Why so few leading women?
MAIN IMAGE: Linda Erasmus, international brand manager Fine & Country; Yael Geffen, CEO Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty; Andrica Lekganyane, Area Group Property Services; Xoliswa Tini, principal Xoliswa Tini Properties.
It is the year 2020. Why do we still see so few women in positions of executive leadership in the South African property sector?
The local real estate industry has had some exemplary women like Aïda Geffen and Pam Golding who built up property legacies that continue to this day. Yet despite all the efforts made to promote women, the executive leadership in this industry remains largely male even though more than half of all estate agents are women.
Why is this? Are women still held back or are most women just too scared or to bashful to put themselves forward for positions of leadership? It is a fact that it is more challenging for a woman to find the right balance between managing her roles of being a mother with a successful career – could this be another reason why women are reluctant to climb the corporate ladder in the tough real estate or property sector?
In honour of Women’s Month Property Professional asked some of today’s top leading women in the property industry for their take on the lack of women in positions of executive leadership in the local real estate industry.
In 2005, award-winning real estate principal Linda Erasmus accompanied Malcolm Lindley, founder member and CEO of Fine & Country Limited to a Fine & Country licensee meeting in London. There were over 250 licensees and guild members … and she was the only woman in the room. “It dawned on me how male-orientated the British business sector was in the year 2005,” says the newly appointed International Brand Manager and former CEO of Fine & Country South Africa. “Bringing about change in society is not easy and the emancipation of women in the workplace is a cultural mindset change.”
South Africa post-1994 has done a lot to advance women in positions of leadership. However, in real estate the executives of most major brands are often second-generation appointments says Erasmus. Some of these brands were established by great women. However, few women are willing to make the great sacrifice it takes to have a family and build a national business says Erasmus. “It is a very lonely mountain to climb as a woman,” she says. Erasmus was the first South African woman to launch an international brand successfully in South Africa and she continues to serve on the board of Fine & Country SA.
Sadly, her experience is also that women are mostly overlooked when it comes to involving them on the boards of the leading industry representative bodies. This is something that alarms her, but she adds that she is feeling positive that women will receive more recognition with the younger generation: “The good news is that the younger generation coming in is more perceptive to a mixed team and strong female leadership which I believe will improve generation by generation.”
Erasmus lists the following as important to achieve success in this industry:
Time management – It is not a ‘nine to five’ job and the boss is not always nearby.
Study and learn from successful estate agents
Patience and perseverance – crucial as success doesn’t come overnight
Be excellent in the small steps – think of your career as a ladder with ten steps to the top. If you are mediocre in step one, you may proceed only to step three. That is a fact.
One of the signs of changing attitudes towards women in leadership positions would be the appointment of young and dynamic Vuyiswa Mutshekwane first as CEO of the Institute of Black Property Professionals of South Africa (SAIBPP) and recently also as chairman of the new representative body for the property sector, the National Property Practitioners Council (NPPC).
Another young trailblazer on the current property scene is Yael Geffen. When she took over the reins as CEO of her family’s real estate franchise in 2017, she was not only one of the youngest CEOs in the industry but also the only woman to head one of the top four real estate groups in South Africa. As the granddaughter of property doyen Aïda Geffen and with both parents, Lew and Sandy Geffen, co-founders of Lew Geffen Estates in 1982, one could say property is in her blood. Yet Geffen says there are progressive male leaders who have embraced her while for some she has remained ‘the girl on the playground’. Her late brother Barak, who was also her mentor and the former CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty, taught her “that the most profound purpose we have as human beings is to transform our wounds into helping others”.
One of the most important lessons she learned while living and working in New York, was that a woman doesn’t need to try to become one of the guys to get ahead. “I realized that my natural attributes as a woman along with my experience and skills would take me a lot further.” Geffen says what holds most women back is that they hold themselves back out of fear of being turned down and fear of failure. “Don’t be afraid to stand out as the only woman in a room as it can be a distinct advantage in terms of being heard and remembered. Don’t underestimate the importance of being your own advocate and don’t be afraid to put yourself forward to ensure your colleagues and superiors know who you are and what you are capable of.” Lastly, she advises women to show recognition of those that supported them along the way.
For property entrepreneur and businesswoman Andrica Lekganyane it is amazing that the question of female representation on executive level is still at the top of the transformation agenda when we have such great policies and reputable industry experts to address these issues. “The industry has a lot of qualified female property professionals who are stuck in junior or administrative positions and are never empowered to and/or afforded equal opportunities as their counterparts,” she says.
However, Lekganyane says women must not be discouraged by the current transformation challenges they face in the property sector. “They should empower themselves by enrolling for property qualifications. No project is too big to be managed by a woman, we need woman who are courageous in this field. Women who are builders and always willing to develop others.”
As a former teacher one of her greatest joys is to share her knowledge with the women who join her real estate franchise, Xoliswa Tini Properties – the first black real estate business to franchise. Over 17 years she went from a one-woman enterprise, run from the lounge in her home in East London, to a franchise with estate agents operating in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng. The overall business profile is 70% women and three of her managers in the Eastern Cape are women.
She says it isn’t surprising that we have so few women as role models. “Real estate is no different to other sectors of our economy. It is a man’s world,” she says. “But,” she adds, “that is not to say that women shouldn’t be thinking differently about how they should be managing their various roles.” One of her four pillars to success is to balance the responsibilities of motherhood with running her own business is her ability to delegate. She found trusted helpers to help with the tasks that needed to be completed at home and this gave her the time and space to focus on building up her business. “The ability to delegate at home and the office allows us to have a balanced and successful lifestyle,” says Xoliswa.
Her other three pillars are:
Perseverance: This is a tough business. Know when you choose this industry that it isn’t going to be easy, but it will be rewarding.
Being teachable: This is a good quality in any business. Learn from others and about new technology.
Confidence: You learn fast that there is a lot of rejection in real estate, but it is not about you. It is just business.
The old English proverb “All good things come to those who wait” was adapted by Abe Lincoln to read ‘good things come to those who wait, but only what’s left from those who hustle!’ Tini favours a Xhosa saying with a similar meaning ‘You don’t get cattle by sleeping’.
It may be more challenging for a woman to achieve success and be recognised in the property industry for her skills and expertise – but the composure of the real estate boardrooms will only change if more women are bold enough to step up and let themselves be heard and seen.