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Think global Women in the city
Bringing women into the labor force increases the productivity of companies and cities. Various studies cite a number of reasons to support this conclusion. The most obvious cause is that the economy simply loses out on the talents, ideas and abilities of half the population if women don’t participate in economic activity. Women can bring a different approach to challenges and tasks and are often better suited to create and sell products to women, who in turn benefit from increasing disposable income, generating a self-enforcing virtuous cycle.
A 2015 McKinsey study estimated that an additional 26% (or $28 trillion) could be added to annual global GDP in 2025 if full gender equality was achieved, compared to the “business as usual” scenario. Moreover, the level of integration of women in the workforce can be treated as a proxy measure for the modernity of city societies. Countries, cities and companies where women have claimed their fair share are more likely to maximize their talent pool and enable the free flow of ideas by avoiding exclusion based not only on gender but also religion, age or ethnicity.
Even football, evidently one of the most male-dominated parts of European society, has started to realize the benefits of gender diversity. Last year a recent news headline reported that “Arsenal’s elite girls thrive after being put on an equal footing with the boys”. Premier League Arsenal football club in London invited the best girls to train alongside the best boys, focusing on player quality rather than gender. The head of Arsenal’s academy stressed it is not just a token gesture: “women and men are both highly capable.” He also acknowledged that playing with girls has helped him to “understand from the very beginning how important it is to be first of all capable but also to be humble and respectful and disciplined. That’s what we are trying to achieve with these youngsters, to prepare them not only for a football career but also for reality.” He believes there are benefits in both directions and it is not just the girls who are being challenged - it’s a win-win situation.
The relationship between GDP levels and female labor force participation rates, excluding the oil-producing countries in the Middle East, is illustrated in Figure 1. While cause and effect are impossible to prove, the data suggests a virtuous relationship of female labor force participation rates and a country’s affluence levels. For example, in the United States, the gender gap declined strongly in the 1980s, which coincided with the highest GDP growth rates, in particular in cities with the fastest growth.1 In contrast, East Germany offers an example of what happens when women withdraw from the workforce. Following German reunification, women were more likely than men to abandon industrial cities in East Germany, leading to 25% more men in the workforce. Economic and cultural decline of these towns continued in contrast to a subsequent boom in already-prospering West Germany, which benefitted from additional female talent.
Women entering the workforce is driven by global changes in cultural attitudes as well as national policies, particularly around education and childcare. Figure 2 shows that the most progressive developed countries are achieving female labor participation rates of up to 90% of the level of men. The chart also indicates the limits of this trend: the five Nordic countries plus Canada, which lead the global league table, achieved only relatively small incremental improvements of 0.5 to 2.5 percentage points in the decade after the Global Financial Crisis, while the group following them closely achieved improvements of 3 to 6 percentage points in the same time period. Interestingly, this is a much more diverse group of countries from various parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Figure 3 offers an insight into the dynamics at the bottom of the league table of the developed countries. Coming from a low base, some Middle Eastern countries that are not dependent on oil show remarkable increases in female labor participation over the past 10 years. Istanbul in Turkey remains a long-term target for Nuveen Real Estate’s European cities strategy2 because of impressive developments, such as the 11 percentage point catch up in female labor participation recorded since 2007. However, Figure 3 also shows that some countries recently experienced limited or no progress for various reasons. Most likely, this seems to be due to cultural resistance (Japan, Italy, South Korea, Kuwait), disproportionate emigration of women (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic) or economic hardships reinforcing traditional work patterns (Romania, Argentina, Albania) — or a combination of all three factors.
Figure 4 demonstrates that progress is equally varied geographically with developed countries in all parts of the globe and on all income levels among the strongest improvers. Within Europe, progress seems possible anywhere. Women play an increasingly large part in economic life in very wealthy countries such as Switzerland or Luxembourg as well as comparatively less affluent geographies like Greece, Croatia or Latvia.
However, past success is no predictor for the future. The United States used to be on the forefront of women’s entry into the workforce but is now stuck at a disappointing middle position, way behind its peers Canada and the leading countries in Europe and the Pacific. The United States’ progress over the past 10 years was just one percentage point – about as much as the United Arab Emirates achieved. However, the United States is in good company among other former and emerging superpowers; Russia and China are on very similar levels, both even retreating over the past 10 years (Figure 5). Similarly, other early adopters of a more equal workforce, like France and the United Kingdom, have also recently made relatively limited progress.
