REINSW president Leanne Pilkington has vowed to address sexual harassment in the real estate industry, sharing her first-hand experience in having witnessed and been on the receiving end of such matters.
Ms Pilkington has been on the receiving end of sexual harassment in the workplace, and she knows the personal harm it can cause.
Before Ms Pilkington worked in real estate, she managed a shopping centre. Not long after she moved into her new office, the sexual harassment began.
“I got a private and confidential package delivered to my office, and when I opened it a lingerie catalogue fell out that had been marked,” Ms Pilkington told REB.
“I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Then I got a call from the national manager of a very large brand.”
The manager asked if she received his package, and Ms Pilkington replied: “Yeah, and I don’t really know what to make of it.
“He said, ‘The boys in town think that that model looks like you... it should be a compliment’.” Ms Pilkington said she eventually brushed off the comments and moved on.
However, things escalated when her “boss’s boss” was at a function with her. Ms Pilkington said he approached her that night and said: “I’ve got the penthouse tonight, the champagne’s cold and the spa’s hot, what do you think?”
Fortunately, Ms Pilkington was bold enough to get out of that particular situation. Unfortunately, her experience with sexual harassment didn’t end there.
She had a new regional manager to report to who would stop in at her office on his way home from time to time.
“I would be alone in the office, and one night he dropped in and said to me, ‘You know, you look tired’... I said, ‘Yeah, I am tired and I’ve got a really bad headache’,” Ms Pilkington told REB.
With a pained expression, Ms Pilkington said she still remembers the suit she was wearing as he stood over her and started to massage her neck.
He then put his hand inside her suit to undo the internal button.
“Thankfully, my office phone rang, and it was my husband.”
At that time, she had only been married for about a year, and while she was on the phone, she made a big deal to him saying she was leaving the office now.
To make sure she was safe in the office, Ms Pilkington made friends with the tenants in the food court who would come up and check on her every 30 minutes after 6pm to make sure she wasn’t alone with him.
“He would ring me and say, ‘You owe me a massage’.”
Ms Pilkington was frank, telling him to give her a break and asking him to move on.
“After that, he stopped taking my calls,” she said.
Life got difficult for Ms Pilkington as her manager stopped approving things for her, and every time she tried to find a way forward, he kept reminding her of the massage he thought he was owed.
She had reached a dead end, so she called his boss and met him and other stakeholders in his office and resigned.
“I take a lot of pride in what I do, I work really hard, and I always want people to think well of what I do. So, I felt really bad I couldn’t manage that conversation and that relationship, because I’ve always prided myself to manage difficult conversations and difficult relations, and I couldn’t.”
The personal impact
Ms Pilkington said the aforementioned experiences eroded her confidence, and it took a year for her to get it back. To get back to where she was, Ms Pilkington took a junior position with a property developing company before heading to Laing+Simmons.
“Obviously, I got my confidence back over time, but it really knocked me around,” she said.
Because of how her former manager made her feel in the workplace, Ms Pilkington changed the way she dressed.
“I would be in meetings with him, and he would just be looking at my chest — just making me feel incredibly uncomfortable.”
After that, she would always wear a collared shirt, or hold a folder over her chest if he showed up unannounced.
After she shared her story on LinkedIn late last year, Ms Pilkington said she received a lot of commentary. She also received many private messages from women who could relate as they had been through similar situations.
“They weren’t game enough to be identified because they were worried about the ramifications because they might still be in the business, or still around the business, and they just don’t want to be identified.”
Ms Pilkington said there are two types of offenders when it comes to sexual harassment. Some are predators, such as her former manager, and some don’t realise their every day, sexist remarks are hurtful and not appropriate.
“For a long time we have not called people out... so they think that those comments are okay, and they’re not.
“But that is a different issue. It is still serious, but it is a different issue to people who are really pressuring people for inappropriate relationships as a result of their position in power.”
What’s the solution?
Starting a conversation about sexual harassment and what is and is not appropriate is a starting point, Ms Pilkington said.
“We need to take stock of the way we are communicating in the workplace,” she said, pointing to the Males Champions for Change program REINSW is putting together.
The voluntary initiative will be open to male leaders to sign up to its code, which focuses on gender equality in the workplace, pay equality and much more.
“It is hard to have conversations with blokes and women about these things in the workplace, it’s awkward, it makes everyone uncomfortable,” Ms Pilkington said. “But if business owners sign up for the Champions for Change program, my hope is that it will be clear to everybody that this kind of behaviour, this kind of attitude, this kind of conversation is not tolerated and not acceptable in this workplace.
“I’m hopeful that will actually stop it in the workplace.”
As the fear of talking about sexual harassment in the workplace is minimised, Ms Pilkington hopes more women will be encouraged to speak out.
Ms Pilkington has asked permission of the women who have contacted her privately with their stories whether she can talk to the right person in their organisation to address the matter. One person has given her the go-ahead to take her case further, but most are not prepared to take that step.
“How can I stop retaliation if you’re working for a real estate agent and you want to keep your job, but you’ve got a problem with someone in the workforce? How can I make sure the business owner treats it fairly?” Ms Pilkington asked.
When it comes to determining a solution that creates a safe avenue for victims to raise their voices, Ms Pilkington is not sure what the answer is, but she is willing to have the tough conversations to find a solution.
“I would be really happy to have the conversation with anybody interested in having the conversation,” she said. “I certainly can’t do it on my own, but I am happy to have the conversation.”
In the meantime, she would like to see business owners use their initiative and talk to the people around them to realise how big an issue this is.
“When it happened to me, I was told to take it with a grain of salt, take it as a compliment,” Ms Pilkington said. “Well, hold on a minute, you don’t understand how this is making me feel, and you don’t understand the impact this is having on my ability to do my job.”