Supporting gender diversity – Interview with Gillian McLees, Rettie & Co

Supporting gender diversity and conversations to support the growth of women, David Phillips talks to Gillian McLees, Director of BTR Services, Rettie & Co.

Gillian McLees, Director of BTR Services, Rettie & Co interviewed as part of the Women in Leadership diversity series | BTR News
Gillian McLees, Director of BTR Services, Rettie & Co interviewed as part of the Women in Leadership diversity series.

After deciding that social work was not for her, Gillian ‘fell into’ property, joining Regus shortly after university. Although the serviced office space was growing fast, Gillian eventually looked for a career in a sector less vulnerable to change, which led her to work in the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) space. Here, in roles that included managing Glasgow’s first PBSA block, she saw its benefits for young people, as well as a new way of working in property. The synergy between PBSA and Build to Rent was one of reasons for her being approached by Rettie & Co, where Gillian is now Director of BTR Services.

Have you ever struggled to progress in your career?

I think everyone feels that they struggle at some point. In my case, it wasn’t gender that was the biggest blocker to progressing in property (although it had a part to play), but socioeconomic background. When you’re younger, career problems can feel like the end of the world – I’ve learned that you gain perspective with age.

Have you felt that being a woman has given you an advantage in the industry?

Yes, it gives me lots of advantages. It’s my superpower! I’ve always suffered from ‘impostor syndrome’ but then I realised that what I saw as my negatives were in fact superpowers, because I think about and see things differently. I come from a background where it’s not normal for people to own their own home, go to university or develop and progress. And although that’s where my impostor syndrome comes from, it’s ultimately been a benefit.

Given the industry’s gender gap in leadership, how did you reach your level of success?

It’s not a big issue from the perspective of my career. In the more service-oriented subsections of the private rented sector, such as PBSA, social housing and Build to Rent, there is still a gender imbalance in top management, but there are far more female middle managers. On the whole, I think there’s a positive story to be told about the gender balance in this industry.

What needs to change to inform the next generation of female leaders about the industry and the roles available to them? Do we need more support for women at school level to understand the opportunity?

I’m not a fan of positive discrimination. I would like to think I’m here because of my abilities, not my gender. However, there are ways to make things better. For example, you can’t be what you can’t see, so it’s important we have more visible champions of diversity in our sector. We also need to give female middle managers the confidence to apply for bigger roles. One issue is that men tend to be much better at self-promotion, so we should tailor interview questions to account for that, focusing on the truth of people’s abilities and career specifics rather than asking big open questions.

We need to make it easier for women to build a career while being a parent or carer. And we should engage male leaders to help them understand and deal with unconscious bias. As for support at school level, we need to show people from all backgrounds that there are many different roles in property, not just the obvious headline-grabbing jobs, but careers that use our feminine superpowers.

What does the future look like for women in property and what advice would you give the next generation of female leaders joining the industry?

We’re at an exciting crossroads for women in the sector, with new career paths emerging as it matures and develops. I’d advise women joining the industry to be confident, don’t hide your superpowers or let short-term barriers keep you from your long-term goals. If you’re passionate and you stick at it, you’ll make it work. And if you haven’t had opportunities in your upbringing, I’d say always remember that you are good enough. I’d recommend the book ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’ as a great story about the importance of being true to yourself.

Who inspired you/are your role models and who do you admire in the industry?

I’ve been inspired by people who want to make the world a better place through homes. I can think of many role models: Lesley Roberts, UKAA president, who has helped to champion this sector;  Melanie Leech, CEO of the British Property Foundation; and Jane Wood, CEO Homes for Scotland, another woman’s voice at a high level. Two women I want to be when I grow up (!) are Jane Crouch, my first director at Watkin Jones, who was at the forefront of this sector’s growth, and Hazel Sharp, who first convinced me to move to work in Build to Rent.