Male senior executives within the property industry have a crucial role in promoting gender diversity throughout the sector’s workforce, a leader within the sector says.

Property Council of Australia (ACT Division) executive director Catherine Carter said the notion of gender diversity as a driver of business success is not well understood within the sector and that the importance of engaging senior executives – most of whom are men – about a holistic understanding of the importance of diversity in terms of practical business outcomes cannot be understated.

“Diversity tends to be seen through the lens of ‘widening the talent pool,’” Carter said. “But we need business leaders to understand that (it’s) about gaining access to a broader range of skills and viewpoints – which is essential if we are to respond to the preferences and demands of modern consumers, workers and investors.”

Carter’s comments come amid growing levels of concern that the property sector is falling behind in efforts to maximise the potential of women in the workforce.

An Ernst & Young report release last year found that while women accounted for almost half of the workforce of major property and construction companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and slightly more than half of all professional positions, more than nine in 10 CEO positions and around three quarters of managerial positions within the sector remain occupied by men.

The comments also come amid growing evidence of nexus between gender diversity and financial performance: one study of 160 real estate investment trusts, for instance, found that those with at least one woman on the board for more than three years outperformed their peers by an annual average total shareholder return of 2.6 per cent – a figure which shot up to 3.4 per cent when the period was extended to five years.

Partly as a response, the sector is ramping up efforts for change. In September last year, for example, the Council launched its Property Male Champions of Change program – a property sector specific version of a broader effort initiated by then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick in 2010 aimed at engaging senior executives in dialogue about the importance of female representation in organisational leadership. Under that program, managing directors and chief executive officers of around 20 influential companies such as Lend Lease, Stockland, Mirvac and Jones Lang LaSalle will engage in active dialogue about how the sector can improve opportunities for women.

Carter’s sentiments regarding the importance of engaging male (and female) senior managers about this topic are shared by others within the sector.

National Association of Women in Construction chief executive officer Laurice Temple, for example, said change needs to be ‘owned’ at the top, and that men – having largely been behind the design of systems and frameworks under which business and society largely operates today – have a central role in driving any lasting fundamental and systematic change which takes place.

Asked about the industry’s challenges in getting men to see themselves as opposed to women as agents of change, Carter said it was imperative to present the data showing the relationship between gender diversity and business success and to demonstrate that diversity supports more productive teams and more profitable organisations.

She added that it is also important to look at efforts within other male dominated sectors. The defence force – where Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison AO has put in place active programs to attract more women and promote more opportunities for women to advance into leadership roles – is a case in point.

Carter is confident men throughout the industry will embrace the idea of delivering meaningful change.

“As our industry is in the business of building communities, we’re already focused on the legacy we leave behind,” she said. “For that reason, I think the men in our industry will embrace change – and help drive a diversity agenda that builds stronger businesses and an enduring legacy.”