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Silence vs. Success: Women In CRE Still Not Saying #MeToo

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As thousands of women prepare to fly to the Commercial Real Estate Women Network’s annual convention in Orlando this week, the organization dedicated to the advancement of women in the industry says addressing sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t part of its mission.

CREW Network, a global organization with more than 11,000 members, has maintained an internal policy for the last two years to not comment on #MeToo, Bisnow has learned.

In an interview Friday, amid preparations for the three-day conference, CREW Network CEO Wendy Mann explained why the organization made a conscious decision to exclude sexual harassment from its research and outreach efforts.

"Our decision relates to staying on mission. If there’s some aspect of the #MeToo movement that you’re asking me about, that’s not our mission,” Mann told Bisnow. “We want to stay focused on what the mission of the organization is about."

Silence vs. Success: Women In CRE Still Not Saying #MeToo

It has been two years since the #MeToo movement erupted, brought down titans of industry for sexual misconduct and sparked a change in workplace gender dynamics. But in commercial real estate, the movement remains largely in the shadows.  

Bisnow has spoken to more than 50 women — some on the record, some on the condition of anonymity — about how the #MeToo movement has actually played out in the industry. 

When women are harassed, they are faced with a no-win scenario: report their abuser and be branded a troublemaker or worse, or stay quiet and keep moving up the food chain. 

CREW’s official mission is “to transform the commercial real estate industry by advancing women globally.” CREW focuses on “systemic issues” like culture, equality and diversity, Mann said. She denied that the widespread harassment that sparked the #MeToo movement was a systemic cultural issue for CREW to take on.

The 10-member CREW Network board decided during one meeting in 2017 that the organization would stay mum on #MeToo, Mann said, and the group hasn’t revisited the idea since.

But the dozens of women Bisnow interviewed said sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace is a real issue affecting lives and commercial real estate careers to this day.

“Just because we don’t talk about it doesn’t mean there’s not a ‘there’ there,” said Diane Danielson, the chief operating officer for commercial real estate advisory firm SVN International Corp. “These issues permeate all industries. Commercial real estate is not immune.”

While many of the conversations for this story mentioned how the industry has advanced significantly in recent years with respect to diversity, many others expressed frustration with the industry’s persistent lack of gender equality.

Abusers often remain in power. Instances of misconduct are passed through word-of-mouth. Women often tell other women to come to them with a problem rather than take it to human resources — companies carry a reputation of protecting their business's interests over victims'.

"I’m not saying it’s our responsibility [to defend other women from harassment], but maybe it is,” said Deena Zimmerman, a Chicago-based vice president at SVN. “Powerful women in Hollywood banded together to make things right, but it comes with a price. Unfortunately, we’re the ones to get blacklisted." 

Only in recent years has the industry begun to push for more diversity and inclusion, something many women interviewed for this story say is a result of mom-and-pop companies getting acquired by larger corporations that answer to a diverse array of shareholders. 

Despite the strides the industry has made to prevent bad behavior, it still exists, women say, and usually goes unreported. Some women don’t want to risk alienating their male colleagues and, in their minds, jeopardize the industry-wide progress that has already been achieved. 

“Women who have made it have often made it because we’ve played along,” one female executive said on the condition of anonymity. “Understandably, we come from the machine of ‘you don’t get anywhere in this industry by ruffling feathers.’”

‘If A Client Wants To Go To A Topless Bar, You Take Them’

Silence vs. Success: Women In CRE Still Not Saying #MeToo

While inappropriate behavior in commercial real estate is not openly discussed at corporate dinner parties, most women in the profession can easily recall examples of bad behavior they’ve seen or heard.

“Years ago, a well-known, now-deceased developer grabbed my ass at the REBNY gala, and everybody laughed. That was in the late 1980s or early 1990s,” one longtime New York City real estate executive said on the condition of anonymity. "I really felt abused because they laughed. These are head honchos in the real estate industry. Laughing."

She said it was one of multiple occasions where she had been inappropriately touched at industry gatherings, where open bars are commonplace. 

“Recently, a client inappropriately put his hands on my butt at an industry event,” she said. “A well-placed knee goes a long way.” 

But, she said, in a male-dominated field, a woman’s complaint about inappropriate behavior would do more to isolate her than her harasser.

“What are you going to do, call the police?” she said. “You want another job? Good luck with that.”

