Is The Property Industry Sexist?

Men and Women
Image Credit: Brian Henry Thompson


That’s the question I pondered to myself, as I sat in an early morning trades people traffic jam.  White vans rammed to the rafters with men surrounded me.  In my mind, I was sat atop a shiny black Toyota Hilux with chrome spots.  Obviously.

Bleary eyed with the early start, dressed in clothes a tramp would feel proud of, and days old dirt and paint ground into finger nails that no amount of Cillit Bang will remove.

We all looked the same really.

Apart from one difference.

As I looked around the sea of vans; I was the only woman.  Up far, far ahead I spied an elegant, executive style dressed woman driving a Mercedes convertible who you could tell had never picked up a can of paint in her life.

Swatches.  That’s probably about all her dainty finger nails would be good for.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I am very much a ‘girly girl’ – I love red nail polish, heels and a frock.  But, they’re not suitable attire for working on a property renovation.

And it made me smile when I reflected on the fact that most of the tradesmen I employ, would actually never recognise me outside of work.

Which brings me to the question; given every trades person I have ever employed on a building project has been a man, do they notice I am a woman?

And more to the point – does it make a difference?

Ultimately as the property owner, I am the bill payer.

In my pre-letting agency days, I was also the project manager of some very large building projects.  But since selling the agency I have yet to go back to “proper” property development.  What I do now, is what I term the “light” stuff; otherwise known as property refurbishment or renovation.  (Don’t ask me the difference I have yet to learn that!).

But a comment made today by a tradesman struck me.  It was an innocuous remark meant to pass the time of day as we stood outside drinking instant coffee, stirred with a screw-driver, on a short break.

“I’ve never seen a woman actually working ON a property before”.

“Oh” I replied, surprised, as the said guy was in his 50’s.

“Do you not do much work for women?” I asked.

“Yes, but even the women like you who buy up properties they don’t actually get on and do the work…” and he trailed off.

Realising he may have crossed an invisible sexism line, I could see him start to wither a little.

But I was OK with it – I knew he meant no harm, and in fact it piqued my interest; what with my recent observation of the sea of van men…or should I shorten than to semen?

“Do you think sexism exists in the property industry?” I asked him outright.

Admittedly, I may have wrong-footed him a little, what with him realising his earlier slight faux-pas – but I smiled nicely as I said it – not the sort of smile which said: ‘I will fucking kill you and sue you for sexual harassment if you don’t say the right thing’.

“Well” he started “I don’t think property itself is sexist – but you don’t actually see any – or many women actually doing the work”.

He paused.

“That’s why I said about you doing the work…”

He carried on.

“Construction – now that’s a different kettle of fish – that is men – and that’s hard for a woman”

And then he paused and reflected some more.

“Although with the health and safety changes it’s made it easier for women now.  It’s a weight thing, I guess…it’s about the ratio of body and muscle to what you need to lift.  Back in the early days you were expected to lift 50kg of materials – now they’ve reduced it to 25kg – so it’s made it easier for women…”.

“But, you don’t really see many women doing the work” he concluded.

Visibility or Invisibility?

So I went back to what I considered as my ‘female’ job of sanding walls and I reflected some more.  What I found interesting, was that I had considered my earlier project decision to employ somebody else to finish the rip out, to be wimping out.

Somehow, when I did that, I thought I had failed myself and unnecessarily spent additional money from my already non-existent budget.

I justified it to myself that I could spend my time on alternative stuff.  But deep down, I felt like a pussy.  I felt like I had wimped out.  The fact some big, burly men came in and sorted it out in a matter of hours was testament to that.

And then I got to thinking – the issue of women in property is one of visibility.

You just don’t really see many women working in property.

They exist, of course they do, but it’s not in the roles which are so visible.

Go to any trade plumb or building centre and it’s staffed by men and frequented by men.  Turn up as a woman and you get special treatment; I can tell you that as I have had countless free cappuccinos!  In the consumer retail outlets – such as the likes of B&Q – it’s different.  Nobody’s the wiser – but then most people are there for a bit of DIY.  It’s not the serious “Trade Only”, which I guess, should say “Men Only” entrance.

And all this line of thinking really got me wondering…

What’s changed?

In my 10 years of working in property, have I seen any changes?

Not really, no.  Was the answer I came up with.

The tradespeople I employ are all men, my sites are still full of men and the people I deal with on an everyday basis are men.  Most of my property investor/ developer friends are men.  And so, no, not really, not much has changed.

