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Covid-19 Drove Women Out Of The Workforce. Can CRE Bring Them Back In?

In 2012, then-26-year-old Natalie Wainwright was an unemployed single mom living in Las Vegas. Desperate, she managed to find a receptionist job with Cushman & Wakefield Commerce from a Craigslist ad. With little money to spend and a big impression to make, Wainwright went to Goodwill for a designer suit to wear to her new job.

“I did the best I could to look the part that I wanted to be because I knew that I couldn't support my children on $12 an hour,” she said. “I knew that this was an opportunity. I just knew that I was onto something and this could change me and my kid's life and get us out of the situation that we were in.” 


Wainwright worked tirelessly, she said, and eventually caught the attention of a team of brokers, who hired her as their sole administrator. She borrowed money from her father to get her broker’s license and spent years as a broker at Cushman & Wakefield. Nearly a decade later, Wainwright is a vice president at LogicCRE, an active broker in the Las Vegas office market and a leader among women in real estate nationwide.

Wainwright’s story is far from unique in commercial real estate: one of a woman who would otherwise never think of a career in the industry before landing an entry-level job. Without those jobs, which don’t necessarily require deep experience or specialization, the potential for women to have better representation at the highest levels for the industry is severely diminished.

Combined with the advances in artificial intelligence and increasing technology adoption of some parts of the businesses, it seems that some of the jobs lost in the initial pandemic shock may not come back.

“The administrative roles are dying. They're gone,” Wainwright said. “That’s scary. How do we get women now?”

In the early months of 2021, there are fewer workers, new hires and job openings in real estate than there were in the months before the coronavirus pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

“There are a number of examples of companies that took this Covid period as a way to self-reflect or self-assess,” said Jeff Wittenberg, managing director at commercial real estate recruiting firm KBIC. “And I think there are many examples of a company looking up and saying, ‘Wow, times have been really good over the past couple of years, and we’ve gotten really fat in terms of our staff.’”

Even before the pandemic, advancements in proptech have allowed many tasks in administration, property management and other entry-level positions to be automated. Getting a job in real estate is more likely to require at least cursory knowledge of the industry, and intention from companies to bring women into the industry will play a larger factor.

“To a certain extent, this whole situation has created an opportunity for organizations to take a step back and really start to think about what type of culture they really need to have in order to support women and their success,” said Dawnita Wilson, vice president of Diversity and Inclusion at real estate investment trust JBG Smith Properties. “Most organizations are probably looking at that a lot differently than they were pre-Covid.”

In February 2020, there were 104,000 job openings, 84,000 hires and 72,000 workers that left a company’s payroll within the sector defined as real estate, rentals and leasing, according to BLS statistics.

In January, there were 80,000 job openings, 76,000 hires and 72,000 workers who left a company’s payroll in that sector. By February, those numbers dipped to 74,000 openings, 68,000 hires and 69,000 separations, as BLS calls them. As the economy began its recovery in March, BLS counted 87,000 openings, 80,000 hires and 71,000 separations. BLS considered March data to be preliminary as of May 11.

With broker pay often heavily dependent on commissions and upper-level management positions often considered essential to how a company operates, the jobs most likely to be cut in order to save money were often entry- or mid-level positions in areas not directly tied to revenue creation, Wittenberg said. 


Those areas, like administration, finance and property management, contain some of the highest concentrations of women among job types within commercial real estate.

“The property management side of the business, historically, has done a very good job of attracting more women,” Wittenberg said. “[Human resources] tends to be another functional area where we see probably more women, as well as marketing. With brokerage, development and construction, those functional areas are still heavily weighted on the male side.”

Aside from economic contraction, the pandemic’s upending of childcare and care for ill relatives forced thousands of workers across industries to step back from the workplace, sometimes long-term. A disproportionate number of workers who left the workforce for family reasons during the pandemic were women.

The net effect has been that fewer women work in commercial real estate now than at the start of last year, undoing years, if not decades, of progress. Any discussion of gender equality and equity going forward is incomplete without considering the pipeline of workers entering the industry — one that could be shrinking.

“It frustrates and it saddens me that the route that I took to get to where I am is changing,” Wainwright said. “But it's evolving, and maybe the route that the men get to take, the women get to take, too.”


A Foot In The Door

For decades, administrative positions exposed some of commercial real estate’s most powerful women to the industry for the first time. That was the case for Kim Ford, who went on to be the founding president of CREW’s Pittsburgh chapter and CEO of real estate advisory firm Rise Pittsburgh, which she founded.

Ford got a receptionist job out of high school with a commercial real estate and construction headhunter, which she declined to name. Soon, she couldn’t see herself pursuing a career in anything but commercial real estate.