The Scandinavian countries have already achieved high levels of equality in the workforce and find it difficult to advance further. However, even these frontrunners can make improvements in making full use of their female talent. For example, women remain vastly underrepresented in engineering jobs and managerial roles, especially in board rooms, leaving a potential productivity boost still largely untapped.
This theory was examined in a study by MSCI which found that U.S. companies with at least three women on the board outperformed those with no women on the board over a period of five years (Figure 7)3. The study stated “the companies that reached the critical mass of at least three female directors experienced median changes in earning per share (EPS) of +37% and in return on equity (ROE) of +10 percentage points, while those starting with no female directors experienced median change of -8% in EPS and -1 percentage point in ROE”. While there is no causal link, the correlation is apparent. MSCI presume that such superior performance may derive from better decision making by a more diverse group of directors: “but outperformance may also be tied to greater gender diversity among senior leadership and the rest of the workforce.”
MSCI also found that for a three-year period, the average difference in employee productivity growth compared to the median was consistently higher for companies with three or more women on their board and leading talent management practices than for those with mostly male boards and lagging talent management practices.
The findings suggest that a holistic approach to diversity is the most powerful (Figure 8). Companies prioritizing talent across all levels consistently outperformed all other groups analyzed in this study, while companies that apparently failed to make talent management a priority consistently underperformed. Research examining investment returns (e.g. the HFRX Women index, which pulls together the performance of female hedge fund managers) has found similar effects; male-only teams tend to deliver lower returns, first and foremost due to weaker risk management.
Through five decades of focus on ESG factors and investing in companies with diverse boards and employees, Nuveen is dedicated to creating better outcomes for investors while simultaneously seeking to change the face of the asset management industry. Gender diversity is notably a top priority for Nuveen’s engagement with companies globally.
Nuveen’s Policy Statement on Responsible Investing demands gender diversity in the workforce in their own organization as well as companies they invest in. The policy includes recommended actions to employees and suppliers stating boards and managers should all foster a culture of inclusiveness and acceptance of differences at all levels. The policy also encourages boards to foster diversity within the talent pipeline for management succession, as well as within their own board refreshment practices.
A good case in point is Nuveen’s corporate governance initiative in Japan. In 2010, Nuveen put in place proxy voting guidelines requiring Japanese boards to have a minimum of two independent directors - this is now best practice in Japan. Nuveen has evolved its initiative which now encourages Japanese companies to appoint at least one female director to their board. Gender diversity has become an increasingly important topic in the country, with principle 2.4 of the Japan Corporate Governance Code as well as local regulators also recommending boards appoint at least one female director. As such, Nuveen has contacted those companies in Japan without any women on their board. For companies where engagement fails, Nuveen will consider changing their Japanese proxy voting against board directors responsible for gaps in gender diversity.
Nuveen Real Estate is dedicated to creating better outcomes for investors as well as changing the face of the real estate industry, particularly in gender diversity by being dedicated to empowering women through early training, access to role models and sponsorship programs. Nuveen Real Estate currently has four female fund managers and eight female portfolio managers. Our gender split currently sits at 55% male versus 45% female. Although progress is still to be made, these numbers indicate a step in the right direction with an increase of 3 percentage points since 2016.4 Testament to our focus in this area, in 2019 and 2020 we have sponsored Estates Gazette’s Future Female Leaders program, a U.K.-based six-month public speaking program focused on females in the real estate industry.
Taking the lead from our parent company, we also recognize the importance of female representation on boards and committees across the global real estate function. The number of women spread over nine committees, accounts for 22%, a number we are continually aiming to increase through diversity initiatives.5 This compares to the average representation of women on REIT boards at 15.5%, which too has increased by 8 percentage points in the past decade.6
Going forward, the biggest (economic) opportunity is in countries where female participation is relatively low, but the trajectory is pointing towards rapid change. Specific examples include Chile, Turkey, Greece, Singapore and Japan. Also, countries which have made strong progress, yet haven’t quite reached the levels of the Nordic countries, should experience a bigger boost over the coming decade. Notable members of this group are Spain, Luxembourg, Israel, Austria, Latvia, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany. The United States, China, France and the United Kingdom have potential, but policy and the pace of cultural change are not currently conducive to making great strides.
