Supporting gender diversity – Interview with Sarah Sergeant, Watkin Jones

Supporting gender diversity and encouraging conversations to support the growth of women across the industry, David Phillips talks to Sarah Sergeant, CFO at Watkin Jones.

Sarah Sergeant, CFO at Watkins Jones | BTR News
Sarah Sergeant, CFO at Watkins Jones.
Women in Leadership facilitated by David Phillips | BTR News

Sarah joined Watkin Jones as CFO in October 2021 following 13 years in financial roles at FTSE 30 company Compass Group, where her posts included a three-year stint as CFO in Singapore. She trained initially at PwC, working with clients in the hospitality, support and construction sectors.

Have you ever struggled to progress in your career?

No. I’m broad-shouldered and always willing to take on additional responsibility and put myself out of my comfort zone. For example, I knew that moving to become Asia-Pacific CFO would be a challenge personally but also a good decision professionally. It’s a readiness to take risks that has got me to where I am today.

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

It’s certainly not a disadvantage. For example, you stand out at industry events or site visits, and that can be an advantage. Women are still relatively rare in my role: fewer than 20% of FTSE 350 CFOs are women.

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

I came into the property industry at a senior level, with a willingness to take a step into the unknown. I knew that my financial skills and an ability to think laterally would be transferable from a different industry. That said, there are similarities between property and hospitality, in that both are capital-light, service-oriented B2B2C industries.

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?

We need more role models across all disciplines, in operational as well as head office jobs. It’s becoming more familiar to see women on construction sites, but women will need to be supported as they progress through the industry. There’s a role for schools, colleges and apprenticeships to play in promoting the industry and its potential to women.

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?

It’s bright. Build to Rent is an exciting, embryonic sector that brings traditional disciplines together – and because it’s so new, it’s also a good opportunity for women to lead. The consumer focus of Build to Rent is also an area where women are successful. My advice to the next generation of women leaders would be to put your preconceptions aside and make best use of your wider network in the industry, and look for mentorship where you can. There are some great women working in this sector and some great examples to follow.

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

I’ve had a wide range of role models both at Compass and throughout my career. In coming into the property industry as a CFO I’ve also had strong support from other CFOs, some who are also new to the space and others who already work in construction and housebuilding.