CRE Industry Steps Forward For Some Women, Stalls For Others
Women in commercial real estate, particularly those in the upper echelons of management, have made gains when it comes to equity and pay parity in the workplace, but talent pipelines, mentorship and diversity in leadership ranks still leave something to be desired.
That’s according to a pair of new surveys on the careers and perceptions of women in commercial real estate as the industry goes through a generational upheaval in the aftermath of a pandemic and racial reckoning that have changed the way workplaces work.
In spite of gains in some areas, significant challenges remain when it comes to making sure those advances make their way to the entire industry.
“When you look at race and ethnicity in commercial real estate, it’s still what, like 1 or 2%?” career strategist and founder of Fuller Circle Consulting Garland Fuller said. “It's the pipeline of people who are in that midlevel that is still precarious. It’s still hard for Black and Brown folks to advance in these spaces.”
A recent research paper by CREW, a networking group for women in commercial real estate, and other recent analyses of salary and job prospects for women in CRE, paint a picture of a bifurcating workplace for women.
On one hand, salaries for top executives have actually become more competitive, as one survey commissioned by headhunting firm Jackson Lucas and published by Green Street suggests. In just two years, total compensation for women in these roles increased from 15% less than men in 2020 to 6% less today.
The industry push for more diversity, in addition to the built-in advantage of seeking new jobs in recent years during a particularly tight labor market, has meant those who jumped on new opportunities found it paid off.
“I think one of the most amazing statistics to me in our study was 92% said their companies are inclusive, and those numbers were very low in 2020,” CREW CEO Wendy Mann said. “I view that as an industry that’s more inclusive than it’s ever been before.”
There’s been incremental change, not a wholesale shift, Fuller said, and “the women who are in the space already who have made themselves known and are very much aware that being a woman is a competitive advantage are still doing awesome, and still doing great.”
But amid the dislocations and transitions created and amplified during the pandemic — since March 2020, 27% of women surveyed by CREW have left their jobs, with 51% of those looking for better career opportunities — it is not clear that salaries and job opportunities for all women have become better. That’s especially true when it comes to racial equity overall, as well as the hiring environment for young women and those with extensive caregiving responsibilities.
CREW’s survey found that just 56% of respondents — who were overwhelmingly White and in executive or management roles — had access to a mentor or sponsor. That percentage was more than cut in half for women of color: only 21% said they had access to a mentor or sponsor.
Mann said she does believe there’s more diversity in the industry, and companies have been more intentional about how and who they hire, but it’s growing slowly and is “a marathon, not a sprint.”
And overall, many women left over the last few years and haven’t come back. CREW research conducted in early summer 2022 found 29% of women queried said other women at their firm left voluntarily over the past two years due to Covid, and 95% of those hadn’t returned. Mann believes that many firms still aren’t offering the kinds of benefits and flexibility many caregivers and working mothers want.
“Women have left the workforce over the last few years, and they’re not returning in droves,” Mann said. “We have work to do to make sure CRE as an industry is providing a workplace that is conducive to women being both active participants in the workforce as well as having the flexibility to reach their full potential. I’ll bluntly say that I think some leaders still look at a woman and take her out of the running for a job because she has a family.”
“There were some who left the workplace because of caregiving requirements and the demands of working and needed to stop something, and couldn’t stop their families,” Fuller said. She made a career switch during the pandemic herself, leaving a position at CBRE to work for a smaller, LA-based firm, Anderson Holdings.
“Many have returned in more entrepreneurial capacity, or at smaller firms, in a hybrid capacity, or freelancing,” Fuller said. “This pandemic has really reprioritized how people work.”
At the outset of the pandemic, there was growing awareness of how a rapidly changing workplace was going to impact commercial real estate, especially for women. Numerous articles found that working from home, and increased stress for caregivers in particular, was adding additional pressure to women in the workforce and causing many to leave their jobs. More than two years later, the industry, which is 25%-30% women, is showing limited progress.
Fuller, who worked in talent and recruitment at CBRE, said there’s more awareness in general of all the things women shoulder, and more flexibility and hybrid work arrangements. But the bigger companies, the Fortune 200 firms, can be more like “a machine,” and she’s not so sure they’ll change significantly. It’s up to the manager to determine your experience.
At smaller and midsized firms, which are closer to their employees due to the sheer size of the organization, there’s more action and progress on these changes.
There has been a push on the search side to hire more women for C-suite roles, Jackson Lucas Managing Partner Chris Papa said, and the scarcity of candidates for these positions has pushed salaries higher. This includes acquisition and asset management roles, which historically have been even more male-dominated than other management or C-suite roles.
“People know that they’re rare, so they can push for higher wages,” he said. “I get mandates where it’s like, ‘We need a woman, I’m not hiring a man.’”
Much of the shift in salaries over the last few years has been due to bonus structures. Papa suggested that the significant shift, where women candidates and hires were given significantly larger bonus packages, speaks to the rising cost of talent during a tough labor market, and the end of a “boys club” payment structure. For instance, a comparison of CEO pay structure found new female CEOs were earning 74% more in bonus pay than men hired during the same period.
“People are more aware of the potential impacts, or women are simply outperforming men,” Papa added. “The movement happened over the last two years, and I don’t know how much that’s going to continue.”
CRE Recruiting founder and principal Allison Weiss said that there’s also been a growing awareness of the need for more equitable salaries, along with more openness to talk about compensation, to overcome historic gender inequities in pay.
In addition, new laws that will soon go into effect mandating more salary transparency have sparked wider discussions and openness to seek out more information and ask for higher pay, benefiting new hires and those changing careers during the pandemic.
“I’m always advising people to be stronger advocates for themselves, especially if they’re staying at one firm, since they’re not getting the larger bumps in compensation that you get when you move every two or four years,” Weiss said.
The limited sample size and upper management focus of these recent reports suggest more needs to be done to study the issues women face in CRE, across all demographics and career paths.
That includes students and women about to enter CRE. Fuller, who also teaches at the University of Southern California, a school with a celebrated real estate program, said there’s still significant inequity in the number of women she sees in university real estate programs, and that “we’re not doing any better at the beginning.”
Weiss said she is also worried what the current downturn and recessionary environment might mean for recent gains. While standing at a precipice of inflation and rising rates and layoffs starting in other sectors of the economy, it’s hard not to feel worried, she said. There’s a cyclical pattern in the industry of over-hiring during a boom and then laying off talent during a downturn, to rehire talent at lower salaries, she said, especially at the big firms.
“I feel concerned that some of the positive gains that were made over the last few years as it relates to compensation and pay equity and all those things, might be wiped away,” she said.