An interesting trend for real estate investors to note is that several cities are moving ahead of their respective country’s wider national trends which may present investment opportunities. City-level data in Figure 9 uses a different measure of male versus female economic activity not directly comparable to the national data sets. Taking Italy as an example, the data suggest that more successful cities, most notably university towns such as Bologna, Florence, Turin, Pisa and Padova, have female labor force participation rates that are way above the national average. Historical data indicates that women are more mobile than men which benefits cities that offer better career opportunities. This may explain why the workforce in Bologna is significantly more female than in Naples and consequently accounts for some of the relative economic success of Bologna over Naples.
Nuveen Real Estate’s global cities strategy is derived from our proprietary city filtering model which identifies the top 2% of cities that we believe are best positioned for demographic and structural growth. By evaluating cities, we can identify the unique DNA of that city and the compelling reasons to invest. The progression of women in the workforce was a contributing factor to our acquisition in Bologna. Although Italy is not considered one of the most progressive countries, at a city level, Bologna is ahead of the pack. This, among other factors, enables us to identify ‘future-proof’ resilient cities, achieve diversification and deliver stable income return for our clients.
The industry composition of cities is reinforcing the gender mix. The job search engine Monster.com, for example, lists a broad range of jobs in U.S. cities with a bigger share in professions dominated by women such as compliance officers, technical writers, public relation managers, natural science managers, journalists, accountants, pharmacists, lawyers and positions in general education and health services. This means that, for example, cities with a strong education sector will tend to have a more female workforce. Meanwhile, real estate and professions like engineering, IT, some natural sciences (but not biology or medicine) and the manufacturing sector remain largely male dominated.
Germany is a polycentric country with lots of cities of varying sizes specializing in different economic activities, which makes it a useful test bed to study industry effects on gender. Figure 10 shows that university cities focused on the service sector tend to have higher female participation reaching almost parity in the small university town of Freiburg, which is known for its progressive vibe. Within the group of the German Big-7 real estate investment cities, bohemian Berlin and lifestyle-leader Munich have raced ahead, while Stuttgart, the home of Porsche, Bosch and Mercedes, remains a traditionally masculine territory (and Ingolstadt, the headquarters of Audi is at the very bottom of all cities by this measure).
Interestingly today, East German cities tend to have a higher female share of the workforce despite the female ‘brain drain’ to West Germany during most of the 1990s and 2000s and its generally more industrial economic structure. In the former communist East, men and women joining the workforce in equal measure was government policy accompanied by extensive state sponsored childcare. This demonstrates that even after a complete economic, cultural and political system change, there’s no going back once women have joined the workforce. Angela Merkel provides a powerful metaphor for that reality. She was born in East Germany in 1954 and trained as a scientist under communist rule to become the longest serving German chancellor, having led the country for nearly 15 years from Berlin, now one of the most “feminine” and fast-growing cities in Europe.
Collectively, these findings point to improvements on numerous levels for countries, cities and companies with a larger share of females among their workforce and leadership. Greater gender diversity suggests better use of talent on all levels. As a result, we think real estate investors should follow where there’s more women in the workforce to discover the most successful cities.
Increased female participation in senior leadership seems to be an indicator of better managed organizations with academic studies linking diversity in various groups to improved decision making. Real estate investors should take note of studies that have found that gender diversity among senior executives is correlated with better financial performance.
1 Harvard Business Review: When More Women Join the Workforce, Wages Rise — Including for Men by Amanda Weinstein, 2018
2 Note investments in Turkey for Nuveen Real Estate’s European cities strategy investments are excluded given the current political climate.
3 MSCI: The Tipping Point: Women on Boards and Financial Performance, Dec 2016
4 Note these figures are for Europe & Asia Pacific only.
5 Committees included are Global Executive Leadership Team, Europe & Asia Pacific Leadership Team, U.S. Leadership Team, European Investment Committee, Asia Pacific Investment Committee, European Real Estate Debt Investment Committee, U.S. Investment Committee, Europe & Asia Pacific Operating Committee, U.S. Operating Committee.
6 Wells Fargo & Co., 2018
MSCI: Women on boards and the human capital connection
Harvard Business Review: When More Women Join the Workforce, Wages Rise — Including for Men by Amanda Weinstein, 2018
MSCI: Women on boards: One piece of a bigger puzzle
MSCI: Women on boards: Global trends in gender diversity
UBS: Gender aware, March 2019
Financial Times: Female hedge funds outperform those run by men
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