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Forget Quotas And Boilerplate Language, To Break The Glass Ceiling CRE Women Must First Tackle Unconscious Bias

Walking into a top-performer awards ceremony in commercial real estate is a rewarding experience. For a woman, it can also be extremely lonely, if she takes a moment to look around the room and think about it. 

“It is challenging when you walk in an environment and you are the only woman, or the only person with a diverse background," JLL Executive Vice President Brooke Armstrong told Bisnow.

"We just came from our national conference, and it felt pretty diverse," she said. "Then, I attended the 'Top Gun Dinner,' which was the top 10% of our producers, and I actually didn't notice — because I have gotten used to it. But I walked up to the bartender and he goes, 'Do you feel out of place? Do you feel comfortable?' And I looked around, and I thought, 'Yeah, now that you mention it.'"

JLL Managing Director Kimarie Ankenbrand (left) sees one-on-one mentorship as the key to development female leaders.

Changing this scenario is a key part of Armstrong's involvement in diversity efforts for JLL. One of the main issues stalling the development of CRE women leaders is the unconscious biases that recruiters and executives unknowingly carry with them into the workplace, into networking interactions and at awards ceremonies.

"Unconscious gender bias occurs because of default thinking within both men and women as a result of social and cultural conditioning," AEI Consultants CEO and CREW Network President Holly Neber said. "The ways we are raised and what we see in the media affect the ways in which we categorize people. Both men and women hold unconscious biases, and it's important to be aware of these tendencies." 

In the commercial real estate sector, unconscious bias against women and other diverse groups bubbles to the surface so quietly, it's often hard to address directly, Neber said. But the lasting effects may keep women from staying in the industry or pursuing a leadership position. 

"Access and introductions to high-value clients and challenging projects is an area where existing company leadership, if it is mostly men, may unconsciously funnel those opportunities to people like them — this is called the affinity bias and affects both genders," Neber said. "It takes people stepping outside of their comfort zone and sponsoring someone different from them for those opportunities." 

JLL, a firm that has ranked for four years in a row as a Top Company For Executive Women by the National Association of Female Executives, is trying to tackle unconscious bias head-on. The brokerage giant said it is looking at revamping the commission structure — often cited as a key reason for the lack of racial diversity — and developing artificial intelligence to use during the hiring process.

Unconscious bias may be a silent career killer, but its impact is open for all to see. Of 1,019 industry professionals interviewed by CREW Network in 2016, 65% of respondents witnessed gender bias against women in the CRE workplace during a five-year period. Fifty-five percent saw women excluded from work-related outings. 

Other unconscious biases that hide in broad daylight include interrupting women during meetings, assuming they'll be the ones to take notes, and underestimating their abilities without mindfully reviewing the quality of their work. 

Removing bias will get easier as a younger generation with mothers in the workforce age into the system, but it will take time and focus, former CREW President B. Diane Butler said. She previously was chairman and CEO of CRE valuation firm Butler Burgher Group. 

"Removing bias in the selection of an assignment or performance evaluation and asking people to justify their decisions with facts will help," Butler said. "Stereotypes are socially ingrained and reflect our experience, what we see as normal. 'Normal' should be women holding senior roles and being promoted. Normalizing women in senior roles will begin to change and reprogram our thinking."

JLL Managing Director Kimarie Ankenbrand, who formerly served on the company’s Dallas team and is now leading its Raleigh-Durham office, spoke to Bisnow about the brokerage side of the business. Alongside Ankenbrand, Dallas-based Armstrong has served three years on the JLL national leadership council.

“[Brokerage] is slowly starting to elevate women into leadership positions within our client-facing brokerage team,” Ankenbrand said.

Yet, she and Armstrong are two of just three female sales office leads at JLL.

JLL Executive Vice President Brooke Armstrong

The two executives paint a realistic picture of what unconscious bias looks like in action — and how men and women can combat it.

“People hire their friends, their family, the alumni of their own school," Armstrong said. "Human nature [is] to want to gravitate towards people like you, that look like you and that you have things in common with, so you have to be focused in making an effort to make [change] happen."

Expanding the recruiting universe can help combat a recruiter's bias toward one type of employee, and in the process, remove another type of insidious bias against men and women who come from different social classes. 

“At the end of the day, diversity is about gender and ethnicity, but it’s also about including different skills sets," Ankenbrand said. "So maybe they have a consulting background or a technology background, or they came from HR or banking."

Socioeconomic factors also play a role in creating negative assumptions, Armstrong and Ankenbrand said.

"I think, traditionally, the makeup of our brokers, they all kind of grew up in the same neighborhood, they have the same colleges [on their résumés], they belong to the same country club, so it’s really being mindful of maybe somebody with a different socioeconomic background can bring a different perspective to our clients,” Ankenbrand said. 


How To Eliminate Unconscious Bias Altogether?

What doesn't work for removing unconscious bias is a quota system or a check-the-box interview process. 

“I think having a conversation on diversity in this light, it’s going to help us produce high-value female talent without putting quotas and mandates on our sales force to go hire women,” Ankenbrand said. "Because at the end of the day, I tell people I will hire a man or a woman, but I need that diverse skill set and diverse résumé.

“I think [JLL] is doing a really good job of fostering that mindset, and I am starting to see it resonate with our brokers a lot more when they feel like we are not just telling them, 'You have to check the box, and here is a quota, and here’s HR training.'"

Another failure all too common is the creation of networking groups that have little to no structure or the ability to provide or voice, or step-by-step guidance, to women and diverse populations. 

“What I have seen in the past not work is throwing together a networking group or just haphazardly putting things together," Armstrong said. "I think you have to be disciplined and focused on pursuing increasing diversity and that shows up in one-on-one mentoring."

To attract more women and diverse populations to CRE, JLL officials said the company is thinking about retooling its compensation model and evaluating whether a commission-based approach works in attracting a diverse applicant pool that is often looking for steady income or stability right away.

The company is also exploring issues surrounding maternity leave to ensure women returning from having a child do not suffer from backpedaling with so many deals requiring day-to-day involvement and longer time frames. The realities of raising a family have been a key factor women cite as to why they still feel a glass ceiling.  

JLL hopes to lean on AI in the future to remove human bias from the employee selection process altogether. The CRE firm has been working on an AI solution that will provide predictive analytics regarding an individual candidate's potential at the company.  

The good news is unlike humans, AI would be able to review data objectively. The bad news is humans are still doing the hiring, and women are still feeling the effects of bias in the workplace.

CORRECTION: MARCH 27 8:20 A.M. CT: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of AEI Consultants. This story has been updated.