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‘No Matter What I Do, I Cannot Get Ahead’: Women In CRE Are Stalling Out Early In Their Careers

Mandy McGill followed the get-ahead playbook to the letter when she took an entry-level management job with Seattle-based general contractor Abbott Construction in January 2023. She worked her connections, sought out support from company management and made it known she was interested in moving into senior leadership. 

But no matter how hard she tried to create valuable business relationships or how many times she asked for mentorship and advice, the door to advancement seemed to be bolted shut.

McGill said she was treated differently from the start, noting her male counterparts received input from their director while she was left with unanswered phone calls and emails along with a lingering sense that management was uncomfortable with the way she did business.

The feeling of defeat eventually became too much, and she quit after just seven months. Abbott representatives did not respond to Bisnow’s request for comment.


“I came in with the same amount of experience as their director of business development, if not even more,” said McGill, who left this past summer to devote herself full-time to her own CRE-related recruitment firm, Inspire Consulting. “I was meeting with all of the right people to make [connections] happen, and yet I still couldn't find a sponsor within the organization who would support my efforts.”

McGill's departure is an increasingly common story for an industry struggling with a crisis-level retention problem, especially among women in its early and middle ranks. Since 2020, an estimated 27% of women in CRE have left jobs in the industry.

Women in real estate now face the toughest climb to the top among all 19 sectors analyzed by the World Economic Forum’s most recent global gender gap report. Despite making up 45% of its workforce, women hold just 29% of leadership roles. Women in real estate also suffer the steepest “drop to the top” of any other industry, meaning their representation declines at every step up the career staircase, from entry-level to management to C-suite, in a way that’s wildly inverse to their numbers overall, the WEF report states.

A still-prevalent boys club mentality, discrimination toward mothers, unconscious bias and a lack of training and mentorship are among the factors cited for stymying women even before they get a few rungs up the ladder. 

It all adds up to frustration that is already derailing careers, and it could throw a wrench into the industry’s fledgling but not insignificant attempts to boost gender parity, according to CRE leaders and women working in the field, including the nearly 200 women who completed a Bisnow’s survey on how they are feeling about their workplace prospects and their own companies' efforts to even the playing field.

For years, CRE has focused on narrowing the gap in boardrooms and C-suites. But slight progress at the top masks a larger problem that is thwarting careers just as they are taking off, causing women to walk away and presaging a potential looming leadership vacuum.

“The reason you see so few women in the C-suite in CRE is because of the ‘missing middle,’” CREW Network CEO Wendy Mann said. “Companies do not groom and invest in the training that is needed for that mid-level manager, that director, to assume those higher level roles.”

Women hoping to rise in CRE are feeling that pain acutely. Bisnow’s new survey shows that almost 51% of women believe they or their counterparts are missing out on opportunities within their own organizations, and nearly 71% said they have lost opportunities like raises, promotions and key assignments for gender-based reasons at some point in their careers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women already holding positions of power were least likely to rate their employer poorly in Bisnow’s survey, while those who felt they were being held back complained of efforts to help them up the ladder as little more than “lip service” and “window dressing.”

“There is still very much a boys club with a few token 'others' sprinkled in for appearances,” wrote one Texas woman working in project development. Bisnow’s survey allowed women to remain anonymous if they chose to ensure their candor.

Other recent surveys of the industry have shown similar results, reinforcing the idea that a vast majority of women in CRE feel stuck, unable to get either that first leg up, or, for those who have made it into early management, unable to continue ascending into the highest-level positions. 

Eighty percent of women who responded to a January survey by the Commercial Real Estate Women Network said they have encountered obstacles to advancement and are feeling squeezed out at both the bottom and top levels of the career spectrum. Nearly 45% of respondents to the CREW survey cited “the broken rung,” or the idea that the biggest career hurdle for women is the first step from entry-level to manager. Another 52% said they were slamming into “the glass ceiling,” or hitting roadblocks to top-level C-suite roles.

CREW Network CEO Wendy Mann speaking at the CREW's Leadership Summit

Numbers like that are worrying because it is at the critical mid-level manager level that men’s and women’s paths diverge most dramatically in terms of promotions and pay, Mann said.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges for women,” she said. “Once you get behind, it’s really hard to play catchup.”

'Do You Play Golf?'

When it comes to why women so easily fall behind, the reasons are numerous, and the solutions aren't easy. 

Women who responded to Bisnow's survey said they struggle to forge the relationships needed to be successful in what is still very much a man's world. 

From sporting events to hunting trips, networking in CRE has traditionally catered to stereotypically male activities and continues to unintentionally discourage women from participating, making it more difficult to attract and gain clients as well as move up the chain.

Some 63% of women surveyed by Bisnow say they believe their gender will make it harder to get ahead, citing the  “old boys network” and senior management promoting only those they have bonded with, namely other men. Others mentioned being outright excluded from dinners because they have children or from sports outings because it’s assumed they don’t know how to play. 

