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Picking Up The Pieces: Pandemic Inequities Pile More Pressure On To Female CRE Professionals

In a stressful situation, even simple things can suddenly become complex.

A few weeks ago, when Karly Iacono started a new job as senior vice president at CBRE, she realized she needed to pick up a computer at her firm’s office in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Typically, that wouldn’t be noteworthy, but this was in the midst of a pandemic, and Iacono, who manages a team of brokers focused on retail and net leased investments, is a single mom with 8- and 11-year old girls. How do you find someone to watch them when everyone was locked down and avoiding contact?

Eventually, after running through her contact list, Iacono found a friend who had recently tested negative and was flexible enough on Friday to babysit. Iacono then went to the office and took a mad dash through orientation.

The challenges of caregiving, home schooling and work-life balance have wreaked havoc on female workers.

For many women in commercial real estate, Iacono’s deft navigation of an unseen complication was all too familiar. During Covid, a time of extreme uncertainty, market strain and corporate flux, women have faced challenges with childcare, career inertia and lost opportunities often unfamiliar to men. Despite working in an industry that’s traditionally undervalued them and denied them key opportunities, women have seen existing inequalities and inequities multiply. 

“This instability is why women are struggling so much,” Ianoco said. “It always falls back to the women to pick up the pieces.”

Bisnow spoke to five women in different roles, regions and stages of their careers about the specific Covid-era challenges they and their female colleagues have faced. While all had different experiences, and many hold out hope the end of the pandemic will usher in more empathetic leadership and equitable policies at work, most would agree with experts who’ve said the challenges of caregiving, home schooling and work-life balance have wreaked havoc on female workers.

Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, The New York Times that the loss of women in the workforce could lead to “an entire generation of women who are hurt.” Vice President Kamala Harris said the estimated 2.5 million women who have left the workforce since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic constituted a “national emergency,” and the Center for American Progress estimates the loss of women from the workforce has resulted in $64.5B in lost wages and economic activity. Women’s participation in the workforce hasn’t been this low since 1988.

“I hope Covid makes men understand what’s going on,” said Rebecca Humphrey of Savills USA.

There is little specific data around how the pandemic has affected female CRE professionals, but what there is does not paint a rosy picture. Recruitment firm Macdonald & Co. and the RICS have been tracking the gender pay gap in the UK annually among a group of professionals they survey about compensation levels since 2013. The gap was essentially static until 2019 when it narrowed to 17%, but in 2020 it expanded to 27%, the widest since data collection started.

Every woman who spoke to Bisnow noted the difficulty they still face balancing so much all at once. Savills Executive Vice President Rebecca Humphrey said discussing the last year, an “exhausting, challenging balancing act,” was “like a therapy session.” JLL Project Manager Claudeen Pierre said that “prayer and tons of it” was all that carried her through a year with so much general loss and isolation. Lauren Shepperd, vice president of leasing at Williamsburg Enterprises in Houston, said two months into home schooling her kids, she was talking with her boss about leaving her job. (A McKinsey study from last September found 1 in 4 women were thinking of downsizing their jobs or leaving altogether). 

Meghna Krishna Bondili, a developer and marketer who founded the real estate-focused communications firm Butterfly Voyage, said the current challenges facing women are just a heightened version of the everyday experience of working in a male-dominated industry.

“The pandemic didn’t create these inequities,” she said. “It’s multiplied ones from before.”

It is impossible for working mothers to talk about the burdens of the Covid crisis without discussing schooling and childcare (sociologists have found women with kids under 6 have lost 1.8 hours a day of work on average). A Boston Consulting Group study found that during the pandemic, parents in the U.S. spent nearly twice as much time educating kids and doing household chores, with mothers spending 15 hours or more on average than fathers. Bondili, a mother of a 4-year-old daughter, said it’s part of a societal perception problem; a father watching the kids is pulling his weight, while the same action from a woman is simply what’s expected. 

“When you say, ‘hey, how you’re doing?’ the other moms know that you mean when you say ‘same old,’” said Humphrey, Savills USA’s workplace practice group leader. “It’s all just exhausting and relentless.” 

