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CRE Can Win The ‘Endgame’ On Gender Parity — But Industry Women Say It Needs To Get Busy Playing

This is Part 2 of a series. Part 1 dove into the retention crisis among women in the early and middle stages of their CRE careers and how mounting frustration could make that worse, stopping the industry's small steps toward gender parity in their tracks.

When Melina Cordero was first introduced to concepts like “the broken rung” and “the glass cliff,” they were both unfamiliar and revelatory. 

It came as a shock for the Washington, D.C.-based former CBRE retail capital markets head to realize that she had experienced both phenomena, as well as other common systemic hurdles, throughout her professional life.

Now, as founder of inclusive workplace consultancy P20, Cordero spends her days helping companies develop strong diversity, equity and inclusion programs and policies, often educating them on the same terms that opened her eyes years ago and watching others jolt into awareness.

“The sense of relief that you see on a woman's face when she has been struggling with this for years, she thinks it's her fault, and you tell her, ‘Oh, no, this is a structural or systemic issue,’ is mind-blowing. Mind-blowing,” Cordero said.


Her firsthand experiences highlight that many women struggle to articulate the structural barriers holding them back in the workplace. They also underline how challenging the conversation necessary to fix them can be as CRE grapples with a crisis-level retention problem, especially among women in its lower and middle ranks.

But if the industry is to make meaningful progress in closing the gender gap and retaining women from the entry level through its highest echelons, it needs to stop with the small talk and commit to taking action, women leaders told Bisnow.

“We're still talking about the same sort of hurdles and barriers to women's advancement into leadership that we've been talking about for 40 years,” said Collete English Dixon, executive director of Roosevelt University’s Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate.

“The biggest consistent issue around the industry's diversity initiatives, no matter what they are and what they have been, has been about, ‘Are we committed to it, are we intentional about it and are we going to be persistent with it?’ Without those things, it's kind of hard to reach the endgame.” 

Building on pandemic-era scheduling flexibility is one easy start, women told Bisnow, though that long-awaited workplace change is threatened by a CRE push to get back to the office. Greater transparency that holds employers accountable, whether that means tracking and sharing hiring and promotion figures or making anonymized salary information by gender broadly available, is also key.

But perhaps the most important part of any progress, CRE leaders said, is enlisting the advocacy of men. Those who spoke to Bisnow indicated time and again that the gap between men and women in CRE cannot be closed by women alone — by shifting their demeanors and behaviors in an effort to fit in or by being left alone to advocate for themselves.

“If we want to close this gender gap in our industry, we are going to need [men’s] support and commitment, and hold them accountable because they are crucial in advancing a lot of women’s careers,” said Yunia Lubega, senior director of sales recruiting and head of DEI for Marcus & Millichap. 

Garland Fuller

CRE has shown that it is capable of change, as women have made modest progress in the C-suite and at the boardroom table over the past four years. Yet for those struggling to get there — and hitting obstacles inherent to a system made for and still mostly run by men — small, incremental gains only emphasize how far there still is to go.

Responses to a Bisnow survey conducted last month, and interviews with almost 20 CRE professionals, indicate that many early and mid-career women are frustrated by their prospects and increasingly driven to leave the industry altogether, citing factors like a lingering old boys’ network, an environment hostile to caregivers, unconscious bias and more limited avenues to training and mentorship than their male colleagues. 

The roadblocks are nothing new, but those interviewed for this series say CRE’s approach to them needs to be, especially given studies making a robust business case for including more women up and down the chain. One McKinsey report shows that greater female representation correlates with stronger performance, with companies where women made up more than 30% of executives outperforming those with percentages ranging from 10% to 30% — the range where the bulk of big CRE firms lie.

Women and their advocates in the industry say it’s high time CRE seizes on that information, much of it years old, and runs with it. 

“Compared to the overall budget of expenditures in the firm, [DEI] seems to be more lip-service than anything,” wrote one New York-based senior executive who participated in Bisnow’s survey. “No one is devoted to the programs — it's all led by women who have very busy ‘day jobs’ and no real time to commit to programming.”

Flexible First

The last time Bisnow checked in on how women in CRE were faring, it coincided with the two-year anniversary of a punishing pandemic that set many women on a backward trajectory. Yet, the one positive cited consistently was the ability to work from home or on a flexible hybrid schedule, something women across all industries had fought for over years.


