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Unconscious Bias May Be Women's Main Challenge In CRE

Women have made noticeable strides in the commercial real estate industry, but the full diversification of the workforce still has a long way to go, and the toughest obstacle may no longer be overt sexism.

"Very few people you run into are trying to maliciously harm women's careers, it's more an unconscious bias," PNC Executive Vice President Laura Auwerda said Wednesday morning at Bisnow's Chicago Power Women & Rising Stars event.

Verros Berkshire founding partner Ellen Berkshire, WBS Equities CEO Wendy Berger, Urban Innovations President Jo Anne Gottfried, CA Ventures Executive Vice President Katie Kazas, PNC Executive Vice President Laura Auwerda and MAPS President and founder Heather Morrison

Auwerda and other honorees said unconscious bias won't be easy to overcome, especially as such attitudes are held by both male and female colleagues, even those typically considered allies. 

Ellen Berkshire, founding partner of Verros Berkshire and panel moderator, said she has seen unconscious bias at work among her fellow attorneys.

"The women attorneys are always getting called by their first names, but the men get called by their full names, and it's frequently a woman who is doing it."

"That's the challenge we face, and what we really need to do, especially those in upper management, is speak up," Auwerda said.  

One of the most profound changes from the past, she added, is that the workplace is now filled with men who want to help women advance. Still, it takes more than willingness.

Her firm launched a pilot program that regularly brought men and women together to talk through diversity issues, which included listening to women's stories, and some of the men found the experience eye-opening.

"One of my colleagues viewed himself as someone who didn't have unconscious biases, but then recognized that he did," Auwerda said.

Many honorees did note the impressive progress made in just the last few years. Berkshire said after so many years of being confined to certain specialties, such as brokerage, other fields in commercial real estate recently opened up to women, including positions in development, property management, architecture and construction.

"It's mind-boggling the number of opportunities that are available."

WBS Equities CEO Wendy Berger said to take full advantage of the progress that has been made thus far, women need to take risks, and envision themselves succeeding in sectors once thought of as a bit stodgy, including industrial, the field where she made her mark.

"Industrial is now rife with opportunities, and across the U.S., there are so few female developers," she said.

Berger seized on a lucrative chance by getting in on the ground floor of the rapidly expanding cannabis sector. A board member and investor in Green Thumb Industries, a Chicago-based company that cultivates and sells cannabis across many states, she saw early on how it was similar to her specialty of developing food-related industrial buildings.

Rather than adopting a wait-and-see attitude, Berger jumped into the new sector with gusto more than six years ago. Green Thumb is now set for a major expansion as it moves to also supply newly legal recreational marijuana to Illinois customers, after providing medicinal cannabis for the past few years.

"Take your expertise, be fearless, be courageous and have confidence, even if you don't feel it, and seize that opportunity," Berger advised.   

Convene Enterprise Account Director Jillian Brown, Free Market Ventures Managing Director Lauren Mead, Cushman & Wakefield Director, Head of Industrial Research Carolyn Salzer, Chicago Association of Realtors CEO Michelle Mills Clement, McCaffery Senior Vice President Carly Stevenson and Avison Young principal and legal counsel Nicole White

The dramatic increase in diversity in the last few years has not just been in gender diversity.

Michelle Mills Clement pointed out that she was the Chicago Association of Realtors' first African American CEO in its more than century-long history, and both the organization, and the commercial real estate industry in general, now have to reckon with the past.

"Chicago real estate has a deep, dark history when it comes to segregation, and unfortunately, our association was a part of that," she said.  

Part of her mission with the group is to shed light on its past role in redlining the city, and steering African Americans and other minorities away from certain neighborhoods, and hopefully, make it part of the solution.   

"I'm very open talking about it, and don't shy away from it," she added. 

There is work yet to do.

Nicole White, legal counsel for Avison Young, joined the industry a few years ago, and found it was not as diverse as she thought. She believes it is important to keep pushing.

"We may not see giant leaps forward, so we have to be content to see the needle move incrementally," she said.

As the honorees look toward the future, they said they hope there will be attention paid to how to better integrate family life with the ability to pursue career goals.

Free Market Ventures Managing Director Lauren Mead has a 9-year-old son, and is expecting another child in April, and believes helping new parents should not be considered a burden by businesses. Parents typically get work done quickly so they can meet child care obligations such as attending school events. 

"Working moms are sometimes the most efficient employees you have," she said.

Mills Clement also has a young child, and as the person in charge of an organization, is now in a position to improve conditions. The association now has full-paid parental leave of three months.

"It takes the people sitting in the corner office to make change, so if you're at the top, do it," she said. 

Mead is hopeful that many more changes are on the way. A chief reason for that optimism is that women in real estate tend to stick together, far more than in the other industries she worked in, including tech and banking.

"I think it's important that this sorority stay in place, because the fraternities are already here."