And then I got to thinking about my letting agency days.

While women make up the vast majority of front of house and administrative staff – the actual power resides with men.

Most lettings agencies are owned by men.  Staffed by women.  Run by women.  Maybe even managed by women.  But mainly, owned by men.

And then I remembered a couple of ‘run-ins’ I’d had with some male letting agency owners when I first opened up shop.  I think they thought I’d be intimidated by their willy-waggling as they stood in my office and called me all the names under the sun for daring to open in “their” patch.

It didn’t work.  I may be a woman, but I’ve got enough testosterone to fight my corner.

“Fuck ‘em” was what I thought.

Obviously I didn’t.  They were ugly.

And then I pondered on the auction world, which has played a major part in my property career.  In the beginning as a young female, I was very much seen as a man’s PA.  It never bothered me – not being seen as a competitor can be very useful when buying at auction.

But back then, auction was very much a man’s game – especially property trading.  Maybe it’s because you need balls.  But I don’t think that’s an exclusively male characteristic – unless I have managed to stash mine away somehow behind my very female vagina!

Auction though, has changed.  Buyers are now less male than they used to be.  Regular property auction buyers…?  Now that’s where it gets more tricky.  I think, it’s still much more male.

And when it comes to property auctioneers?  Well, that’s where it gets overtly male.  A female property auctioneer?  Um, rarer than a hen’s teeth, I think the saying goes.

Which is funny, kind of, because it brought me back to one of my dilemma’s when I was trying to work out my author name for the property auction book.

What sex should I be?

I know this sounds nonsensical, but actually identifying my sex was of great concern to me when publishing the auction book.  Displaying that I was obviously a woman with a name like “Samantha” made me wonder if some people would take me less seriously.  “Sam” I thought, could be male or female – so maybe that would be a better publishing name to have?  Maybe a lack of an “obvious sex” was a good thing?

Which is crazy, when you think about it.

In this day and age and, God knows how many years since the passing of the sexism bill, and here I am wondering about my publishing name signalling that I am obviously a woman.

But it comes back to the sexism thing.

Women in property aren’t so visible.  Women in property auctions are less visible still.  A female author on property auctions…

I remember agonising if me being an “obvious female” may hold up the book sales.  I mean, just writing that makes me want to wince.  Can you believe in this day and age I even thought that!

Can you believe that in this day and age I even still think that?

But maybe, it’s because times haven’t really changed so much.  Property, visibly so, from a trade perspective is still incredibly male orientated.

I have no hesitation when a man offers to help me load my car with plaster, I have no issues with a man showing me how to use a power tool correctly and, I have no problem at all with the men at the trade counter carrying my paint order to the car.

I respect they are men.  And, I believe, they respect I am a woman.

  1. Ruth Phillips

    Well, well, well…Ms Collett please eat your words (at least some of them). As a female tradesperson, letting agency owner and property person I have worked on one of your properties!
    When I go to trade stores, I am the only woman in the store and normally get asked if I’m doing “a bit of decorating” or “DIY” when they see me in my work clothes. I guess it’s also quite off-putting that I also frequent those places at weekends and after 4pm when most of our male counterparts are feet up, in the pub or bathing their knuckles.
    On the letting agency/property management side of my business 75% of my clients – the property owners/investors are women.

    1. Sam

      Ah Ruth – you’ll note I said letting agencies are “mainly” owned by men – you are one of the few. In terms of trades; the plasterer, plumber and electrician who worked at the property were men though…You also mentioned about the trade outlets and you being the only woman…do I still have to eat my words? 🙂

  2. Ruth Phillips

    I did say “some” of your words and yes, I agree in many respects I’m one in a million and, like you, I’ve got a bigger pair than most.
    When I studied Building Surveying at university I was surprised how many of the students were female but many in the construction stream where architectural technologists and quantity surveyors. The construction management, construction and surveying course was male dominated and building surveying probably 50/50. Times are changing in the professional sector but will still take time to filter down to the trades. If I could do it all again, I’d probably be a plasterer or plumber.

    1. Sam

      Interesting you say so many of the Building Surveying students were female. I wonder how many of them actually went into building surveying as a profession?

  3. Kylie

    Sam, I’m with you. While it may not be sexist there is definitely only a small proportion of women who get down and dirty while “doing” property work. I lost count of the number of disbelief expressions from builders when they saw me in my steel caps and hard hat. Only once have I ever truly taken offence.

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