Four years after the pandemic’s onset, flexible work is the norm in many industries. Yet in CRE, the drive to prop up the flagging office market has propelled a strong push to get everyone back at desks, threatening to wipe out the one gain that inadvertently fell into women’s laps.

“People want control over their schedules, over their time and how they're spending it,” said Garland Fuller, an independent career strategist and consultant with more than a decade of experience in recruiting and talent acquisition for some of the nation’s top brokerages. 

Workplaces that have adopted flexible work schedules or other arrangements that allow workers to leave early but still complete assignments “are going to see greater success with women,” she said.

And while caregiving responsibilities still mostly fall on women, the desire for flexibility is high among all workers, Fuller noted. 

Workplace flexibility, not just where employees work but also when they work, is a valuable benefit, taking a backseat only to healthcare offerings in terms of importance and ranking above parental leave and childcare, according to a 2023 McKinsey and LeanIn survey of 27,000 employees.

The study also noted that while both men and women reap the benefits of more flexibility at work due to better work-life balance and less burnout, in-person work disproportionately favors men: “Compared to women, men are more likely to be ‘in the know,’ receive the mentorship and sponsorship they need, and have their accomplishments noticed and rewarded when they work on-site,” study authors wrote. 

Firms that have taken even small steps toward flexibility have happier employees, judging by responses to Bisnow’s survey. Respondents who identified as in some way satisfied with their company’s efforts to help women move up mentioned family-friendly policies that allowed working from home or the ability to leave to take a sick child to a doctor’s appointment without employers' disapproval. 

That last part is critical, according to the McKinsey-LeanIn survey. Policies that allow hybrid or remote work should not just be allowed on paper. Expectations around them should be clearly defined, their successes and weaknesses monitored, and there should be no “stigma” for taking advantage of them, report authors wrote. 

Flexible work policies “can help women and also men, honestly, in balancing both the professional and personal responsibilities,” said Marcus & Millichap's Lubega, who also serves as president of CREW Los Angeles. 

Tracking outcomes of workers according to their work arrangements can ensure employees are getting the same opportunities and advancing at similar rates. And if they are not, adjustments can be made to ensure that no one is being penalized for taking advantage of the flexibility that is offered, the McKinsey and LeanIn.Org study suggested.  

“In a male-dominated industry, there is a lack of understanding and empathy of what people’s life situations look like,” CREW Fort Worth Director Dana Compton said. “Getting creative would go really, really far. And that’s how you build employee loyalty, showing them you actually care about them.”

Transparency And Tracking

While the ability to work at home and in the office is the first pillar in creating a more welcoming workplace, one downside of being in a flexible office space is that when women are out of sight, they might also be out of mind, industry women said. 

That’s why defining expectations, monitoring them and making them public are all part of the greater transparency needed to help women advance, according to those who work in the space.


Bisnow survey respondents with complaints about their company’s efforts to help women advance often mentioned that they felt they were missing opportunities, being passed over or left out. Almost 71% reported they had experienced an opportunity loss due to their gender.

Better tracking of career paths and more clearly establishing performance metrics could offer a way to identify those issues and address them. 

“Leadership may have sincere goals to increase diversity within the organization, but lack clear metrics throughout the middle management to track if minority groups are being supported or discriminated against (consciously or otherwise),” a San Francisco development executive wrote in an open-ended response to Bisnow’s survey.

Tracking a variety of data on the career trajectories of women within a company – hiring and promotion figures plus women’s participation in career advancement programs – is just the start, according to the McKinsey-LeanIn study. Companies should go beyond just monitoring the progress of women and share goals and findings with all employees, the study noted, sending “a powerful signal” of support to marginalized workers.

“If you don't have metrics to track these problems, you can't solve them,” Lubega said.

In the absence of standardized reporting metrics, it’s hard to know exactly what CRE companies are doing on these fronts. Public companies are often required by their investors to post and implement policies around gender, racial and ethnic diversity and to share their progress, but private companies are not. 

One piece of transparency surrounds pay equity. A July 2023 CREW survey of more than 1,000 women asking respondents to rank actions that would meaningfully move the needle on women’s advancement in the field placed pay assessments as the top priority for the second time in a row. 