When Ford’s company was tasked with recruiting for Dallas-based real estate firm Trammell Crow, she saw an ad to become a receptionist for the company’s Pittsburgh office and applied that weekend. She got the job. 

“I remember the director, the head of the office, saying, ‘Hey, are you going to be happy as a receptionist?’” Ford said. “And I immediately said, ‘No, I want an opportunity to grow … I see myself doing a lot more.’ 

“He said, ‘Great,’” she said. “And I quickly learned just watching and listening to him …  I became a sponge.” 

Ford soon went from receptionist to office broker, making $14K in her first year and waiting tables on the side to survive. She rose through the ranks in the 1990s, serving as vice president for Trammell Crow from 1997 to 2002 and managing principal of Cresa Pittsburgh from 2006 to 2016, all while raising four children. Now, she worries that her path is more difficult to follow than ever.

“I think with the pandemic, we've gone backwards instead of forward, because a lot of those jobs have been displaced,” Ford said. “So it’s going to be a while before they come back.” 

Both Ford and Wainwright had a mentor who gave them that initial opportunity to catapult their careers beyond secretarial jobs, but many women remain in these jobs for the entirety of their careers. 

“I think the biggest problem is when they bring on a woman that they put her in a position of administrative duties, and they don't allow them to grow the way they allow men to grow,” Ford said.

Natalie Wainwright is vice president at Logic Commercial Real Estate and spearheads the firm’s Office Tenant Representation Division.

“Women often get pigeonholed,” said Wendy Berger, the president and CEO of WBS Equities, a development company focused on the food industry. 

Times have changed, CREW CEO Wendy Mann said. Women she knows in the industry don’t typically enter via the administrative route. 

“I would say that many women who are now senior executives in the industry that started, 20 or 30 years ago may have started in some of those administrative or analyst roles,” Mann said. “But now, I'm not sure that that's quite the case.” 

But while that pathway may be becoming less common for women to enter commercial real estate, it is still there.

Brookfield Properties Flexible Workplace Director Shara Brokaw began as an assistant to former Brookfield Chairman Ric Clark less than three years ago, she said. Like Ford and Wainwright, commercial real estate was not something Brokaw — who graduated with her master’s degree in art history from the University of Denver in 2013 — would have otherwise seen herself doing. But after a few years in the industry, she is smitten.

“I can't picture myself doing anything else,” Brokaw said. “I absolutely love it.” 

Her trajectory is not uncommon at Brookfield, one of the world’s largest property owners. Brokaw knows other women who have charted their path to business roles through entry-level administrative roles. Once these women get their foot in the door, they tend to rise up through the ranks. 

While Brookfield declined to say how many women at the company have risen up through entry-level or administrative roles, a spokesperson for the company told Bisnow that it has a history of pulling women up through the ranks of the company in general. 

“We aspire to retain and empower our team of talented professionals and are especially proud of our track record of supporting women as they grow their careers within Brookfield through one-on-one mentoring [and] continuing education opportunities,” Brookfield Properties Senior Vice President of Human Resources Amy Meichner told Bisnow in a statement. 


A Changing Jobs Landscape

Regardless of their relevance to women entering commercial real estate, office and administrative support jobs have been shrinking by the millions across all industries since 2015. Using the month of February as a comparison point, the number of workers over 16 years old employed in those roles went from 18.2 million in 2015 to 17.4 million in 2018, then from 16.2 million in 2020 to 15.8 million in 2021.

In administration and other areas with high representation from women and people of color, such as property management and financial analysis, duties performed by entry- and mid-level employees have at times been the target of proptech firms and technology companies seeking to streamline the business of real estate. 

“We’ve studied the labor components of junior- to mid-level CRE professionals, and have concluded that more than 85% of time expenditure is on highly automatable tasks,” proptech firm Nativ co-founder Jeff Saul told Bisnow in March.

Rise Pittsburgh founder and CEO Kim Ford

Though Covid-19 accelerated tech adoption for many consumers, it is still too early to say if it did the same for proptech, said Wittenberg, the commercial real estate recruiter. Pandemic conditions rocked the job market in many industries, and it may take until late next year until we know what, if any, of the effects are permanent.

Jobs in human resources and marketing were more directly impacted by the pandemic, which sent so much of the office-using workforce to work from home, even if real estate companies have employees in those areas, Wittenberg said. Non-core positions were quickly jettisoned by many companies during the initial shock.

“We see HR and marketing as being the first to get hit,” Wittenberg said. “Real estate is no different.”

The number of workers in office and administrative jobs shrank by 2 million between March and April 2020, according to BLS statistics. By March of this year, that number had recovered by almost 1.8 million, but not evenly across gender. About 613,000 fewer women were employed in office and administrative jobs in the U.S. in March than they had been a year earlier, but about 9,000 more men were employed in those roles over the same time period.