It’s always been like that, Humphrey said, for women who have felt the need to overperform and prove their status in a male-dominated industry. A September study released by CREW, a networking group for women in CRE, found that 36.7% of workers in commercial real estate were women, a gender imbalance that’s been stubbornly consistent for the last 15 years. NAREIM, an association for real estate investment management firms, recently found women only held 15% of executive management jobs in the field.

The added struggle of trying to balance classroom instruction and childcare when home is both a school and an office can be maddening. Humphrey’s middle child, in second grade, needed help toggling between apps and refocusing between lessons at the onset of home schooling. Humphrey said she has a partner who’s been incredibly involved in parenting, otherwise, like some industry colleagues she knows, she would have had to scale back or leave work altogether to manage childcare responsibilities.

“I’m exhausted and I have a good support system,” she said. “I hope Covid makes men understand what’s going on. That lack of understanding has led to a lot of work-life imbalance in the industry.”

Even today’s ever-present video call, due to its one-on-one nature and lack of crowd or accountability, isn’t an escape. It’s proven to be a medium where some men are more prone to being their honest, perhaps uncouth, selves, Bondili said.

“It’s not just random,” she said. “If you’re in a room full of people, it’s a different energy than when you’re behind the screen alone. People feel more free to say what they mean, since there’s nobody there to call you out.”

Karly Iacono shown with her daughters.

That lack of understanding and empathy, as well as a shortage of mentors, has always meant fewer opportunities for female advancement. Shepperd, a single mother, said that at a previous job, she was told she wouldn’t get an opportunity to expand her portfolio because she didn’t have a partner, and it was assumed she was strapped for time.

“It’s important to understand your circumstances do not diminish your ability,” she said. 

That lack of acknowledgement and being seen can cut even harder during this time of added stress. Bondili, an Indian American, said that she rarely sees anybody like her in the upper echelons of the industry. The additional lack of in-person interaction in recent months, and what she called a post-#MeToo hesitancy for some men to engage one-on-one with women, haven’t helped.

Despite the deep-seated challenges highlighted by the pandemic, shifts in workplace flexibility and more control over schedules due to remote work have been changes that many hope become permanent post-pandemic. 

“I was commuting or traveling five days a week, and was rarely home during my kid’s active hours,” Savilis’ Humphrey said. “This time has opened my eyes to a new work-life balance and an opportunity to be included in my kid’s life in different ways, and I don’t want to go backwards.”

The Covid era has also led to frank discussions of diversity and equity, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests. JLL’s Pierre, who is Black, said it has been a challenging time. While she’s happy people and companies are having more honest conversations around diversity, it was hard to constantly touch on racial injustice. She’s glad this year’s many challenges have led to more networking and informal support networks among women.

“I’ve seen the industry shift in many ways,” she said. “People were asking big, bold and direct questions last year. People explored this dynamic and took the conversation a lot of Black people had behind closed doors out into the open. Being vulnerable and telling the truth makes it so much easier for other women to navigate the industry.” 

Perhaps the biggest long-term shift may be an embrace of flexible schedules and remote work. CBRE’s Iacono, who admittedly worked long hours in the office in the past, said there’s no way she could have succeeded in the past while working from home as much as she does today.  

“I’m going to start going to the office, because I miss in-person collaboration, but this time at home has been invaluable,” she said. 

One of the biggest challenges going forward, as offices and firms adjust to a new post-pandemic normal, will be maintaining this new flexibility and expanding it to more roles that traditionally lacked that kind of flexibility. JLL’s Pierre said the real test will be not just setting the right policy, but executing it with top-down leadership.

Leaders and managers need to follow up on the year’s events with real change, Humphrey said. Their actions won’t just codify these policies, but help expand them to larger portions of the workforce. At a time when companies are wrestling with how to get back into the office, CRE needs to take advantage of this transition, and respect the experiences of their staff, to enact real change.

“The last year and a half has imprinted on people,” Humphrey said. “A million things that happened this past year have shifted the lens with which they look at the world. It’s silly to think otherwise.”