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Women Having To Go It Alone Is ‘Not An Option Anymore,’ Houston CRE Leaders Say

PJ Glasco, the Houston health leader for CannonDesign, has spent the last 20 years designing healthcare facilities across the country. Despite her success, the mother of 10-year-old twin girls saw others doubt she would be ready for career moves early in her daughters’ lives. Glasco and her mentors had to step in to say that decisions about her career should not be made without her.

“We’re too far down the line for women becoming leaders … for [women working in commercial real estate] to be afraid to talk about your life choices. That is not an option anymore,” Glasco said.

DPR Construction's Dichelle Burrus, CannonDesign's PJ Glasco, CBRE's Kristen Rabel, JLL's Susan Hill, Barvin's Susan Pohl and Douglas Elliman's Catherine Lee.

Glasco spoke along with four other women in the commercial real estate industry at Bisnow’s Dec. 9 Women Leading Real Estate event in Houston, which also honored the city's latest cohort of Power Women, 20 innovative and daring leaders who are reshaping the industry.

At the event, panelists emphasized it was multiple people along the way and people of all genders who helped further their careers, not just a single mentor.

JLL Senior Managing Director Susan Hill was a single mother when she began her career. She said Mark Gibson, now CEO of capital markets in the Americas at JLL, didn’t care that she was a single mom, instead becoming one of the most influential people in her career, exhibiting patience and growing alongside her.

“If you’re passionate about your experience and your field of expertise, you will be successful and help people along the way,” Hill said.

Barvin Senior Vice President of Acquisitions Susan Pohl looked to Eileen Subinsky, the first female president of the Houston Apartment Association and the Texas Apartment Association, for inspiration early in her career. At the time, Pohl said, women working in commercial real estate were pigeonholed into administrative and accounting work. When Pohl reached out to Subinsky, then retired, for the name of someone to help start a property management company, Subinsky told her she was so bored with retirement, she'd volunteer herself. 

“I never thought in my career that I would ever be working with this woman again," Pohl said. "I’m getting kind of teared up just thinking about it. She’s just such an amazing person [and] a great mentor."

Douglas Elliman Chief Operating Officer and in-house counsel Catherine Lee at Bisnow's Women Leading Real Estate event Dec. 9 in Houston.

In a modern labor market with many women and working mothers, the commercial real estate industry persistently lags behind other sectors when it comes to women in leadership — or women's representation in general. Despite making up roughly half of the U.S. workforce, only 36% of those employed in commercial real estate were women, according to a 2020 benchmark study from the Commercial Real Estate Women Network. Just 9% of C-suite positions were held by women, and 45% of respondents reported an instance of offensive behavior the year before, though they said they were hopeful workplace culture was changing. Only 13% of respondents identified as a person of color.

Like many companies outside the industry, commercial real estate firms have repeatedly stated they would like to increase the number of women and people of color in their ranks and in top leadership. According to a November Bisnow report, numbers have improved, albeit slowly and unevenly. Most improvement in diverse leadership has happened among public companies, but among the 26 commercial real estate-focused REITs in the S&P 500, for instance, the number of women with “chief” in their titles has increased from 24 last year to 33 today.

Having guides to help women chart a path to leadership is just one part of the solution, but an important step, panelists said.

As a law student, Douglas Elliman Chief Operating Officer and in-house counsel Catherine Lee said she felt too shy to cold-call a Douglas Elliman tax attorney and ask for advice. But she did it, on the urging of another professional.

“I don’t know if it’s a female thing, but at least for me, I was very shy as a kid. That didn’t feel comfortable for me at all to cold-call a lawyer at a law firm and say, ‘I’d like to have lunch with you to understand what it’s like to work at this firm,’” Lee said. “But that stuck out for me. I feel that’s how I got that job, because I made that impression.”