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As Women Gain More Leadership Roles In CRE, The Entire Industry Can Benefit

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Although women are still underrepresented at the leadership levels of commercial real estate, the tangible progress they have made in the last decade could accelerate in the years to come. The primary drivers of that progress could be the women who have already broken through to the upper echelons of their fields.

Tiffany Millner, founder of AUX Collective and affiliate director of ACE Mentorship Program

For decades, a woman advancing to a senior position in any sort of private business has been the exception, rather than the rule. Those who did make it to leadership roles did so because they aspired to the absence they saw, rather than by following a role model they wished to emulate.

Tiffany Millner worked as a project manager for architectural firm JKRP before setting out on her own as a consultant, choosing greater independence over the possibility of advancing farther into the all-male power structure above her.

“Working in a top-heavy firm for that long, it makes you question, ‘What are my next steps?’” Millner said. “And looking at the makeup of the partnership, where there were no females, it was hard to imagine myself in that role.”

Millner left JKRP, and she now serves, among other roles, as the affiliate director of the ACE Mentorship Program, because she knows that, as an African-American female, it is important for her to be an example that advancement is possible, and to make it more so.

“I needed to be a little bit more visible than as a project manager or a partner at just some firm,” Millner said. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Karen Blanchard, SITIO principal

Karen Blanchard feels similarly, even as she holds a principal position at architectural firm SITIO. She is the incoming president of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects, where she also co-chairs its Women in Architecture committee. Like Millner, even in a position of leadership, she often has to deal with outdated preconceptions in interactions with men.

“If I go to a construction site, guys will ask, ