In Conversation with Women in Property | Amanda Steele

March 7, 2023

International Women's Day (or IWD) is right around the corner, and this year at CIM, we’re giving a shout out to the women shaping the future of property. IWD is a global day dedicated to celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. We’re inspired by the strong women at the helm of some of the industry’s leading firms, but we recognise there still exists a frustrating lack of female representation, and we have a long way to go.

A study by EY and the Property Council of Australia (PCA) revealed that 63% of women still think that attitudes towards women leaders in the industry need to change, while women still hold only 26% of senior leadership positions. Clearly, there’s a lot still to be done.

As an industry, and indeed a community, we need to address gender equity in terms of recognition, promotion, and pathways, and learn to do more to advance women in leadership and technical roles. To this end, the CIM team believes it is imperative to spark robust conversations. In our IWD Q&A blog series, we sat down with some highly successful female leaders to gather their insights.

This article features CBRE’s Amanda Steele. Amanda has navigated corporate, government and not-for-profit sectors as a strategist with a demonstrated ability to galvanise teams and drive compelling organisational change. Amanda joined CBRE in 2013 after 14 years working in the sustainability space. In her current role as Executive Managing Director of CBRE’s Pacific Property Management business, Amanda oversees the management and operation of over 2,000 properties and 19,000 tenants. She leads a team of 1,050 property management professionals responsible for the 28.3 million square metres under management across Australia and New Zealand. Named Telstra’s New South Wales Businesswoman of the Year for 2019,  Amanda is deeply connected across local and global networks ensuring CBRE’s clients benefit from forward-thinking and innovative property solutions.

We are grateful for Amanda’s time, and learned a lot from our conversation. Here are some of Amanda’s insightful observations, followed by the complete Q&A.

CIM X Amanda Steele: Key Insights 

  • When it comes to women in property, the conscious bias is well seen and well understood, but there’s still an unconscious bias. People still find it “too risky” to put a woman into “that job.”
  • The past three years have been especially difficult, with people playing the “safe game” when it comes to senior level executive appointments. There’s been a tendency to revert back to a “familiar similar type” rather than go with different thinkers, which possibly limits innovation in the sector.
  • There are some really great female leaders out there, but there are also entire sectors of the industry that haven't seen the transition yet.
  • There's a complacency that needs to make way for intentionality. Leaders, teams, and committees in property firms need to monitor data and focus on building great diversity, inclusion, and equity.

CIM X Amanda Steele: Q&A

1. Career

Q: Tell us about your career progression so far. Why did you decide to join the property industry and what’s kept you here?

A: There’s that scientific experiment with spiders; spiders have beautiful, geometric, measured web patterns, and when they’re given caffeine, they adopt this completely scattered, crazy approach to continue creating a web. I'm like the spider on caffeine - that's how I'd describe my career progression. 

I actually studied international politics and public policy, but the most relevant part of this background was my thesis on leadership. I still keep going back to the studies I did on the subject of leadership.

I didn't look at property and go “…this is where I want to go to.” I had a very meandering career to get here, but I'm so happy I did. I came to property after a long career in sustainability. I had worked in government, not-for-profit, finance, and insurance before property, and while they had all felt very intangible, I love the tangibility of property. It directly impacts people’s lives. All of us have experience in property.

“Once I got in, I really loved the passion of the people in the industry, and the pace at which the whole sector runs.”

I enjoyed how creative the sector was. It's interesting because a lot of people don't see property as a creative space unless you're an architect, but actually, property is about continually solving problems, which is exactly what my sustainability training had been about. Working in and around development was fascinating; I learned how multiple factors contributed to an ecosystem that created a great community, a great office, or a great retail space. It really grabbed me.

2. Words to Go By 

Q: What challenges have you faced professionally, and what advice do you have for younger women to help them navigate these?

A: I've definitely faced challenges early on, and I still do. There are challenges not just around the general day-to-day of the job, but also challenges around being a female in a male-dominated industry. While it's still very much the case that we've made some grounds inside some areas of property, there's still a long way to go. 

My advice for young women is to be really clear and confident on what their strengths are, and to learn how to articulate them. So it’s not about saying “I'm a good person, and I know property”, but it’s more like “I'm a good problemsolver, and I can do strategy. I'm pragmatic, and I'm comfortable having difficult conversations”. Have that ability to articulate quickly and repeatedly to people that will listen to you, or to people that need to hear you. 

3. From Equality to Equity

Q: The IWD 2023 #EmbraceEquity campaign theme seeks to get the world talking about why "equal opportunities are no longer enough". Equality focuses on providing all genders with equal opportunities. Yet, women often require more than a level playing field. What are some ways that this could play out in the professional world of property? How can we embrace a culture that actively promotes and supports women, as we move from equality to equity? 

A: I really love the theme. There's a real intentionality around equity, and I think it's perfect. 

Equality sounds like a balancing up of things that happen organically, whereas equity is much more intentional and requires more systemic levers, goals and drivers.” 

To drive equity in property, I think the way women can push that as individuals is by calling out inequity when they see it. That can mean asking “would you ask that question of a man, would you ask that question of your colleagues?” or “I'm surprised to hear you speak to me like that, because I haven't heard you speak to Chris like that.” Really be very intentional around pulling out that equity.

