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‘Research Shows You’re Better Off Choosing A Woman’: So Why Don’t They Get The Top CRE Jobs More Often?

The lack of women in top positions at commercial real estate firms isn’t due to too many cutthroat leaders that are obsessed with the deal above all else. The problem also isn't a lack of strong candidates or that men are naturally better leaders.

Zenger/Folkman President Joseph Folkman, who leads a training and consultancy firm that works with Fortune 500 clients, said the inequitable way women often get shut out of leadership jobs in commercial real estate and so many other industries isn’t about a bad cultural fit, either. It’s about bias, aided and abetted by systemic, structural inequalities.

“If you’re choosing between a man and a woman and you’re going to let research be your guide, you’re better off choosing a woman,” he told Bisnow. “Even during the pandemic, when women often had more work to do at home, it was the men who felt much more overwhelmed by the pandemic.”

His firm’s own research shows as much; when Zenger/Folkman surveyed the performance of male and female leaders across 16 different categories, they found women scored better on 13 of those categories, including honesty and integrity, having an openness to feedback — and also on traits stereotypically assigned to men, such as taking initiative.

“The bottom line is bias,” Folkman said.  

T. Dallas Smith & Co. Executive Vice President Audra Cunningham said the system is not set up for women to succeed.

About 36.7% of people in commercial real estate are women, according to a 2020 survey by Commercial Real Estate Women Network, a networking and advocacy group for women in commercial real estate. But women only make up 9% of C-suite roles, and across all levels they earn 34% less than men. Those statistics have remained virtually unchanged for a decade. 

“I think that, perhaps over the past five years, companies have said, ‘Oh, we have one woman in executive leadership and we have one woman on our board, so that’s good, we’re done here,’” CREW Network CEO Wendy Mann told Bisnow when its 2020 survey published in September.

Across all industries, women hold a majority of management jobs, but significantly lag men in the top spots.   

There’s a frustrating nature versus nurture argument at play when looking at this gender imbalance. Are culture and social elements driving the lack of diversity in leadership, especially within an industry traditionally characterized as being led by the impulsive, aggressive and relentless, attributes more commonly assigned to men? Or is the divide more a result of a long-term lack of opportunity, mentorships and career paths for female executives? 

Renee Carroll, a Las Vegas-based leasing manager for Prologis, said she’s faced many scenarios while working for previous employers where there simply wasn’t room to advance, especially in smaller, family-owned firms. She said she felt her own leadership style, which she characterized as open, empathetic and hard-working — wasn’t an issue. It was more a historic lack of mentors and opportunities.

“If I had to look at the root cause for why women aren’t represented in leadership roles in real estate, it’s not personality, it’s more nepotism,” she said. “It’s not one person’s fault, it’s how these smaller companies evolved.” 

For women of color, in particular, the commercial real estate industry can be an uphill battle, said T. Dallas Smith & Co. Executive Vice President and Chief Administrator Audra Cunningham, a Black woman. 

“The system is not set up for success for us, and many of us who have been able to stay in it past the obstacles have done so as exceptions and not rules,” she said. “One of the reasons I believe this is the case is because Black and Brown women are simply not seen as leaders on their own merit. This holds true for people of color in general on a large scale. Many of us may start out with eagerness and ambition to get to the leadership level but the opportunities to advance are rare because they don't happen equitably; they happen relationally or fraternally based on who you know — your pedigree, where you went to school, what it would mean for the firm to have you on board.” 

2018 Pew Research study found that women see systemic barriers much more clearly than men. Just half of men, but 70% of women, believe a major reason women are underrepresented in top positions is that they have to do more to prove themselves. The same study found that more than half of Americans (57%) believe women and men have different leadership styles, but among those that do, the majority (62%) believe it doesn’t matter in their effectiveness, and more people believe women have a better approach (22%) than men (15%).

While more systemic issues have long fed existing biases, Carroll and others see current cultural shifts and demands for new types of leadership presenting more opportunities for women to assume the top spot. CRE Recruiting founder and principal Allison Weiss said that while leadership abilities have often been associated with “masculine” traits — someone really aggressive, confident and outspoken — it’s not an environment that’s appealing to most women and is not necessarily seen as the more productive way forward. Traits often associated with women, so-called “soft skills” around collaboration and creativity, win out during today’s talent searches. 

