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It's Time To Bring More Women Back Into The Workforce, CRE Leaders Say

Women in the workplace got hit harder than men by the pandemic and all the disruptions it brought, with many leaving their jobs to handle the burdens of family care. Now it is time to start reversing that trend and bring women back into the workforce, according to leaders in the commercial real estate industry.

“We built a lot in this country on the backs of the unpaid labor of women,” Luxury Living Chicago co-founder and Chief Culture Officer Amy Galvin said last week during Bisnow’s Power Women Chicago event.

CIBC U.S.’ Karen Case, Millbrook Properties’ Jen Sweeney, Luxury Living Chicago’s Amy Galvin and Pine Tree’s Shelley Xu.

It was common in the past for women to put off careers to care for children, and even though there is more balance these days, some in society still expect professional women to take on more responsibility than their partners when it comes to caring for family members, she added. That helped push down women’s participation in the workforce to 57% in 2021, the lowest since 1988, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. Overall, 2.3 million women left the U.S. workforce in the year after the pandemic began, while 1.8 million men left the workforce during the same period.

Galvin had a message, especially for men, and especially for male partners of working women.

“Be aware of this, see how you can help, and let’s get women back into the workforce,” she said.

Galvin added that she has already been successful in the past when it comes to recruiting and promoting women.

“In 2016, I was very disappointed we were not going to have a woman president,” she said. “But I also realized I could make change in my corner of the world.”

Bench Park’s Mia Gorman, Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture’s Sophie Bidek, L3 Capital’s Whitney Robinette, Chicago Association of Realtors’ Michelle Mills Clement and Gould & Ratner’s Linsey Cohen.

Many of the clients her firm shows apartments to are women, and Galvin said she realized many might be more comfortable with female brokers. The company intentionally increased its percentage of women on staff from 41% to 72%. Over the past few years, the firm has had to pay careful attention to women who go on maternity leave, making sure to integrate them back into the office at the right time.

“You change after you become a mom,” she said, adding many struggle to balance all the roles they now have to play, including as a professional, a mom and a partner. “Sometimes we lose ourselves when those three things happen to us.”

Pine Tree Senior Portfolio Manager Shelley Xu said she appreciated how her firm not only helped her get her foot in the door but also prepared her for the rest of her career. Xu was hunting for a real estate job during the pandemic after a career switch, and after landing her position at Pine Tree, she decided to also go back to graduate school for an MBA. It is a lot to juggle, as it means frequent trips to The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. But the company wanted her to do it and build up her skills.

“As long as you get your work done, at Pine Tree, you have time for yourself and there is a lot of flexibility built in,” Xu said.

Taylor Johnson Public Relations’ Emily Johnson, Redwood Capital Group’s Tammy Kelly, Assurance’s Sue Myers and First American Title Insurance Co.’s Lisa Sweeney.

Millbrook Properties Executive Director Jen Sweeney said it is more important than ever for commercial real estate leaders to show compassion for their employees. The pandemic left so many stranded at home, often caring for either children or elderly parents. Unavoidably, their jobs sometimes suffered, a situation that calls for understanding rather than criticism.

“What a lot of leaders do lack is compassion, and we’ve learned over the past two years how important that is,” Sweeney said.

Galvin added that ditching a big ego will also be key as the industry puts itself back together.

“Ego, as well, can be the downfall of a leader who believes he knows everything,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the leader of an organization if I thought I knew everything. I hire people who are experts at what they do.”

Showing compassion, keeping an ego in check and bringing women back into the workforce can all be done through mentoring, Galvin said. And helping a young colleague through the industry’s ups and downs provides a benefit for both parties.

“We sometimes forget what it was like, and having a mentee reminds you of those things and keeps you humble,” she said. “I think we all needed a little love and support over the past two years.”