Other areas, like property management, are still potential pipelines for women from outside the industry, but even those are becoming increasingly specialized; for instance, Virginia Tech is now offering a property management major, said Jim Morrow, the senior director at real estate and construction executive search firm Morrow & Associates.

“Twenty years ago, property managers [didn't have degrees], and nowadays a lot of people are coming in with real estate, finance or property management degrees, and I see those people doing well,” Morrow said.

Having a relevant degree can help a young woman establish bona fides that can open the path into a real estate career, but if secondary education becomes a significant factor in the hiring process, it further damages the chances for women like Wainwright and Ford to find their way by necessity into a job in an industry they could come to love.


Calls For Change

After women everywhere left the workplace in greater numbers, industry experts told Bisnow a concerted effort to adjust business practices is needed to preserve the pipeline of women into real estate. 

One barrier stopping women from going directly into commercial brokerage is the draw — the loan that companies provide their new brokers in lieu of a salary. The loan is repaid through commission, essentially requiring them to subsist on barely livable wages until the debt is paid off. 

This usually takes somewhere between a year or two, according to Wainwright, who said she has heard from women weighing careers in commercial brokerage that they couldn’t afford to provide for their families while paying back the loan. 

“It's a predatory game — it sets you up for failure,” she said. “We need to invite women in on teams, and we need to be inviting them in on a salary plus commission structure, not on a draw. We need to get rid of the draw system.” 

The additional income from the draw doesn’t offset the increased cost of childcare when both parents work, leading many women to avoid going into brokerage altogether, Wainwright said. 

6725 Via Austi Parkway, home of Cushman & Wakefield's Las Vegas office.

“I think that women going into brokerage straight commission or on a draw with commission is a challenge, and I think that the brokerage industry realizes that,” said Mann, whose organization found the gender pay gap in CRE widened from 2015 to 2020, and commissions were largely to blame. “For that to change, they really need to rethink the compensation model.”

In brokerage firms and beyond, companies must recruit young women earlier and will need to allow for more flexible work hours in order to attract and retain women in high-ranking positions within the industry, experts say. 

“If organizations create cultures promoting flexibility so there’s no stigma attached to needing different [schedules] depending on individual circumstances, companies that do that will be the ones that do better when it comes to advancing, promoting and retaining women in the workplace,” JBG Smith’s Wilson said. 

Flexibility has been a preoccupation for the entire corporate world as companies feel out how to best emerge from the pandemic, but it is especially meaningful to workers with caregiving responsibilities. Two-thirds of all caregivers in the United States for both children and elderly relatives are women. 

Abrams Management Co. Senior Property Manager Kimberly Parker, who serves as the diversity advisory board chair for the National Institute of Real Estate Management organization, raised her son as a single mother while working full time in real estate herself, and more recently was one of her late 91-year-old father’s caretakers. Mothers often feel they must choose between their child and work, she said. 

“Women feel the guilt, they feel when they have to leave their kids home alone sick and are hoping they don’t get in trouble because they have to be at work,” Parker said. “I wish the world was more tolerant and sympathetic and open to moms.”

With so much of the world forced to work from home, plenty of men were brought face-to-face with the distractions and demands of family life that they had never fully understood before. The disproportionate job losses suffered by women this past year have been eye-opening for some companies making renewed efforts to improve diversity and inclusion over the past year, Wilson said. 

“I think what Covid has done, especially with so many women leaving the workforce as a result of having to handle childcare … ultimately large firms, especially in places like New York, might have to adopt a more flexible work schedule,” Brokaw said. “It’s absolutely one of the things that can help women remain in the workforce.” 

Companies have an array of options for showing that they support their workers. During the pandemic, Brookfield offered free ride-share programs to employees to help them get to work, Brokaw said. A growing number of companies have added mentorship and internship programs, among other ways of introducing underrepresented groups to commercial real estate. All of those methods can also help new entrants into the industry stick with it long-term. 

“I think real estate, by nature, is somewhat exclusive, so it requires people to network and to gain exposure,” Wilson said. “That’s where the important part comes in when you talk about women or any underrepresented groups: It’s what you can do to build intentionality on getting people exposure, so people know the talent is out there and can proactively engage with women or people of color.”

A lot of changes can be made, but Ford believes that it will ultimately take a generational shift in leadership for things to change radically. 

“A lot of it isn’t going to be solved until leadership retires, unfortunately, and until they retire, they don't want to change anything because what they know works,” she said. “So I think it's going to take new and fresh leadership that knows that women can be successful.”

CORRECTION, MAY 13, 1:30 P.M. ET: A previous version of this article misstated Dawnita Wilson's name and title. This article has been updated.