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‘You Need To Figure Out How To Make It All Work’: Women Bore The Brunt Of Juggling Pandemic Responsibilities

New York

This piece is part of a package of articles examining the impact the pandemic had on women in commercial real estate. To see the rest of the package, click here.

For many women in commercial real estate, the pandemic presented a conundrum. Amid the chaos, uncertainty and the rapid shifts in patterns as a result of public health concerns, women’s lives became more demanding than ever before.

In most parts of the commercial real estate sector, seismic shifts put everyone under pressure to deliver. Deals needed saving, business required stabilizing, solutions to problems that had never even existed before had to be found. 

But many women, especially those with children to care for, found their pressure at home was even greater.


“Commercial real estate during the pandemic was, ‘We're still moving, we're still going …  We are still pushing forward because there is equity in the market to support it,” said Jenna Kirkpatrick Howard, a senior vice president at Lockton Cos. She served as the CREW DC president in 2020 and is mother to a now 5-year-old and a 7-year-old. ”There's a mentality of ‘Yes, yes, yes. We understand that you are carrying a heavy burden, but this still has to get done. So we're flexible but you need to figure out how to make it all work.’” 

Across the board, there was a lot to be figured out for working women. On average, women handle more than 60% of childcare within married couples in full-time work, according to data released by Northwestern University's Center for Economic Policy Research in 2020. The data is even more drastic for the commercial real estate sector; in a July 2021 CREW Network Research Survey, 83% of respondents managed the majority or at least half of the family care.

Women who left the labor force during the pandemic are not rejoining at the same pace as men. There were 1 million fewer women in the workforce in January than in February 2020, per research from the National Women’s Law Center. Men, on the other hand, have recovered all their labor force losses since the start of the pandemic, according to the center’s analysis of the January jobs report. 

Surviving — even thriving — came down to luck. The kind of partner you have, the type of company you worked for, the asset class you covered all played a major role. But taking a break in commercial real estate is not an option, many women told Bisnow

“I'd be afraid to take a month off, to tell you the truth,” CBRE New York Tri-State CEO Mary Ann Tighe said in an interview with Bisnow last July. “One of our really gifted brokers in Chicago called me [in December 2020] to say, ‘I know you're going to be distressed with me, but I've decided to take a break’ ... [I said] you could dial it back, you don't have to take a break.”

Lindsay Ornstein and her family, Zoe, Remy (bottom), Maya and Gus Ornstein

The increased burden on women, specifically mothers, resulted in women experiencing more symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to Time’s Up Foundation, with 49% of women reporting an increase compared to 40% of men. More than 1 in 4 working women considered leaving their jobs or dialing back their duties due to this increasing burden, according to a 2021 KKF report

Having more women in decision-making positions will help to increase flexibility for working moms, sources tell Bisnow. Women make up just 23.5% of the 91 commercial real estate firm’s highest-ranking executives, according to Bisnow’s analysis. But according to Calgary-based Lori Suba, president of Scout Real Estate, the brokerage firm she created in 2020, there has been a changing of the guard in terms of who's at the table and who is calling the shots. 

“It's been a hard time because women often pull double duty in terms of the workload at home,” she said. “I think it may be just a little bit different having a female lead … I know the challenges of when they say, ‘I've got a sick child’ —  I understand what it means if they have parent-teacher conferences.” 

Not everyone is lucky enough to have an understanding boss — and for many women, the uncertainty of the pandemic brought enormous angst about their future. For one mother who works for a major global landlord, having a baby in the height of the crisis in New York meant she could take maternity leave at a time she was desperate to focus on motherhood, though it occurred right as layoffs at the firm were happening.

“We were potty training my 2-year-old at the start, and when my husband and I were on conflicting calls, he would start peeing on walls,” she said, declining to have her name used because she was speaking from personal experience and not on behalf of her company. “Maternity leave came at a good time, but it came at a very scary time …  there is always this thought in the back of your head that anything could happen. You hope you are not going to get penalized, but no one is indispensable.” 

Lori Suba, right, with Scout Real Estate business partner Laurae Spindler.

For segments of the industry, the burnout is real, said Kirkpatrick Howard, who worked to create a supportive network for women as part of her role as CREW DC president.

“The hours are long, the demands haven't changed. And there is for some, a sense of loneliness,” she said of women in the industry. “There were a lot [of women saying] ‘this pace is unsustainable, because there is no end to my workday, and the family demands are greater than they've ever been before …  You don't want to take a step back in your career. There's the complexity of ‘I don't want to fall behind. But I do need a little break.’” 

Shicara Hollie Muhammad — who started her career in 2013, first joined CBRE in 2015, then moved to Ernst & Young before returning to CBRE in October 2020 as a senior transaction manager — felt waves of different emotions throughout the pandemic. 

“The conference calls just blew out of proportion … There were times when I felt guilty for not working,” she said. 

Sometimes she would work until 1 a.m., and when George Floyd was murdered, triggering a wave of protest across the country, her stress levels magnified. 

“It was a trying time because of the state of our community and what we were going through with George Floyd — although it wasn’t anything new,” she said. “But it was something very difficult to where, at times, I was trying to hold it together between conference calls, and it was very tough to save face and be on top of your game when you’re affected and it’s hitting home."

Robin Abrams at work in her home office.

There are bright spots, with some women feeling optimistic that the pandemic will reshape the industry for the better. A two-year crisis that often saw people’s personal lives laid bare on Zoom has caused a reset, said Lindsay Ornstein, who co-founded her own brokerage last year called OPEN Impact and has three school-aged children. The next generation of commercial real estate women will have a whole new set of expectations, she said. 

“I think it was fabulous for them. Because they got to see us being real, they got to hear kids in the background, and a dog barking and us juggling,” she said. “They got to see us in our element and knew that it was OK to be both people. And you didn't have to choose during the pandemic, you didn't have to choose if you are a mom or businesswoman, you had to be both all the time.”

Those who reaped the benefits and saw their career catapult during the pandemic did so because of a strong support system, women told Bisnow. But some women hope changing norms in the industry mean it will no longer be necessary for women to have a village behind them. 

Across the board, commercial real estate women are wondering how their experience of the past two years will impact the industry in the long term. Compass broker Robin Abrams, whose children are grown up, expects the flexibility and understanding born out of the pandemic to fade soon.

“Expectations will return … I think it's going to be more difficult a year from now for a woman to say to somebody ‘Well, I can't do a call then I have to do whatever with my child,’” she said. “The expectation is going to be during work hours that you should be working.”