Why CRE needs more women—and what we can do about it

Are-times-changing-for-women-in-real-estate-998045-edited.jpgHow many female brokers do you know?

While you may be able to name a few who’ve done remarkably well—women like Heidi Burkhart, for example—they’re getting harder and harder to find. In the past decade, there’s been a 10% decline in the number of female CRE brokers, according to a study by the CREW Network (PDF).

That loss is troubling, especially given how few women are in the industry to start with. According to NAIOP’s 2013  Commercial Real Estate Diversity Report (PDF), there are:

  • 14.1% women at the executive level*
  • 21.5% women at the mid level
  • 29.5% women at the professional level
  • 79.2% women at the clerical level

That’s a shame: these numbers don’t just reflect a loss of female talent at the higher levels, they reflect a massive loss of potential.


Why? Because women bring a very real competitive advantage to the workplace: for starters, high-performing companies boast more female leaders than lower-performers. Women also increase the overall intelligence of work teams and are consistently ranked as better overall leaders by their colleagues, supervisors, and direct reports.

And as our Director of People Ops, Colleen McGarity, recently pointed out, gender diversity can also translate to higher ROI, more innovation, and greater digital fluency.

Want to attract and retain talented women to your brokerage? Here’s where to start.

1. Recognize that there is a problem.

It can be difficult to quantify something like missed potential—after all, if your brokerage has always been mostly male and has always done pretty well, what’s the problem? It’s easy to let things stay as they are, especially if things are good.

“When I have had conversations with male leaders in commercial real estate, there is kind of this little shoulder shrugging thing,” Arin Reeves, president of Nextions consulting, said in a Commercial Observer interview. “They are like, ‘Well, there aren’t any real barriers. We don’t think women want to do this,’ or ‘it’s just a matter of time,’ or ‘it’s not that we are trying to keep women out, they’re just not here.’ There is just this very casual type of dismissal of the lack of women."

But it’s worth asking: are women really not interested in CRE brokerage? Or is there something discouraging them from entering (and rising in) the field? Let’s take a look at what’s really going on, and what you can do about it.

2. Correct for hidden biases in hiring and promotion

A common explanation for why there are so few women in CRE’s leadership ranks is that they simply don’t enter the industry in large enough numbers. This is misleading. While there are fewer women in the industry overall, when you look at the number of mid-level managers for each senior executive, as NAIOP did, a different picture emerges:

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Image credit: NAIOP 2013 Commercial Real Estate Diversity Report

So what’s going on here? To put it in perspective, “A white male mid level manager has a 1 in 3 chance of advancing to Senior Executive. A black female mid level manager has a 1 in 12.6 chance,” the NAIOP report explains.

The numbers suggest that hidden biases may well be restricting women’s movement to the top. And they match up with what people are reporting on the ground, as well: of more than a 1,000 CRE professionals that the CREW Network surveyed, 65% say they had either experienced or observed gender bias at work.

But bias is a sneaky thing, because nobody thinks they’re actually biased! We tend to believe we treat people fairly, even if that’s not the case.

Take the case of 127 scientists—the most objective people on earth, right?—who proved that nobody is immune to bias. During a 2012 Yale study, these scientists were asked to review identical job applications which had been randomly given male or female names. The result? Both the male and female scientists judged the supposed “male” applicants to be a better fit for the job, and were even willing to pay them more money!

The lesson here is that we’re all susceptible to bias. And when it comes to hiring and promotion decisions, that’s a real barrier to progress. One way to correct for this inherent bias is to agree on a specific, objective set of performance measures by which you evaluate every applicant’s suitability for the job, whether that’s for an internal promotion or an outside hire. Sit down with your team and decide on the criteria you value in your office, and hold people accountable for making hiring/promotion decisions based on that criteria.

3. Encourage more female applicants

Talented women who could make a stellar addition to your team may not even think of CRE as an option precisely because they don’t see enough other women in the field. “They don’t think it is something that they could be involved in, in part because they don’t see role models,” says Theresa Garelli, president of CREW New York. “There are some, but for every on there are 10 or 20 men."

So how do you get more women through your doors? Position yourself as a place that welcomes female brokers. Start by including more images of women on your website and in your recruitment materials, advises Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, an expert on the topic. Spotlight the work of women who are already on your team. For example, a blog post that celebrates a recent deal by a female associate sends the message that women are a valuable part of your team, and more of them are welcome in your organization.

4. Promote mentorship opportunities

One of the biggest boundaries to women’s advancement in the CRE field is the lack of mentorship opportunities. According to the CREW Network study, women listed a lack of access to a company mentor or sponsor as the number one barrier to success (men ranked it fifth).

Do you have a formal mentoring program at your office? Explore how you can connect more fledgling brokers with industry veterans, and try to encourage these mentoring relationships between more senior and junior women in your brokerage.

You can also let women know about broader support network like the nationwide CREW Network or more local initiatives, like the Dallas-based Ladies in CRE.

This commitment to the women already on your team, combined with slight tweaks to your hiring and recruitment practices, can slowly start to tip the male-female balance at your office. And with that come all the rewards of a more inclusive workplace, from greater ROI to greater innovation.

What are you doing to attract, retain, and support female brokers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.


Next: Women in CRE tech: 3 questions with our Director of People Ops


*White women only. Hispanic, Asian, Black, and other minority women each represent less than 1% of executive level leadership.

Topics: Industry News