No ‘cringey’ cupcakes: Property giant Stockland’s diversity goals

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When it comes to companies achieving their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, the ‘E’ is usually considered a separate pillar from the ‘S’ and the ‘G’.

But for listed property trust Stockland, there’s a connection between aspects such as emissions reduction and the supposedly ‘softer’ social elements of workplace gender and racial diversity.

Stockland’s chief people and stakeholder officer Karen Lonergan believes focusing on the social elements of ESG can help with thornier issues such as emissions reduction.

The property sector is one of the most carbon emissions-intensive, given the concrete and steel involved in construction and the high energy footprint of an operating building.

Stockland’s chief people and stakeholder officer Karen Lonergan says new, greener methods are emerging, but they are not yet viable. “We have to find commercially sustainable solutions, and that requires innovation,” she says.

“Over my career, I have learned you only get good innovation when you have diversity and an inclusive culture where people can bring their different thoughts together to solve the hard, wicked problems such as decarbonisation.”

As with other ASX-listed property trusts including Dexus and Mirvac, Stockland ranks highly on global diversity and inclusion rankings.

A decade ago, the sector was seen as white and male-dominated before a widespread attitudinal shift, led by influential figures such as Elizabeth Broderick and property developer and philanthropist Carol Schwartz.

“The sector recognised they needed to grow the [female] talent pool, or the companies would be stealing the same number of women from each other,” Lonergan says.

A former HR head of Woolworths and Qantas’ international arm, Lonergan is well aware of the traps that result in diversity becoming an exercise in tokenism, such as “cringey” International Women’s Day cupcakes or outdated “fixing the women” programs such as assertiveness training.

The commercial property sector is one of the worst offenders when it comes to carbon emissions.Credit: Peter Rae

“Tokenism and greenwashing are things corporates increasingly are being called out for – and rightly in my view when they get it wrong,” she says. For the record, 62 per cent of Stockland’s leadership team is female, as is 46 per cent of management.

“But it’s pretty easy to measure how many women you have,” Lonergan says. “The more meaningful things are harder to measure, such as how we take different points of view on board and how that translates into things like collaboration and innovation.”

Stockland seeks to keep the process honest by heeding the counsel of internal employee advocacy groups, which avoids the “program of the week” mentality problems of internal bickering or accusations of favouritism.

“Over the years I have learnt you have to be really honest about what you are trying to do,” she says. “Are you just trying to tick a box? If so, you will come a cropper in one way or the other because your own people will call you out on it.”

Lonergan says building a genuinely inclusive and diverse workforce always takes longer – and is harder – than expected.

“A great example is Qantas and gender diversity with pilots. That has been a pipeline issue the airline has been working on for 20 years, but finally they are starting to have some impact,” she says.

As with other property landlords, Stockland has the dual imperative of allowing flexible hybrid working arrangements while promoting offices as still being relevant for clients.

“Presenteeism is dead. Making hard mandates about attending the office for certain days or certain hours isn’t going to work,” she says.

Stockland puts the onus on divisional leaders and their staff to devise the appropriate mix. That said, Stockland prefers most of its people in the office most of the time, “because we know that’s where collaboration happens and where people learn best”.

Lonergan says Stockland has multiple office developments in the planning stage – and they don’t look like anything anyone has worked in before.

“People aren’t coming into the office to bang out emails,” she says. “They want to come in to be with colleagues, so the type of spaces are changing quite significantly.”

Lonergan says Stockland’s workforce diversification is helping the company to design residential projects that best suit the customers – given two-thirds of them were born out of Australia.

“If we don’t have people recognising that different cultural groups want to cook in different ways, we will end up designing kitchens our customers won’t want to buy,” Lonergan says.

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