An older CREW study shows the salary gap between men and women in the industry was about 10%, while the commission and bonus gap rang in at 56%. The divide widened further for women of color. While white men made an average of $121K in commissions and bonuses in 2020, white women made roughly half, just under $58K, and Black women made an average $34K.

Commercial real estate seems to be, at the very least, looking closely at this. A late 2023 survey of 200-plus CRE companies with more than 200,000 employees found that two-thirds of companies were “actively striving to identify gender-based pay gaps to achieve pay equity,” with nearly 45% engaged in endeavors to look at pay disparities based on age, race and ethnicity.

What they will do with the information was unclear. 

Without impartial information about how to stand out, what skills are needed to advance and how to get those skills within the company, it’s hard to ensure that women are getting the same chances to prove themselves as men, English Dixon said.

“It isn't like women in those spaces aren't working as hard as the guys are,” she said.

Men Matter

Men still make up the majority of workers in CRE and the vast majority of industry executives. That means any real shift will require them to not just participate in efforts to increase gender diversity, but to champion them, CRE professionals told Bisnow.

Surveys of men in the broader workforce indicate that the issue of gender parity is important to them, with an overwhelming 88% in a Fairygodboss survey saying they want to be helpful to their female colleagues. But many are unsure where to begin.


“There's a lot of discomfort and fear and uncertainty,” Cordero said. “[Men] don't want to offend. They might be uncomfortable, they might worry, ‘Oh, if I invite this young junior woman who I see as promising to coffee, she's going to take it wrong. We’re in the era of Me Too.’” 

New York-based Acadia Realty Trust Chief Investment Officer Reginald Livingston said men in CRE who are finding it hard to take action should focus on the business case for going outside their comfort zone.

“Investing is a very competitive business and, in order to win, I think you’ve got to put the best team on the field,” he said. “I try to make it my business to make sure that I'm looking beyond what's always right in front of me, which, because it's a male-dominated business, are often men.” 

Livingston said he has made a concerted effort to expand his circle of women, attend women’s networking events and listen closely in women’s spaces.

“You do have to be intentional about it,” he said. “You have to make it a priority. You have to do a little extra work to make sure you're not missing anything.” 

Fear of doing the wrong thing and a lack of information about the issues women face were two obstacles to men’s participation in gender equity efforts and led to a third of men admitting to a lack of action to combat gender inequality in their workplaces, according to the Harvard Business Review

But putting simple, executable policies into place can combat that, according to a National Institutes of Health study on allyship. The study highlighted efforts from companies like JPMorgan Chase, which instituted a “30-5-1 pledge” to keep talented junior women from leaving the field. The pledge asks men to dedicate 36 minutes a week to lift up women in the organization, 30 minutes to sit down for coffee or another casual activity with a talented woman, five minutes actively conveying praise to a female employee and another minute touting a woman to senior colleagues.

Inviting and encouraging men to attend events that focus on women or join affinity groups can be a powerful first step to a place of action, according to the women who spoke to Bisnow.

Mortenson Senior Vice President Maja Rosenquist said her company holds a large annual event to recognize women, and all leadership, regardless of gender, is expected to attend. The true measure of success is not just whether men show up, which they do, but what transpires during the events. 

Mortenson's Maja Rosenquist

“The litmus test for me is when I see our men attending without encouragement [and] they're talking about how it's a differentiator for us as an organization, they're talking about the role that they play in making sure that we're providing an inclusive environment,” Rosenquist said. “Then I'm like, ‘Yes, we're getting it done.’”

The goal in empowering women is not for men to feel alienated or discriminated against, it’s for everyone to be on the same playing field in terms of opportunities, Keller Augusta Managing Director Reesa Fischer said. 

“That’s how we’re going to get there,” she said. “We need to be able to support one another to get everyone at the same level.” 

Livingston said men who aren’t sharing the work are doing wrong by investors, partners and stakeholders.

“I'm a man, but I'm also an African American, so I see this through the race lens as well. When people say, ‘Oh yeah, we need to diversify the commercial real estate industry,’ it's like, OK, great. So now what? What are you doing as a person? What are you doing as a company to do that? Because industries make progress because of people. Companies make progress because of people.”

Bisnow Dallas-Fort Worth Reporter Olivia Lueckemeyer contributed to this story.