Pat Gunne is Chief Executive Officer of Green REIT plc, the publicly-quoted property company which has a portfolio of commercial property interests. The company has €1.4bn of property assets and is based in Dublin. Pat is a former European Director of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial estate agency.
This interview was conducted by Florence Stanley in September 2017.
Why has the progression of women to senior roles been so slow?
That depends on the time context you are considering. I read a very good book called Sapiens, which is the history of the human being. It was because of the hunter gatherer background that muscle was predominant to intelligence so that’s how the male became powerful than the female.
Now we have moved on a world where physical strength is no longer as important as it was. It’s more about the mental strength. That’s why finally in some parts of the world we’ve got this race for equality. So in the context of the last hundreds or thousands of years, progress has been incredibly slow but in the last 3-5 years in the western world, I think progress has been very rapid.
We are still faced with silly things like Saudi Arabia voting that women can drive, which shows that there are parts of the world that are still incredibly far behind the developed world. Again you have to take it in the context that a lot of the rules were made by men in the interest of men. It has taken an awful long time to rewind some of those stupid rules, some religious based, some power based, some financial based. But I think that finally we are at an inflection point in some parts of the world.
Are there other factors at play?
Yes. First of all, there is the cultural and family background. Up to now, in Ireland, UK and the States, traditionally the female has been the person to make the career sacrifice in the interest of the family and that was taken for granted.
That’s no longer the case. I’ve got two girls and a boy and it’s in my interest to get this right. I think by the time the kids are my age a lot of this will be rectified. You can’t change who bears the child but you can change how the responsibilities are shared once a baby is born. That’s something that is changing from a cultural perspective.
I also believe it’s about challenging the status quo where the predominant forces around a management board and management team have been men. Look at Mad Men from the 1960s and 1970s, it’s not that long ago. But it looks totally archaic and ridiculous.
We are at the point where we need positive discrimination to adjust the gender imbalance. You would hope that the corporate world would be at the leading edge. But I think, in the likes of the government, there has been a huge amount of progress. We have a female at the top of Europe (Angela Merkel) and of the IMF (Christine Lagarde).
As a CEO of a property business, what’s your experience of gender balance at senior levels within the sector?
I struggle with the idea that there is not more equality in our industry than others. Around half the people in my company are female and in senior roles, in investments, marketing, HR, research and so on. We deal with a lot of senior women in other companies. There is still an imbalance but that is probably down to the number of females actually in the industry and what proportion of those go all the way through and what proportion have an interest in staying in the workforce when they have families.
I see my wife who is trying to create a path for our two girls where she believes that up to now there hasn’t really been a clear path for females beyond the point of having children. I would hope that our girls will see the option of going through (to more senior roles) and being in an equal environment. I think the chances are that there will be full equality by that stage because of the pace of change. We are going through this transition period. I expect my views would be different from someone 20 years my elder and someone 20 years younger.
While there is much happening on this agenda with larger companies, is there anything we can help smaller companies with to get more women through to the so-called C Suite?
I think it is awareness. I believe it is up to all leaders to affect that change, which is a very positive change. If you take this at a very simplistic level, gender diversity has proven to be more successful in business than mono gender. So, if that is proven well then it’s incumbent on any person or team to ensure that gender balance is reached and the diversity is achieved.
Do you believe women lack confidence, that they are not as gutsy as men and that this is what is holding them back?
At the top table of any organisation that is leading an industry, no matter what your gender is, you have got to be pretty strong for your view to be heard around the table. Confidence is almost essential to get around that top table, but I don’t think that is necessarily linked to gender.
I know a lot of very confident women and a lot of very un-confident men. I do think that it is unfair that, as a woman, you have to work harder to get to the same position. But I think it will be inconceivable in 20 years’ time. The next generation will look on that as being totally weird and stupid.
What about the work life balance and whether men are as focused on this as women?
The sector that has got to grips with that the most is the IT sector and it’s no coincidence that the IT sector is attracting the most intelligent people. I believe it’s down to what country you live in, what sector you are in and what age you are.
Sometimes work life balance is thought of in isolation of the reality of the economic situation, the environment and financial situation you are in as a corporate. It is much easier to achieve a work life balance in a boom than in a bust. You can have all the aspirations you want but, in reality, sometimes your time is not your own and you cannot allocate your time between work and non-work in the way that you would like to or aspire to.
There has been a lot of controversy about gender pay gaps and it was recently reported that among surveyors there’s a 5% difference in pay between men and women doing the same jobs. What’s your view on this?
I can’t even understand how something like that could happen. Now 5% is a difficult number to get your head around in the context of whether it’s really about gender or whether there is something else at play.
Remuneration in most corporates is a very sensitive issue. It’s an issue that tends to have more than one person involved in the decision-making process. The bigger the corporate, the more likely you have committees at work. I have never worked in an environment where this is an issue. Maybe it’s down to men being more forthcoming on demands or females not being as demanding. It could come back to confidence.
What’s your view on research (published by Science magazine based on an extensive survey) that from the age of six girls do not believe they are as intelligent as boys?
That is extraordinary. That is a responsibility of the parents and the education system. But I think first and foremost it is the parents. They have to instil the confidence and can’t show any differentiation between a boy and a girl. You would hope that the schools would be advocating the same principles.
Confidence is down to what you learn from your parents, the environment that you are in, the education system, and also the experiences that you go through — and also blind luck. You can go into a gymnastics event and come first and you are the most confident person in the planet and you can go in for a rugby challenge and not even be picked and get your confidence kicked. A lot of it is down to the context you are operating in.
What do you believe senior business leaders need to do to improve gender balances at senior levels?
I think that there needs to be positive discrimination first and foremost in boardrooms because that is where a lot of the activity at operational management level can be influenced. If you look at the boardrooms, most of them are dominated by men. I think that you need to consciously aim to get the diversity right.
I don’t agree that you can just leave it and it will happen naturally. You need to be positively discriminating to achieve that gender balance. That can happen over a relatively short period, say 5-7 years and then it will never be considered again. You have to force the situation now to make sure we are not having this conversation on 10-20 years’ time.
Is there anything else that needs to be done to further female leadership?
Awareness is key. The more this is discussed, the more it is measured and the more it is celebrated the better because then it is seen as something successful. And to celebrate something you need to benchmark it, monitor it and then communicate it. So, I think it is something that should be treated like any other objective: measure it and celebrate it.
Males are dads and dads have daughters so we are working in the same direction. Maybe there is something in the messaging, to get it away from it being a competitive game of men versus women and get the men thinking more about this in the context of their daughters and the evolution of change.
If you can twist the mindset to make it more inclusive as opposed to being about women’s rights, men against women, change will be achieved a lot quicker.