The rise of remote work has made what was a bad situation worse, leaving some feeling invisible and unable to do much to better their situation.

“More and more decision-makers are working from the golf course/their vacation home and working strictly with their buddies who are brokers,” an Atlanta leasing associate wrote.



Nina Zamora, an escrow assistant at Dallas-based Gravitas National Title, recalled the time a friend of hers applied for a role in CRE business development and was asked, “Do you play golf?” in her first interview.

“It's one of those things where women are ousted by these types of activities or engagements because we just don't do those things," Zamora said, adding that barriers to the broader, male-dominated CRE world have made it difficult for her to hone skills outside of her specialty area.

“I'd be more of a great expert if I knew how these bubbles worked, like financing,” Zamora said. “Finding a mentor to help me understand those bubbles is hard because that's where I think you do get into more male-dominant positions.”

Groups like CREW help fill the networking vacuum in some areas. But Nicole Lyddane, vice president of sales and leasing at Swope & Lees, said these opportunities are few and far between in smaller cities.

There are few women-oriented business groups in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she works. Meanwhile, the nearest commercial real estate group, the Chester County Commercial Industrial Investment Council, is losing female participation because it doesn’t feel inclusive, Lyddane said. 

The Motherhood Penalty

It’s an age-old issue, and one many women are tired of fighting for: Being passed over for promotions either because they are mothers or they are at the age where they may become mothers, female leaders in CRE told Bisnow.

“It’s definitely a problem, and it’s not just in CRE,” said Camille Renshaw, CEO and founder of New York-based B+E Net Lease. “Just at the moment when everybody has enough experience to go into a lower management position, everyone starts having families.”

Hiring managers sometimes assume that women can’t handle or aren’t interested in a promotion because of their responsibilities at home, said Colleen Ammerman, director of Race, Gender & Equality at Harvard Business School. Dubbed "the motherhood penalty," childless women are 8.2 times more likely to be recommended for a promotion than mothers, according to a study conducted by the Harvard Kennedy Schools’ Women and Public Policy Program.

“Women have to take on a lot at home, no matter their situation,” CREW’s Mann said. “That does not discount what they bring to the workplace. What they bring to the workplace is irreplaceable.”


Of the more than 70% of women who responded to Bisnow’s survey saying they’d missed out on opportunities due to gender, several offered that family caretaking has hamstrung them when being considered for promotions and raises.

“I felt like I was affected as soon as I had my first child,” wrote a Boston project manager, adding she almost immediately saw pay increase percentages drop.

Returning to work after having a child was especially difficult for Authentic CRE Solutions founder Niki Perez, who said she was met with hostility from a male colleague who was promoted during her maternity leave at a former workplace. Even before she became a mom, Perez said her aspirations to advance her career were downplayed by management.

“My manager specifically said to me, ‘I think you should reevaluate your ambitions due to you being pregnant,’” Perez said.

The pandemic went a long way in improving flexibility, but the CRE industry has yet to evolve to fully accommodate working mothers, said Allison Johnston Frizzo, managing director at Dallas-based Hart Commercial. Many successful women phase out of the business once they have children, she added.

“Whether or not your team supports you, there tends to be a lot of issues,” Frizzo said. “There are a lot of women who have to really fight for and justify their value even though they are doing something we were created to do as females.”

Unconscious gender biases around a woman’s capability or competence can dictate whether she gets ahead in the workplace. The phenomenon known as “the double bind,” the idea that women are seen as either agreeable or competent but rarely both, is what’s often at play, Ammerman said.

This subtle gender discrimination affects all women, Ammerman said, but it manifests for early-career women in specific ways.

“When you’re trying to get that first promotion, that’s often a time when your manager may really like you and enjoy having you on the team but doesn’t see you as a high performer,” she said. “That can be a barrier, even if it’s not connected to your actual output or performance.”

Female CRE employees who spoke with Bisnow said they have had to work twice as hard to prove they deserve the same opportunities as men. And survey respondents said gender bias, which they often described as unintended, was the most likely factor holding back their advancement.



“I don't think he intentionally treats women different from men, but he has a bias towards people who show up in the workplace with traditionally male bravado, communication style, etc.,” one San Francisco woman working in development wrote of her boss.

Inspire Consulting’s’ McGill said she believes her work style made her older director uncomfortable. Most of the headbutting between them didn't seem to come from a place of ill intent but from generational differences that made it hard to see eye-to-eye, she said.

“He really did want to find common ground with me, and we're of the same faith, so we would have conversations about church,” McGill said. “But I think that made it really complicated for him because he was like, ‘We're Christian, so that means you should also be like my wife,' you know what I mean? You should also like to be at home. Why are you challenging me related to diversity?’”

Examples of unconscious bias can be merely ham-handed, like asking women to arrange office get-togethers and birthdays. But it can also include more insidious moves, like a reluctance to invite women to certain meetings because it would make male colleagues uncomfortable, or not keeping women top of mind in promotion decisions.

