There is something missing in the C-suite corner offices and late night deal-making sessions of the commercial real estate industry: women. Men dominate the jobs that start with “chief” or end with “VP”, and according to CREW Network, the income gap between men and women in the industry is 23.3%. In the C-suite it is worse. As evidenced by the scores of women who now sit at the heads of boardroom tables, career trajectories for women have improved, but the oft-whispered grievance that it’s just one big “old boys’ club” survives. A palpable sense of disrespect, fear and frustration persists as women continue to grapple with wage disparity, sexism, upward mobility and sexual harassment. Some women feel left out, left behind and, at times, voiceless. What is it really like to be a woman in this industry? These are the voices of 22 of the most powerful women in U.S. commercial real estate. They have developed, financed, designed and built some of the biggest properties in North America — and they have something to say.
Being a woman in real estate development has been a big, messy and exciting adventure. Success came to me largely because I was part of a meritocracy — best man or woman for the job. And I worked hard to become good at my work. This allowed me to navigate sexism, discrimination and the “old boys’ network.” While the internal meritocracy fueled my career, I was nonetheless often judged, discounted and marginalized in the business before I even said a word.
My best example of the worst in our industry: Once about a decade ago, while negotiating a $300K lease with a financial services CEO, the executive, in the presence of other C-suite executives (men), commented that he didn’t know if he wanted to sleep with me or hire me. This is remarkable because I was there to conclude a business deal — not interview for a gig or buy him a drink. Such was the state of our industry. A decade later, much is improved because women have earned their way into boardrooms, C-suites and elected office. More is still needed. Articles like this keep the industry honest.
There is a reason why there are so few women in real estate sales. The barriers to entry are not unusually high in sales, however, the invisible line in the sand holds women at bay. It is still an “old boys’ club” — even today. This high-stakes industry breeds a level of superhuman egos. The limitless amount of money and power attainable is an aphrodisiac, channeling god-like tendencies. Guys tend to indulge their fantasies with their male peers. Women are not invited or welcomed. Unfortunately, this is where deals are made. Another reason why men dominate — women don’t stick up for one another.
In construction operations, women represent less than 1% of the industry. Often I’m the only woman in the room. You’ve got a lot of men who will say and think they understand what it is like to be a woman in construction and they are fair or accommodating and work with you as a peer. But in the next breath, they tell you you should be quiet and more “ladylike.”
I’ve had to learn that you just practice saying no with a period at the end. Once you get them off the mindset that they can change your mind if they are more of a dick, you can make progress and they become less jerkish. If you take a woman and try to put an outfit of a male leader on her, then the woman gets branded a bitch and a nasty woman versus a bad hombre. Guys can get by in business by being jerks and that is considered being assertive. I don’t curse and I’m not rude, but to be called to the carpet for doing something that is just business is ridiculous.
Early in my career, this job was very cutthroat. I was the only woman on this job and had to put other women down to get the spot. Now, it is very different. I do what I can to pull women up with me. Women naturally doubt themselves and if I can provide opportunities to better themselves, maybe that can solve some of the problems? It has to be equal at home to be equal in the workplace. A lot of Baby Boomers have wives at home, but as you get younger it is a dual income. I am the primary breadwinner and my husband stayed home. I’ve had more opportunities and I don’t have to run off to day care every day to pick up the kids. We equally split the household. He is one of my greatest fans and the first one to say, “Get in there and fight for the money.” The first person men learn to fear is their mommy. Nothing is more fearful to men than a woman confidently in charge walking into a room.
I was told at one point that I was hired over another applicant because I was better looking. It’s not all that groundbreaking; I’m sure many women have been told that. It’s just a fact of life, it’s just not always said out loud. He did say I was more qualified but it was my looks. It was embarrassing.
As a commercial real estate executive, I’ve spent over 30 years in lending, asset management, leasing, consulting and brokerage — pretty much the entire real estate service platform. That said, I really don’t believe that my gender defines me in my field, nor do I believe that it should in real estate or any other industry. I say that because I am a CEO of three businesses. I’ve already reached a place that most others will never experience, men or women. I believe in the power of gender networking, but I also believe that an individual’s success is defined and driven by the individual. As an example, I love the powerful organization of Ladies in CRE in Dallas. These primarily Millennial women are succeeding because they have talent, determination and a group approach that is getting them noticed.
Overall, I think as a society we are driving a wedge between each other by defining challenges by gender. I have a lot of male mentors and friends who have worked with me in real estate. There’s no glass ceiling if you don’t see one.
Just like in life, you can choose who you hang out with, and hope to get a little lucky. I recognize that I’m very fortunate to have entered the industry when I did and work in a firm committed to respect and diversity with a group of like-minded individuals (predominantly men) who want to see me succeed. The stories I heard when I first started, about the industry being like the Wild West, don’t come up as much anymore as the ones who lived through it have begun to retire and the culture has become more aware, sensitive and corporate. There are also many more women in the industry who are not someone’s secretary, which has also helped.
Do I feel that the guys in the room feel the need to speak louder or more than me? Sure. But I can’t say they act a certain way around me versus other men. Do I notice I’m usually in the minority at meetings? Yes. But I’m also noticing that my words and contributions are equally valued. At the end of the day, you definitely need a thick skin to be in this industry, regardless of being a man or woman, and learn to accept that some people are just assholes, and they exist in every walk of life, not just real estate.