudices include shouting at the TV when seeing black actors cast in historically inappropriate roles, grumping at the female commentariat’s licence to belittle men but never women and bemoaning the ascendancy of TV heroines.
Coming closer to the subject matter of this column, I am guilty of grumbling about the promotion of women (in every sense) while knowing that the sector needs to diversify.
A glassy-eyed stare and “it’s our, turn now” is the female response when I timidly raise the point that men might have just complaint. Last week, the chairman of a very large property concern shrugged his shoulders after saying they were forced into female-only shortlists for senior posts: “What can you do?”
Split the difference
Well, what can you do? For a start, read The Sneetches. Not just the book but also a speech of the same title given in May 2016 by the chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane. He asserts that the reason we are all Sneetches is rooted in the need of primitive tribes to protect themselves.
“Groups become an important source of pride and self-esteem for the individuals attached to them. To enhance their own self-image, members often then systematically exaggerate differences with other groups, while emphasising similarities.” Think football fans.
Haldane is not against diversity. Quite the opposite. “Diversity helps the collective far exceed the sum of its individual parts. Diversity is synergy. This has been found at almost every scale of social grouping, from small communities and organisations to large economies and nation states.”
Diversity is good for business. Why? Ten men of similar background are prone to ‘groupthink’. “What do we think chaps?” Nods all round. No challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy. Ten women? Just as bad. Now, take five of each sex and ensure at least two are from different social or racial backgrounds. A few will likely say: “You may think that, I think this.” More argument, yes, but possibly better outcomes.
Also, take care not to alienate younger men. The push towards gender balance can and does make them grumpy. Most think ‘fair enough’, but not if they feel they personally are being treated unfairly.
If the above sounds wiser than usual, it is because I took advice on the subject from Jane Hollinshead – a fan of Haldane’s Sneetches, a wise woman and an adviser to a number of blue-chip and advisory real estate firms.
“Don’t alienate older men either,” says Hollinshead. “An average 55-year-old real estate ‘lifer’ will have experienced two recessions. They can add as much value as any proptech millennial skilled in the ‘knowledge economy’. Leaving out those with grey hair leads down a slippery slope to a different type of groupthink. Becoming a diverse business needs more than ‘unconscious bias’ training courses.
“Shift the narrative from political correctness towards the language of business. Because what diversity is about, at least in business terms, is edging closer to reflecting your customer base.”
Edging being the word. Righting gender balance alone can take a decade. One last grumble from me: diversify first, then boast if you must. The field abounds with those who see the diversity star as just one more Sneetch mark to add to badges honouring their commitment to sustainability and health and safety at work. Another press release mentioning the D-word in this context and I’ll Sneetch on you.
Peter Bill is a journalist and author of Planet Property