What is it like being both black and gay working in property?
First, it's important to acknowledge that the industry is largely unrepresentative of minorities, it doesn't take a diversity equality and inclusion (DEI) survey to establish the predominant demographic of the industry: middle-aged, white men.
As a minority, it became apparent that without an existing network of industry connections getting a foot in the door can be extremely difficult, but not impossible.
Introduction to the property profession
If I've learned anything it’s that your character trumps characteristics.
In the plot twist year 2020, which also happened to be the year I graduated, Covid-19 introduced a climate of uncertainty, unemployment and unattractive graduate prospects.
Despite the adage 'beggars can't be choosers' it was incredibly important for me to find a company that my values align with, particularly concerning DEI . When going through the process of JLL's graduate assessment process I remained true to myself and offered my biggest asset - my character.
Despite being surrounded by primarily white and straight peers throughout university and work experience, I had the choice of viewing my differing characteristics as a disadvantage or as an opportunity to shake things up. I figured with little to no black and gay representation to follow in the footsteps of, I would carve my own path which one-day others could follow, as opposed to feeling lost.
Navigating the industry as an ethnic minority
Thankfully, I don't need to come out as black, that's a 'speaks for itself' trait. I would say though, that the noticeable lack of black people in senior positions or the industry in general, speaks volumes.
During my time in office leasing , I've attended many office launches whereby agents showcase newly refurbished space coming to the market. I can safely say not one single agent has ever been rude, dismissive or exclusive in any way shape or form, however, the lack of diverse representation among the cohort is eye-opening.
I've been fortunate enough to attend the Place North West Summer Party and the North West Insider's Awards. Admittedly, being in a room with hundreds of primarily white men did make me feel somewhat alien. Again, not because anyone made me feel a type of way, but instead I became acutely aware that simply there just aren’t many people like me in the industry and that can be a lonely prospect at times.
On that point, if you are white and notice an ethnic minority person alone at an event or in the office please don't underestimate the value gained from introducing yourself and getting them involved, you just never know how excluded or out of place someone may be feeling inside.
Being gay in the industry
Flipping the DEI coin from heads to tails, being gay in the industry is unique also. Sadly, research from Vodafone found that 41% of LGBT+ people aged 18-25 people go back into the closet when entering the workforce. I couldn't begin to imagine reverting to this isolating lifestyle.
To give context around what it feels like to be closeted, picture being trapped in the 'chokey' from Matilda, a coffin-like box with lethal sharp spikes (detrimental self-beliefs) that prevents you from ever feeling comfortable, safe or free. A part of you desperately wants to escape but are fearful of who and what resides on the other side; the unpredictability doesn’t feel worth the risk.
The worst thing about being trapped in this personalised hell is you watch the world go by, witnessing others living freely and effortlessly in a seemingly unattainable lifestyle of liberation. The closet is an analogy for suffocating, fighting to survive in dark terrifying confinement while outwardly appearing as a closed ‘closet’.
Is it worth it? Well, I can speak from my experience only. I refuse to let my sexuality be a secret or something to be ashamed of. In fact, I was open to my team about being gay on day one while out for lunch. Not because I felt it needed to be said, but I thought a casual ‘outing’ will make it easier for others to open up in the future.
Perhaps my favourite reaction was a conversation with a client while out after a football event. He asked if I had a partner to which I nonchalantly said “no, I haven’t had a boyfriend in years actually”. His response? Was a heart-warming amount of support, appreciation and expressed respect for me coming out without hesitation or hiding. Again, when attending the Office Agents Society awards, an agent said to me “it’s been a breath of fresh air” having me come into the industry and he wishes the industry was more diverse. That was the highlight of my evening, even after humorously winning the Office Agent of the Year Award! (not bad for a minority, ay).
Experiencing such genuine appreciation makes me optimistic. I acknowledge that homophobia and racism exist within the industry but as a black and openly gay graduate, I couldn’t feel more comfortable being unapologetically my authentic self.
Through expressing myself and initiating much-needed conversations I've mitigated the feeling of isolation and found community in the empathy of my peers. My biggest advantage is that I’m lucky to work for a company as forward-thinking as JLL and I applaud the warm culture the Manchester office has cultivated, I think there’s much to learn from the environment of people I have the absolute pleasure to work alongside each day.
Call to action
My final thoughts are to encourage majorities to activate thought-provoking conversations with minority peers. Don't be afraid to ask someone a question about their background and experience. In a politically correct world, you may think it's better to not ask at risk of being offensive. While I appreciate the sentiment, the biggest risk is being misunderstood; how can we close a gap without first building a bridge?
I encourage you to get involved in your own company’s internal employee resource group (ERG). You don’t need to be black or gay to become an ally, your support is all that is needed.
To my minority peers, I would say something similar. Please don't be afraid to be open about your thoughts, feelings, struggles and experiences to your colleagues. More importantly, do not underestimate the impact you can have as an individual in your workplace in bridging the gaps. Better yet, explore the support systems readily available and be open about your apprehensions/struggles.
Moving forward, let’s collectively make a conscious effort to talk more about the taboo to foster greater inclusivity in the workplace. If you were in a ‘chokey’ paradigm, would you want people to help you escape?
I warmly encourage anyone who is struggling or would benefit from asking open questions to reach out.
Remember character trumps characteristics.
Graduate Surveyor, JLL