And I think at an organisational level, equity needs to be data-focused. We need clear systems and we need to identify people who can call out unconscious biases. Conscious bias is well seen and often addressed, but people subconsciously might still think it’s too risky to put a woman into a certain kind of job, thinking “she doesn't have that experience” or “she's not great with numbers.” That kind of inequity leads to perverse outcomes.

4. Leveraging Technology

Q: The United Nations is observing this year’s IWD under the theme, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. Do you have any advice for companies looking to empower women to join the digital revolution?

A: You need to look at what the general skills are in an actual sphere of influence. I did some work a while ago with a great company on a strengths-finding assessment in personalities and found that a group of young Indigenous female graduates were actually best suited in cyber security in one of the big banks. They didn't have experience in cybersecurity. But they knew what the strengths were, and how they would translate into that sphere. I think we need to see more of exactly what skills you need in the tech sector and the kind of training and pathways that can get women into those roles. 

Further, I think we use too much jargon in the tech sector. When you’re using terms like digital engineering or data analytics, you need to know what it is exactly that you want. Do you want someone who can really understand how systems work? Do you want someone who can unpack the pragmatics around it? We've got to normalise the language, so that we open up the opportunities for more women. We’ve all been in those meetings where people are talking in jargon and you're like, “Oh, I don't want to ask the question.” 

5. New Pathways 

Q: How can the industry create more pathways to encourage women to join property?

I think we've become quite complacent in property. The pathways come from intentionality around equity. For instance, women are now good at property management (which is the area I'm in). Once we saw women in management roles, we got okay with it. But what about the big gaps in our industry? In commercial property we do a terrible job of capital markets and sales. Agents are mainly men - the majority of them. And yet every client we speak to, every leader we speak to, is saying “Where are the women? Why can't we find more women that want to do this work?” 

“You’re just not asking the right questions of the right people, and I think it's laziness. You're just not looking for smart women who can sell big, big buildings - because there's a lot of them out there.” 

6. Industry Initiatives 

Q: What is the industry doing well right now to encourage equal opportunity, and what needs improvement?

A: I think the industry bodies are doing a great job. I think the Property Council is amazing, and I think the work they're doing around Champions of Change is fantastic. As far as the wider industry goes, you can see there are real pockets of change. There are some really great female COOs out there. But the gaps are in particular sectors of the industry that just haven't seen the transition. I'm quite horrified about the past 2-3 years where it seems we just don't want to take the ‘risk’ of women in senior roles. We haven't seen any female CEOs appointed to the top 200.

There's a significant gap in senior-level executive appointments, and I think that's us reverting back to “type”, playing the safe game. It’s about “I know him, I know what he looks like - he looks like me... I'll employ him, rather than her; she's a different thinker…”

More than any other time in my life, and possibly in a lot of people's history, we need different thinkers. I think that we're at risk of limiting the innovation in the sector. More women in senior roles - that's where property needs to step up. 

7. Women in Leadership Roles

Q: How might we improve ratios in senior leadership roles?

A: I've never seen any business strategy work unless you have a target that you're working towards. I don't know why we're so scared of following the same kind of business strategy approach for women in senior roles than we are for any other shift in delivery that we want within business. 

Set the target, or “quota”, if you will. I'm really comfortable with that. If you set a metric, and it's tied to your performance (and financial performance), people will work hard at it.

8. Women in Technical Roles 

Q: How can we encourage more women to join technical roles, and nurture more FMs, more mechanical contractors, more engineers etc…?

A: Within CBRE, we have launched Femme FM, founded by one of our brilliant female FMs in Canberra, who identified a need to bring our women FMs together and create a support and knowledge-sharing network across our region. We just held our first session, and it was attended by Emma Buckland, CBRE’s Global President of Property Management – as a business line and as a company, we’re really behind it.

We've got 89 women FMs in the Pacific, which is a pretty high number compared to what we see in other sectors of the industry, but we need to do a lot more. This group is set up to celebrate our female FMs and look at how we can get more women into the sector. Turns out what women really love about the role was that they’re problem solving every day, and it's never the same day twice. 

“What it takes is one woman in that role who can then be the face of FM, and encourage other women into that role.”

So you can expect to see the great female FMs that work in my business profiled strongly externally, because it is a great sector for women to get into, and I don't think a lot of women realise just what incredible career opportunities there are. 

9. Role Models 

Q: Which women leaders in property do you look up to and why?

A: When I look around the sector, you've got leaders who are just completely faultless in their leadership style. Deborah Coakley from Dexus has had such an amazing career and is now driving the business so strongly. Carmel Hourigan has had an amazing career and now at Charter Hall is just striking as an effective leader. She’s a commercial leader, but with real compassion and humility, and a great sense of humor. I think they're the women that I really look to as role models. They’re those that aren't afraid to be themselves. They’re the women that are not embarrassed talking about themselves personally, are comfortable talking about their family, and are doing really hard, good, commercial work.

10. Learning From Your Organisation 

Q: What are some great examples where CBRE has empowered females?

A: At CBRE we have really great diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have leaders, teams, and committees that focus on that. I think the most important thing that you can do in this space is to really monitor the data. You need to ask, “Where are we slipping? How do we adjust it?” 

“We've got a lot of women's leadership programs and training programs and graduate programs. But the best thing that we can do and have done is put women into senior roles, because if you don't see it, you don't become it.”

I haven't had to do much to encourage women into my business, because they see that there's women at the top, and that they are doing well. We’ve established that ours is an organisation that will support women. It’s really that simple.

CIM Team
March 7, 2023