New York real estate consultant Suzy Reingold, a former Cushman & Wakefield executive who sued the firm for gender discrimination in 2013, said men sometimes include women in meetings as an ulterior motive to take them out for a drink. Younger women hoping for advice or advancement find that sometimes comes with strings attached.

“As I progressed and mentored many young women over the years, I found they have trouble finding their way in the business on how to deal with some men,” Reingold said. Her suit against C&W was later withdrawn.

Crude comments and sexism surface more frequently as they move up in the ranks, some women said. CREW’s most recent Benchmarks survey found that 54% of the industry’s “mid-level associate and senior positions” are filled by women, but the number drops to 9% at the C-suite level. 

“I have even been told the only business that I’ve gotten is because men wanted to, and he used a horrible word (for it) ... have sex with me,” a top female executive with a commercial real estate firm told Bisnow. “Those things are still said.”

Silence vs. Success: Women In CRE Still Not Saying #MeToo

SVN’s Zimmerman advises retail clients on property investments and specializes in tenant representation, so keeping close relationships with clients is an important part of her job.  

So when one of her clients forcibly put his hand up her dress at an event two years ago, she didn’t stop working with him, she told Bisnow in an interview earlier this year, the first time she has discussed the incident publicly. 

When it happened, she immediately recoiled, and he apologized, Zimmerman said. Their business relationship continued, and he introduced her to a potential new client at a dinner weeks later. After that prospective client left the dinner, Zimmerman said her groper again apologized, and she accepted and was ready to let it stay in the past.

After another drink, the client turned his phone to show Zimmerman a nude photo of himself and asked her if she wanted to get a room, she said. She got up and left.

“That was really hard, because I thought we were friends and that he respected me as a woman in the industry,” she said. “I honestly felt more violated by that than when he tried to put his hand up my dress.” 

Aaliyah Haqq joined the commercial real estate industry last year as a vice president at Dominus Commercial in Dallas, after a decade working for a professional executive leadership development firm.

Even though she came into the business a decade into her professional life and after #MeToo erupted, Haqq said what she hears and sees at meetings and events in the commercial real estate industry takes her by surprise. In the last year, Haqq said she has still seen brokers entertain clients at strip clubs.

“I wouldn’t be asked to join that if that was going on, nor would I want to go,” she said. “But that also shows the way in which people sometimes deepen relationships through sharing different experiences. And, as a woman, you have to choose whether you want to be a part of that or not. And for men, it’s just a foregone conclusion that if a client wants to go to a topless bar, you take them to a topless bar.”

Maria Sicola, who sued Cushman & Wakefield in 2015 alleging gender discrimination after losing her job as head of research for the Americas, says having to listen to sexually hostile or explicit jokes isn’t unusual in a real estate office.

“Whether those are jokes about rape, or comments made about women who work late, [saying they] are really there looking for a husband,” Sicola said. She recalled comments made to her about other women when they walked past certain offices.  

“They would be rated and scored as if they were in some type of beauty contest,” Sicola said.

She and other women in the business say unconscious bias, or a failure to recognize the presence of women, often surfaces in more pernicious ways, particularly when it comes to networking and relationship building. CREW wrote a white paper addressing unconscious bias in 2016.

Unconscious bias is usually not as extreme as a strip club trip in 2019, but more commonly takes the form of women not being called on in meetings, disparities in pay or being treated as something less than equal, regardless of job title.

“It typically fell on me, or it was more presumed, that I would make the coffee in the morning, or that if someone needed something printed out, I would print it for them and then go grab it from the printer for them, which is not in my job description at all, but you see a lot of that,” said one female executive, who has nine years of experience in the industry.

Trying To Litigate #MeToo

Silence vs. Success: Women In CRE Still Not Saying #MeToo

Women have voiced frustration over relative #MeToo silence in commercial real estate and the lack of a “Harvey Weinstein moment” compared to other industries. But in a post-Weinstein era, people realize how high the stakes are and the impact of bad behavior, said Mary Ann Tighe, the CEO of the New York Tri-State region for CBRE.

Despite the evolving culture around harassment in the workplace, a woman today would think long and hard about the ramifications of coming forward with a complaint. Last year, Tighe, one of the world’s top-producing office brokers, spoke publicly about a man who recently asked her over the phone during a deal negotiation if anyone had told her “how sexy you are when you curse.”  

