What is feminism these days? How has the gender debate informed the professional world? These are questions many people ask. From power suits to motherhood, men embracing paternity leave to hidden sexism; male feminists and the pay gap, it’s a minefield. Sweeney Yarraville director, Summer Salvato, speaks to Sam Freestone.
Sweeney Real Estate franchisee and director Summer Salvato is passionate about empowering her Yarraville-based staff, men and women alike, and is changing the face of inner-west real estate in the process.
Summer and I met at a cafe in Newport to talk about women’s representation in the real estate industry.
An American who moved to Australia more than a decade ago, she still has her mid-western accent. She has glossy black hair, a warm smile and a steely gaze. She’s focused, strong-willed and carries with her a strong sense of social justice.
“It all started when I sold a house very dear to me – my grandfather’s house in the US – before I moved to Melbourne,” she says. “I was lied to about offers, the whole thing was a sham – and this was from a female agent.
“It was such a horrible experience, with such an emotive sell, I knew I could do better. That experience stayed with me and that’s when I decided to get into real estate and did so as soon as I moved.”
The emotional connections of properties need to be taken into consideration and that is something Summer schools her agents in – the emotional context of selling homes.
We discuss family, children and flexibility in workplaces for fathers and mothers.
We talk, about sales approaches to property and how they can differ in men and women.
But then the direction quickly turns to issues many women face in male-dominated industries.
Issues such as sexism.
“This isn’t just in my industry – it’s rife in the professional world,” she says. “I know I’m over it and the funny thing is, most men are too.”
“I can just do what I can do … and it starts with practising what you preach.”
With a focus on recruiting agents with the same approach to life and who share the same priorities – family, professional ethics and gender neutrality – Summer is creating a team that reflects how she likes to do business.
“I don’t think we are doing any one thing specifically,” she says.
“I have an idea about how I want our office run and how I want our women to achieve – and I want our male agents to feel the same way.
“The power I have to enact change is in the type of people I am recruiting and finding out what their priorities are.
“In the interview process, the answers I am seeking aren’t what some think and I can tell by their answers pretty quickly, the content of their character, and I go off that … as well as sales results of course.”
Summer says she actively seeks male agents who are contemporary men, who are feminists and have equal gender respect.
“We are not doing this because we are afraid of a sexual harassment lawsuit – we are doing it because these are the kind of attributes in people that I want to work with,” she says.
But Summer says that women can be sexist and can be their own worst enemies.
“I am employing people, not men and women,” she says. “I want professionalism. I want the language used to be respectful. I want to give my clients a contemporary service.
“Having been in this industry for more than 10 years and been involved with many offices over that time, I know this kind of work culture is not the norm.
“We also just renovated the office and this feeds into staff morale. I could have just done the facade, but I want my staff to be happy.”
She says renovating the office has helped lift the whole mood of the operation.
Out-dated professional practices are slowly fading away – so much so that coming generations wonder what all the fuss has been about.
Summer says she spoke to her 12-year-old just the other day, about women’s battles through the decades.
“I asked him if he knew what feminism was and he couldn’t answer,” she says.
“Then I said, with a previous job I had, I was paid less, did more and achieved better targets than a previous male counterpart. I asked him if he thought it was OK, just because I was a woman – and he said, ‘No way! That’s not OK.
“And I said to him, ‘Welcome to feminism’.”
WHAT WOMEN WANT
The past approach with selling property was a fast, data-driven one where vendors were advised not to be attached to the property and see it only as an asset in-asset-out financial transition.
But as we all know, emotions run high when it comes to the place we call home.
Further, most recent census figures (2011) show women make over 90 per cent of household financial decisions and when purchasing a family residence, it is women making the call on where the family will live.
“Women want the experience to be more relationship-based rather than transactional, and at the same time are savvy and educated about their decision-making. Also there is the very maternal attachment to ‘home’,” Summer says.
“This also is relevant to men, but sometimes the blokey approach shuts that down. It needs to be respected in its own right, and female real estate agents offer that.
“There is this inaccurate attitude towards selling family homes in that the emotion needs to be taken out of it.
“It’s careless. When you are dealing with someone’s home, if you don’t take that personally, then you are doing your clients a disservice.”
THE DEATH OF THE OLD BOYS’ CLUB?
Director of Sweeney Corporate, Darren Dean, had been trying to get Summer on-board for years and eventually, he did just that.
Regarding the ‘old-boys’-club’ style of real estate, he says today Sweeney Estate Agents has a corporate vision for equality and professionalism.
“Especially in the past three to four years, the pendulum has swung,” he says.
“Sweeney sees how women are more detail-oriented when it comes to the sell. There is an advantage there, a different approach which we value.
“Further to that we went on a recruitment drive in 2015 to actively bolster our female staff numbers and because of that we are 50/50 male/female.”
So what does he think about the pay-gap debate?
“There isn’t one,” he says.
“All agents are equal. Same percentage, same training, same recruitment philosophy, same catchment cultivation areas. Same allowances.
“Every opportunity is made available. Gender is irrelevant.”
THE SWEENEY YARRAVILLE APPROACH
John is a local professional who has bought and sold with Summer.
“I have noticed when I’ve purchased properties in the past, she has an intimate knowledge of the property she is selling. She’s fantastic to deal with.
“You can feel with some agents that the onus is on you.”
Asked if it is a gender influence, John is neutral on the subject.
“I can’t say for sure if it is gender thing or a personality thing, but Summer went above and beyond to offer a service that made me feel secure in my choice rather than leaving me to my own devices and it being purely transactional in nature.
“I would say that I would definitely go to her even if she wasn’t in the area. She works super hard, she is engaging and a delight to work with.”
Regarding culture at Sweeney Yarraville, Summer says the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome in Australia took her by surprise when she first settled down here and she tried to breed a culture that promotes success.
“I never knew the term ‘tall poppy’ until I came here. In America, success is celebrated and I try to bring that into my office. If someone succeeds, we all succeed.
ALL IN THE NUMBERS
The inaugural Real Estate Business (REB) ranking highlights
and celebrates “the industry’s ground-breaking women” acting to create networking opportunities for women in the game.
The statistics from this ranking highlight that while the average conversion rates (those that sold) for Top 100 Agents in Australia was 95.30 per cent; the top 50 women an average of 96.89 per cent, slightly higher.
A representative for the ranking says “women’s achievements are often overlooked or under-represented.”
The top 50 women agents represented in REB ranking statistics show women represented 3705 listings and 3450 sales with total sales volumes equalling $4,478,929,366 in sales for 2016.