“There’s more creativity going into development today, it’s not just about another rectangular box,” Carroll said. “It’s also not just about being a leader of employees, it's just as important to work with the community. That’s changing leadership skills. And as the world and culture evolve, CRE leadership is going to have to evolve, too.” 

Prologis’ Renee Carroll said that as culture evolves, CRE leadership is going to have to do so as well.

Carroll, who said her current employer has been very supportive of women in top roles, has experienced plenty of situations in her career where she wasn’t taken seriously as a potential leader. When she got her start in leadership in the late 1990s during a stint with Chicago-area firm Hamilton Partners, she landed a property management role in suburban Oak Brook, Illinois, overseeing building engineers taking care of four buildings. Thrown into a challenging new situation, Carroll took a “let’s learn this together approach.” 

While she said she felt her lack of experience allowed her to be more collaborative and less ego-driven, ultimately leading to success, she also said she had many positions at other companies in the ensuing decades where her skills weren’t fully respected. She often wouldn’t be asked about projects during meetings, even if she was the one with the most knowledge of the particular building. During a site tour with a tenant and broker, when the tenant asked about an HVAC system, the male broker didn’t let Carroll answer and simply told the tenant he’d fill him in later. Times have changed, she said, and female leadership is much more visible. 

Male and female leaders in CRE say they believe that culture shift starts with a more diverse workforce. Society of Industrial and Office Realtors CEO Robert Thornburgh said it’s “critical” the industry continues to develop education and mentorship programs to support women coming into the business early on. Actively seeking out female candidates in CRE as a whole will help to change the number of women in future leadership roles.  

“It is impossible to argue that gender stereotypes don’t exist in our world,”  Thornburgh said. “The irony of this conversation is that men in CRE want women involved — leading, volunteering, in every aspect. We must also admit we are late to the game here and ensure our next steps match our public statements.”

That includes putting a process and specific goals behind good intentions.

“Companies must also go a step further and require measurement and evaluation be a part of the process,” Cunningham said. “On the CRE side, firms have to dig deeper. They have to do more than create memos and spotlights of their one shining example. They have to be intentional about creating and constantly revisiting the successes of substantial mentoring initiatives.” 

Allison Weiss of CRE Recruiting said ‘soft skills’ often associated with women win out during today’s talent searches.

The key to solving the problems at the top of CRE companies is bringing in more women from the start with clear visions of future advancement, Carroll said. She speaks to interested students at local schools, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and aims to start a mentorship program later this year. 

“It’s important for people like me to go out and work with middle school kids,” she said. “This needs to be a message coming from corporate culture.”  

Weiss said that the gender imbalance at top roles tends to come across as odds for success and make men more aggressive and women more selective when it comes to chasing job opportunities, a painful form of self-selection. Women tend to have a better rate of success when they interview, she said, because they only apply to jobs where they’re overwhelmingly qualified, limiting the chance to make big jumps in their career path. 

“A man applying for a job still walks into a room thinking he’s God’s gift,” Folkman said. “The ‘advantage’ women have is they already believe they’re going to be treated unfairly. The message they’re playing in their head is that they have to work twice as hard, do twice as much, to get the same thing men do.”

Improvement could also be driven from outside of the industry, by clients only hiring real estate firms with diversity.

“The change will occur when clients become more intentional about asking for and demanding more diversity, equity and inclusion to win or keep their business,” Cunningham said.

Others point to a shift in company culture that’s helping create a more supportive environment to support women working in CRE to ascend the ranks. Carly Glova, president and executive recruiter at Building Careers, said that companies that promote and publicize a better work environment, including work/life balance, with HR policies and benefits that meet a larger mission statement and value, can help women succeed in this traditionally male-dominated industry. (CREW research found numerous studies showing more gender-diverse leadership corresponds with improved financial performance.) 

Folkman noted that organizations are “getting a little more humane” when it comes to asking managers and leadership to “sacrifice their soul” for the job, demanding hours and commitment that become difficult for women who carry an outsized amount of domestic and family commitments. One in five women in CRE believe family or marital status has held them back at work, CREW found in 2019

“It shouldn’t be about ‘are you willing to pay that price?’” he said. “If you find women are less likely to do things that aren’t good for their families and men are still willing to do that, it’s not fair.” 

Until these systemic inequalities change, leadership styles and training may not be enough to bridge the inequality gap.

“Even in cases where the missed opportunity is unintentional, it still exists,” Cunningham said. “And the reality is that too often it has landed on ‘that's just the way it is’ when it doesn't have to be that way.”