After Tighe went public with her story, she told Bisnow another woman in the industry approached her and said the same man had subjected her to “physical aggression.”

“And I said to her, ‘So why haven't you come out about it?’” Tighe said. “And she said, ‘Because when people Google my name, I don’t want it to be the first thing that comes up.’

“[You’re] a person looking to hire a real estate adviser… And the first thing that jumps up is a story where they're bringing charges? You’d have this moment in which you'd ask yourself, ‘Do I want to engage in this?’ And that hesitation can cost you business, I'm sure,” she said. “It takes courage.” 

Several commercial real estate firms have had to reckon with reports and lawsuits over harassment, some of which have been settled and some of which are ongoing.

Two women — Alice Vysata and Kinga Tabares — sued the president of Apartment Rental Assistance II, which manages a national portfolio of about 18,000 apartments. In separate complaints, they claim Marc Menowitz, a third-generation apartment owner based in Los Angeles, sexually harassed them over a number of years. 

Vysata, who joined the firm in 2011, accused him of making constant unwanted sexual advances, asking her for “dirty pictures,” and sending her flowers to her home in 2017 with an explicit, embarrassing note she said was read by her family. 

“[Now] I get called back [for jobs], and then I do good interviews over the phone, but once they do the background check and find the lawsuit, nobody wants to touch me, nobody wants to hire me,” Vysata said in an interview. 

Her lawyer said Menowitz, ARA and entities he controls have filed eight lawsuits against Vysata, some of which had been dismissed and some of which are ongoing, alleging she illegally profited from her former employer by taking commissions without a real estate license.

Tabares’ lawyer declined to comment. Menowitz denies the allegations, and through a spokesperson claimed Vysata’s “accusations have been inflated” and she doesn’t have standing to sue because “she has always worked as a real estate agent on commission.” He declined to comment on Tabares’ allegations.

Menowitz is just one of the men who have been sued for sexual harassment and gender discrimination, along with the companies that allegedly enabled their behavior.

In the last year and a half, Newmark Knight Frank was sued in New York by a former administrative assistant claiming she was fired for reporting sexual harassment against a vice chairman; tenant representation firm Cresa settled a harassment claim against several of its principals; and WeWork was sued by a former director of culture who claimed she was sexually assaulted twice at company parties.

Wafra Investment Advisory Group, the Kuwait sovereign wealth fund’s real estate arm, fired its head of real estate, Frank Lively, in April 2018 after a subordinate claimed he sexually harassed her and pursued her romantically over the course of six years.

He denied the claims — they were dismissed in court — and has since sued the company. His lawyer claimed in an email that Lively was forced out as the company was trying to “rid itself of senior executives based on their age."

Last year, following an explosive Wall Street Journal investigation in which multiple people accused him of forcing them into sex acts, Steve Wynn resigned as CEO of Wynn Resorts. Executives have been accused of knowing of, but turning a blind eye to, the misconduct. 

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission levied a $35M fine against Wynn Resorts and a $500K fine against Matthew Maddox, the company’s CEO, for failing to properly investigate misconduct in the workplace. Nevada gaming regulators fined the company $20M. Steve Wynn maintains he was wrongly accused.

Sicola's case against Cushman & Wakefield is still pending as a judge decides whether the case can proceed to trial, her attorney said. In the years since she lost her job, she has founded her own company, CityStream Solutions. She said she looked for a full-time job at other commercial real estate firms and came up empty.

"I think some of that is there was some wariness on the part of employers because of the fact that I was involved in litigation with Cushman," she said.

When asked if she regrets her decision to sue C&W in 2015, two years before the Weinstein scandal changed the country, Sicola grew emotional as she defended the decision to start what is now a four-year legal battle. C&W said it doesn't comment on litigation.

"I can’t tell you that there aren’t moments when this isn’t still extraordinarily difficult," she said. "I will tell you I would never be able to live with myself if I had not done this when there are still people at the firm I left in positions of power."

Evolving, Eventually

Silence vs. Success: Women In CRE Still Not Saying #MeToo

Even if CRE has been less publicly forthcoming with #MeToo than other industries, there has been more conversation around diversity and inclusion, which is seen as a significant advancement for the historically white-male-dominated industry.

Some women interviewed pointed to a changing corporate culture and companies’ taking concrete steps toward being more inclusive, like forming dedicated groups within companies to push inclusivity and advance women.

