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Leading From The Front: Female CRE Execs On What Still Needs To Be Done To Achieve Gender Equity

Commercial real estate hasn't always been welcoming to women. But as times change and more women make it to the top, those leading the way say the quest for gender equity isn't only critical to industry profitability but also to the success of the next generation of CRE professionals.

“In order to serve others, you have to do interpersonal work, you have to dig deep,” De La Vega Development Executive Vice President Annmarie De La Vega said at Bisnow’s annual Women Leading Real Estate event Friday at The Westin Dallas Downtown. “It’s an amazing responsibility to use the God-given gifts to encourage and inspire others to rise and make a difference.” 

Emerging female talent in Dallas-Fort Worth's CRE industry was honored at the Nov. 11 event.

Bisnow's event, aimed at promoting diversity and highlighting female-led success in CRE, brought together a group of executives for a panel discussion led by CLA principal Dee Estep on leadership strategies and how to encourage more female involvement in the industry.

This year’s Rising Stars event also honored 20 women who in their roles as developers, brokers, project managers, financiers and more are changing the industry by breaking down barriers and leaving a legacy for the women who come behind them. 

Despite a commitment by many of the largest CRE firms to diversify their ranks, women still represent only 36.7% of CRE professionals, and that statistic hasn’t moved much over the past 15 years, a 2020 report by the Commercial Real Estate Women Network found. 

Urban Land Institute estimates that if the industry continues to hire women at its current pace, it will be another 102 years before there are as many women as men in CRE.

“The more diverse our business [becomes], we learn more, we have a different voice,” Billingsley Co. Senior Vice President Marijke Lantz Flowers said. “We are making progress, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

To shorten that timeline, women need support not only from the industry but also from each other, Gordon Highlander Vice President of Community Development Pam Donaldson said.

“Find people’s strengths, see them, elevate them and inspire them,” she said.

The past several months have been difficult for CRE professionals across the board, with projects paused as corporate America grapples with an impending recession.

De La Vega Development's Annmarie De La Vega, KeyBank's Amber Rao, Newmark's Susan Arledge, ARCO/Murray Design Build's Lauren Ladowski, Billingsley Co.'s Marijke Lantz Flower, Gordon Highlander's Pam Donaldson and CLA's Dee Estep.

Many fear that a slowdown could derail their careers, but KeyBank Vice President Amber Rao, who is also among this year’s honorees, said the time is now for women to make themselves more marketable by learning a new skill or a different area of the business. This is a lesson she learned when the mortgage banking industry ground to a halt in 2008.

“You have to have the humility and the faith to realize that life goes in different directions,” she said. “It’s not a straight trajectory upwards. You may have to take a side step, or even take a step back, to jump ahead later on.”

When deals begin to roll in again, Newmark Senior Managing Director Susan Arledge said women must realize they can’t do it all. Focus on the things you can control, she said, and don’t be afraid to say no to what doesn’t inspire you.

“To think of work-life balance as a right will lead to a lot of disappointment,” she said. “But there are things you can do to manage the chaos in your life.”

Newcomers to the industry have a lot of resources and programs at their disposal to find success in CRE, Rao said. One of the most impactful tools is the connection to a mentor, which the panelists agreed is something every woman should seek out. 

On the flip side, industry veterans also have something to gain from guiding a newbie, said Lauren Ladowski, a principal and partner at ARCO/Murray Design Build and one of this year’s honorees.

“It’s the little things you do along the way that can encourage females and young people in general to stay in this field and feel like they can do it and have confidence to stick it out when times get tough,” she said. “It can go a long way in making sure diversity continues to improve.”

Making a successful career out of CRE takes time, and newcomers should be prepared to work hard but also be patient, the panelists said. Sprint when you can, Arledge said, but know that real estate lives in cycles and savor the quieter moments.

“There will be seasons of life where you thrive and other seasons of life where you feel like you just can't keep all the balls in the air,” De La Vega said. “There’s a reason for that — a lot of growth comes from being a caterpillar before the butterfly emerges.”