It's The Climb: Why CRE Women Are Getting Stuck On The Way Up And What The Industry Can Do About It

The commercial real estate industry seemed to be making some strides in reversing its reputation as an unwelcoming boys club over the past few years, with the number of women ticking slowly upward in C-suites and boardrooms.

But dig a bit deeper, and it becomes apparent that progress on paper could also be paper-thin in an industry where a step forward for some has sometimes meant two steps back for others.

That was the overwhelming consensus of the nearly 20 women interviewed for Bisnow’s latest series on women in the CRE workforce — and the majority of the more than 180 respondents to our reader survey, more than half of whom said they are missing out on opportunities and 71% of whom have at least once been passed up for raises, promotions and key assignments for gender-based reasons.

Bisnow’s two-part series delves into a little-covered crisis impacting the careers of women in the early and middle stages of their careers, those who are eager to climb the ladder but find the first few rungs missing amid a still-male-dominated ecosystem that is stacked against mothers and other caregivers and remains rife with bias that is mostly unconscious and difficult to root out.

The result is predictable. Since 2020, an estimated 27% of women have left jobs in the industry, while a recent global gender gap report indicates women in real estate face the steepest climb to the top among all 19 sectors its researchers analyzed. The report also shows the industry suffers from the most precipitous “drop to the top,” meaning female representation declines at every step up the career staircase in a way that is wildly out of proportion to their numbers overall.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges for women,” Commercial Real Estate Women Network CEO Wendy Mann told Bisnow, adding that “once you get behind, it’s really hard to play catch-up.”

Yet even facing daunting statistics and a downturn that is tempting some firms to pull back on diversity initiatives, there is a way forward — if the industry is willing to pay less attention to what some called the “window dressing” of top-line executive numbers and get serious about supporting and retaining women from the entry level through its highest echelons.

Enshrining pandemic-era scheduling flexibility as permanent policy for all employees could be one easy start, women CRE professionals told Bisnow. Setting transparent metrics for getting ahead and tracking and sharing hiring, salary and promotion figures would also send a powerful signal that a company is serious about leveling the playing field.

And encouraging or even requiring the participation of men in shrinking the pay and opportunity gap is vital to the success of any initiative.

“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?’” said Collete English Dixon, executive director of Roosevelt University’s Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate. “Without those things, it's kind of hard to reach the endgame.”

— Katharine Carlon, Bisnow Central U.S. Editor | April 1, 2024


CRE is increasingly losing women in the early and middle stages of their careers.

Interviews with more than a dozen real estate professionals and almost 200 survey responses from Bisnow readers suggest that mounting frustration at the lack of progress could turn a steady stream of women leaving the industry into a flood, washing away the industry's small steps toward gender parity.


Women in the field say CRE must stop the small talk and commit to systemic policy changes that lift women at all levels of an organization.

CRE has made strides at the top, placing more women in C-suite and boardroom roles. But to attack a growing crisis earlier in women's careers, the industry could start with making flexible scheduling permanent, meaningfully measuring women's progress — and making it public — and taking an all-hands-on-deck approach that includes men at the forefront.

Photo: Bisnow, created with DALL-E