Others said the industry’s approach to the movement has more to do with looking forward than reckoning with the past. 

“We can’t look at the 1980s with a 2019 lens, but, if it’s still going on, then that person has not evolved,” Danielson said. “That said, if something does happen, who do you say it to or report it to? That’s the issue you circle around.”

Boston-based Nitsch Engineering founder Judith Nitsch has her own #MeToo story, from a client who harassed her 40 years ago, she said. But she believes it is also important to recognize that not all men in the industry are misbehaving. 

When a woman at a large Boston-based firm called her several years ago to complain about workplace misconduct, Nitsch told the woman to go up the chain of command since the male principal, whom Nitsch knew, would be mortified.  

“I felt good that she had the gumption and nerves to call me, but I absolutely knew if I called the principal at the firm, he would support her,” Nitsch said. “As many times as there are jerks, there are many more good guys, too.”

While it isn’t always easy, some women do feel more empowered to speak out.

The industry of today is not how it was when Zimmerman first started in 2004 and witnessed plenty of bad behavior. Like other women who spoke to Bisnow, Zimmerman felt she had done something wrong to warrant the behavior. That is no longer the case. 

When a man grabbed her three years ago, she said she initially thought she might be chastised for going public. Instead, colleagues supported her.

“Acknowledge that it happened, stop being angry with yourself that it happened and step up,” she said. “If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything.”

The Courage To Come Forward

Silence vs. Success: Women In CRE Still Not Saying #MeToo

When asked several times over the span of the half-hour interview Friday if sexual misconduct was an impediment to advancing women in real estate, Mann repeated her response: “The CREW Network board discussed this topic and they agreed we would stay on mission and focus on our purpose of advancing women in real estate.”

CREW remains focused on what it sees as key issues to advancing women in the workplace, like pay parity, career advancement and unconscious bias. 

“Is there sexual harassment in the workplace in commercial real estate? I’m absolutely sure there is, we see it in the news, hear the stories and see lawsuits filed,” Mann said. 

When she was asked if CREW has a mechanism to help women who have been harassed, Mann said, “I think if someone has a sexual harassment claim, they should consult a lawyer.”

Bisnow also reached out to top brokerage houses like Colliers, CBRE, Cushman & Wakefield and JLL with respect to how each have addressed company policies after the #MeToo movement took hold in 2017. 

A CBRE spokesperson said the firm’s existing human resources policies that pre-date #MeToo are seen as enough to prevent issues of misconduct at their respective firms. Cushman & Wakefield declined to comment. Colliers and JLL did not respond to Bisnow’s query.

For now, women say they feel most comfortable turning to other women when a problem arises. Maybe they get lucky, like the woman Nitsch helped to keep her job.

“I don’t know if it’s the best way to go about it, but it’s the only way to go about it right now,” Zimmerman said. “It’s progress.”

At a Bisnow event last winter, Nitsch told a crowded room of Boston real estate professionals to come to her — if they can’t or don’t want to go to HR — if they ever had difficulties at work due to #MeToo. 

While none have reached out, Nitsch said in early August the offer still stands. 

“When I look back on it, I had nobody to talk to, and you feel like ‘what did I do?’ You don’t realize you didn’t do anything wrong,” she added. “To have an option out there that you may not have known about is important. We need to make sure people have something they can do, because it’s hard to live with yourself when you’re going through some of this shit.”  

While the global CREW organization has deliberately avoided the topic, the CREW chapter in Dallas hosted an event relating to sexual harassment in the workplace. While CREW didn’t provide resources for the event, Mann said if local chapters want to host events around harassment and workplace gender dynamics, “that’s their prerogative.” 

“CREW is an organization that cares deeply about its members and wants to focus on our mission to advance women at all levels of commercial real estate,” Mann said. “I think that, as long as we are focused on our priorities and research on issues related to parity, equity, culture and inclusion, that we feel we are working on behalf of all women to address some of the largest issues in CRE.” 

While it might not be what every woman in the industry wants to hear, Mann said she has not personally heard any complaints. CREW’s attitude about publicly addressing #MeToo, after all, is shared by most women in the industry.

“As much as I don’t like it, I almost give CREW credit for not commenting on it much,” one broker said. “If we speak out, nobody will want to work with us.”