“Men get promotions based on potential; women get promoted based on their track record,” Mann said. “It’s a hard standard to uphold at early and mid-career because you haven’t had a chance to build a track record.” 

As director of business development for North Texas-based Ridgemont Commercial ConstructionDana Compton said she has to go the extra mile to earn respect. Women are outnumbered 9 to 1 in the U.S. construction industry, according to a 2022 survey by Levelset. Half of respondents to that survey said they had experienced some form of discrimination during their careers.

“Men who are in the same position as me get instant credibility because people assume they must know what they’re talking about,” Compton said. “A woman doing what I’m doing has to work a lot harder for that credibility.”

Women often find themselves battling their own internal bias. Both Compton and Perez said they have struggled with imposter syndrome during their careers.

“It’s not like I just wandered into an ER and I’m trying to do heart surgery,” Compton said of her own internal dialogue when doubting her abilities. “Someone hired me to do this.”

Missing Money and Mentors

A lack of ongoing mentorship, training and networking opportunities is another common complaint among women in CRE, with nearly 47% of respondents to Bisnow’s survey saying their employers, many of which have stated DEI policies, do not budget adequate money and resources to support female advancement.



“Women want to achieve as much as men,” Mann said. “When we hold them back from external opportunities to network, to grow their skills, to grow their knowledge, you’re creating a barrier you don’t see.”

Women who responded to the January CREW survey cited an unequal distribution of networking opportunities. Male counterparts tend to benefit more from informal connections and information sharing, they said, which gives them a boost when it comes to promotions.

“Relationships are key, relationships are potent, so it’s really a miss that we aren’t getting to know each other better and consciously trying to do more business with each other,” Renshaw said.

Networking and mentorship are highly encouraged at the entry level, but that focus often fades as women progress through their careers. Only 56% of respondents to the 2022 annual CREW survey said they had access to a mentor or a sponsor in the prior two years. For women of color, that percentage dropped to just 21%.

“That's a double-edged sword in a lot of ways because we have to, one, make ourselves visible,” said Kelani Blackwell, founder of Women In Real Estate, a group focused on expanding opportunities for women of color in the industry. “But then we also have to look for environments and colleagues and mentors that don't make us feel like we have to shrink at the same time.”


Nearly 64% of respondents to Bisnow’s survey said sponsorship from senior-level staff plays the largest role in promotion decisions at their company. Yet the survey also revealed that 19% of all respondents had never had a senior colleague or manager actively assist them in their career, and just under 39% had benefited from the assistance of more than one.

Frizzo made it to the executive level in part because her mentor, Tanya Hart Little, advocated for her and pulled her up.

About a decade later, Little and Frizzo co-founded Hart Commercial, a Dallas-based brokerage with an all-female team. Their multi-decade age gap has proven to be valuable to the success of their company, Little said.

“People look at mentor and mentee relationships as, ‘I’m older, you’re younger,’” she said. “But honestly, I learn as much from [Allison], if not more, than she learns from me.” 

‘They Aren’t Going To Sit Around And Wait For Their Turn’

Even for the industries and companies that have the most effective diversity, equity and inclusion programs, it’s still rare to have gender parity in leadership, Ammerman said. 

“The underrepresentation of women in leadership roles sends a message to women along the ladder about their own ability to get there,” she said. “It makes it feel even more arduous to them.”

The number of women at the highest levels of the industry has ticked up in recent years, but women still make up only about a quarter of executive managers and board representatives, according to ULI’s 2023 Global Real Estate DEI Survey

Hart Commercial's Tanya Hart Little (standing, second from right) and Allison Johnston Frizzo (seated, far right) with their team

The backlash against DEI means those gains aren't guaranteed to last. To offset the impact of rising costs, many companies have slashed budgets. In some cases, DEI initiatives have been left on the cutting room floor

“Diversity and intentional recruitment and retention are things that have taken less of a priority in the last 12-18 months,” Mann said. “It’s very concerning to me and to the CREW network as an organization.” 

Anything that takes the focus off women’s career progression at the early and middle stages is apt to mean trouble for the industry, she said, pointing to a new generation of women entering the field who are unwilling “to sit around and wait for their turn.”

And letting up now could see those women decamp to greener pastures, draining the pool of future leaders, said Collette English Dixon, executive director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate at Roosevelt University.

“We lose the most people because of that frustration,” Dixon said. “It’s just like, ‘No matter what I do, I cannot get ahead.’”

To stem the tide of women walking out the door, eliminating the boys club, creating advancement opportunities, investing in professional development and fostering an inclusive culture should be top priorities for all CRE employers, Mann said. 

“I know this is not what commercial real estate has done typically,” Mann said. “But it’s a new world, and culture matters, training and development matters, and building the best company where everyone can flourish matters.”

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two dives into what still needs to happen to bring the systemic change the industry needs.