Past and Present, How Women are Advancing in CRE: Part 1
- Jason Gordon

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“There is something missing in the C-suite corner and late-night deal making sessions of the commercial real estate industry: women.” So begins a sobering and poignant 2017 article by Bisnow managing Editor Catie Dixon. “Men dominate the jobs that start with ‘chief’ or end with ‘VP,’ and … the income gap between men and women in the industry is 23.3%. In the C-suite it is worse.”

While there is solid evidence that women are making serious strides in the industry (including in C-suite positions), the available surveys still indicate that the march toward parity will be a long and tenuous one.  “… 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,” adds Dixon.

Before delving into statistics, firsthand accounts serve to humanize otherwise dry stats and graphs. To illustrate the roadblocks, discrimination, and even at times degradation many women in the industry face, Bisnow asked 22 of the most powerful women in CRE – women who have developed, financed, and built some of the most important properties in the country, to anonymously answer one simple question: What is it really like to be a woman in the industry?  Below are excerpts of some of those anonymous quotes:

  1. “Being a woman in commercial real estate has been a struggle …This is a completely male dominated industry and you have to fight through that. You need to have thick skin, ignore sexist remarks, and focus on growing your network with important real estate players who respect and want to promote women … It can be so brutal, but sometimes the toughest challenges are worth it – especially when you know you are slowly changing perspectives.”
  1.  “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.
On a more positive note, some of the interviewees discerned a change for the better in the industry:
  1. “Does CRE tend to be a boys club? Yes, but this is changing. No one can deny the tremendous progression women have made over the decades. I personally believe that this is due to women having qualitative advantages … Attention to detail, having a caring nature, along with a knack for hard work are competitive advantages we tend to embody compared to our male counterparts.”
  1. “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’s very different. I do what I can to pull women up with me … 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.”
Progress in Recent Years
The title of Certified Commercial Investment Member is awarded by the CCIM Institute, and confers on the individual a professional designation as a recognized expert in the field of commercial and investment real estate.

As CCIM member Patricia K. Lemmons notes in Hitting Their Stride: Women in Commercial Real Estate, “It certainly is a lot different than it was 20 years ago. At least the door is open. There really was a solid wall for a long time, and some of us just scaled the wall. If they didn’t open the door, we scaled the wall.”

It’s been a long slog. But women in the CRE industry are indeed making inroads, both in middle level management and in C-suite positions.

According to Lemmons, in the past two decades, women have reached heights in the industry that many would have never believed possible. In 1984, for example, a mere 100 CCIMs were women. Today, 550 hold the designation, representing 13% of the membership.
Some of the women in major leadership roles in organizations include:
  • Rebecca Maccardini (the immediate past chairperson of the International Council of Shopping Centers).
  • Joan Woodward (president of the National Association of Industrial Office Parks).
  • Beverly Roachell (past president of the Institute of Real Estate Management and current president of Peak Properties).
  • B. K. Allen (first vice president of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute)
  • Barbara M. Crane (president CCIM).
And in CRE corporate roles, some of the leading women are:
  • Deborah Cafaro CEO of Ventas Inc., a REIT which owns about 1,300 healthcare, life sciences, and senior housing properties. Venta’s market capitalization stands at $24 billion.
  • MaryAnn Gilmartin is a co-founder and the CEO of L&L Mag, a New York based development firm. Formerly, Ms. Gilmartin served as president and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies.
  • Jean Kane, CEO of Minneapolis based Welsh Co. and Colliers International, a 300-person full-service commercial real estate company.
  • Mary Ann Tighe is CEO of CBREs New York Tri-State Region.
  • Andrea Olshan, CEO of Olshan Properties which manages and owns 14,000 multifamily units, 10 million sq. ft. of retail space, and more than 1,400 hotel rooms.
  • Wendy Simpson is CEO and president of LTC, a major healthcare REIT.
  • Greta Guggenheim is CEO of TPG Real Estate Finance Trust (a commercial real estate finance company). She also served as chief investment officer of Ladder Capital, a commercial mortgage provider.

At AmTrust Title, Felice Shapiro is chief underwriter and general counsel, as well as serving on the company’s board.

What do the Statistics Tell Us?
The Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network is the premier trade organization dedicated to transforming the commercial real estate industry through the advancement of women. Virtually all the available statistics concerning the status of women in the CRE industry are the result of CREW studies, conducted over a ten-year span (2005, 2010, and 2015).

