With relatives in the profession, Thelma took an interest in a law career early in her life because, as she thought at the time, “Arguing with people all day is great!” She followed her degree with a stint at law school, and then completed her training at a city firm. Thelma was attracted to property law because of the impact it has on every aspect of people’s lives, and in particular how property developments can bring about positive change. At Brecher, acting for property companies and developers, she gets involved in every aspect of the industry, from investment, management, and funding to development particularly in the living sector – Build to Rent, co-living and PBSA.
Have you ever struggled to progress in your career?
Not really. I’ve been lucky enough to be rewarded on my own merit: it’s important to be good at what you do and to know your own area well. Any initial doubts that people may have had about me because of my gender or race have been overcome by the work I’ve done. As a firm, we’re not appointed because of our diversity policy – we have a high percentage of female lawyers – we are appointed because of the work we do and the breadth of specialisms we offer. That said, sometimes you need a dollop of luck: I came into this area of practice at a time when awareness was improving.
Have you felt that being a woman has given you an advantage in the industry?
I would say no. When I walk into a room, I know that developers have goals and outcomes that they want to achieve – I always make sure that I first understand what those outcomes are and I strive to deliver them. My gender is never capable of giving me any advantage in carrying through my tasks. Once we launch into a meeting, any issues connected with my gender become irrelevant, meaning that it becomes apparent that perceived advantage simply does not arise.
Given the industry’s gender gap in leadership, how did you reach your level of success?
I believe that a sense of purpose, resilience, and determination coupled with a focus upon maintaining a professional approach has been crucial. A certain mental toughness is required to navigate any work environment and to deal with the inevitable challenges that will be faced. We as women have the talent to be leaders, but we are often deflected by things unconnected with our leadership potential or skills. That said, I mentor women in the profession who still, sadly, have the problem of having to first justify their presence in the workplace rather than being encouraged and supported to demonstrate their capabilities. For all our progression and equality, regrettably, there appear to be some enduring perceptions that childcare is a responsibility that always falls to women and leadership in a corporate profession setting is beyond us as women. I did not want to succumb to such perceptions and gave every effort to be recognised for my ability to do the work to the highest standards that might be demanded of me.
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?
Undoubtedly, the start-point is school where girls will need to have both encouragement and support to view the working world open to them through a different lens. Projection of a positive image of women working in challenging, high-profile, or difficult environments will help change the mindset of girls and women to show what they can achieve.
It is of course encouraging that, for example, there is more awareness around having more diverse boards, committees and leaders, for example, with women encouraged to put themselves forward to take on those responsibilities. And women need, too, to be more confident about what they can bring to their work – we should celebrate our range of positive qualities and perspectives. For too long the dynamic was that to succeed as a woman you had to be ‘one of the boys’. Happily, that is changing, and we should applaud those that have helped to bring this about. The way has been paved and we just need to seize the opportunities.
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?
Things are improving on the legal side, where women are better represented than they were before. We need to ensure that the systems that lend themselves to retention are developed and are in place so that women are reassured that their talents and aspirations can be fulfilled. That means strengthening the pathways into leadership roles. I see more and more female professionals emerging in other sectors of the property industry such as architects and surveyors. However, other parts of the industry, for example, building contractors and the various engineering disciplines are very male-dominated and these specialisms are generally 70% to 80% male. It would be great to see more female contractors and engineers.