While the latest study suggests that the income gap between men and women in the industry is shrinking, significant differences still exist. In the 2015 study, the median total compensation was $150,000 for men and $115,000 for women – an income gap of 23.3%. The gap widens with years of experience and position, with the gap at its widest in C-suite positions. In terms of salary, women are disproportionately represented in the below $100,000 income bracket, with virtually no change across the three studies. In the above $250,000 range, there has been only modest improvement. The good news is in the $200,000 - $250,000 bracket, where the percentage of women has grown consistently and consequentially across the three studies, with 40% more women in this category than in 2005, and about 20% more than in 2010. The other encouraging news is that the compensation gap at the entry level is now nearly equal between women and men.

Of those respondents with the highest incomes (above $1 million), the men earned on average $3.21 million, while the average for women in this category was $1.35 million. Since only a minute fraction of the respondents fell within this highest tier, the sample size is too small to draw firm conclusions. Yet, the stark difference is large enough to suggest serious income inequality at this elite income level.

The results were also mixed in the data relating to advancement and career path. While more senior level roles were filled by women in the 2015 survey, the study nevertheless found that “after achieving six to ten years of experience, gender paths seem to vary, with men advancing at a faster pace and women spending more time at mid-level positions.”

One area that saw solid improvement toward gender parity across the three studies was the percentage of women with direct reports (employees who report directly to them). Unlike the two earlier studies, in 2015 the percentage of women with direct reports was on par with that of men (with women at 55%, and men at 57%).

One area where sharp differences were detected in the 2015 study is when respondents were queried about their ultimate career goals. Whereas only 28% of women aspired toward C-suite positions, fully 40% of men did. The plurality of women, by a wide margin (47%) reported that their career goal was to reach the senior vice president level. For men the SVP goal was 39%.

When women were asked what the major barriers were to career success, the top three in descending order were: the lack of a company mentor/sponsor, the lack of promotion opportunity, and gender discrimination.

More recently, a 2018 survey by RETS Associates, a leading CRE recruiting and staffing firm surveyed over 600 women. The results tend to support some of the findings of the CREW study, with the headline of the study reading: “New Survey Reveals Equal Pay the Biggest Challenge Facing Women in Commercial Real Estate.”

An overwhelming 87.2% agreed that the biggest challenge facing women in CRE today is equal pay. This was followed closely by a lack of promotion opportunities (79.2%), and a feeling that female opinions aren’t as valued as their male counterparts. According to the authors, “Gender pay and opportunity discrimination appears to be pervasive within the industry.”

Disturbingly, sixty-five percent of respondents reported that they were made aware of being paid less than a male counterpart at some point in their career. Of those, 75% noted that it happened more than once.

And 61% said that they felt they were passed over for a promotion at least once in their career. Of those 82% reported that it happened more than once.

More optimistic news comes from a 2018 study by the professional services firm, Ferguson Partners. Their survey found that 52% of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) directors appointed in 2018 were female. This is up from 2017, when 41% of newly elected REIT board directors were women.

Jana Turner, a principle with RETS Associates and a former executive of a Fortune 500 CRE company, commented in their article referenced above that as disappointing as the results are, things are moving in the right direction. “Women are more empowered than ever before to stand-up to discrimination, but change must come from the top and currently there aren’t enough women in leadership positions. We’re working to change that.”

And Andra Ghent, associate professor of real estate and urban land economics at the Wisconsin School of Business, commenting on the RETS study in the same article said: “No one wants to work somewhere where they are undervalued or treated unfairly, and the survey shines a light on the fact that the CRE industry still has significant work to do in the area of gender equality.” Ms. Ghent adds that CRE companies, “Need to have performance-based metrics justifying the differences in compensation between employees of similar rank, and understand that when women are treated well, businesses will be rewarded with a motivated workforce ...”

To close the circle of what Professor Ghent alludes to, the reasons to strive toward gender parity are not just moral, they are based on logic and solid business sense. Any company that inhibits advancement based on gender is necessarily stifling their talent pool and therefore stunting their company’s growth potential - and ultimately its bottom line.
Next month, in part 2, we’ll explore what specific steps companies and their female employees can take and are taking to remove the existing obstacles and eliminate gender disparity in our industry.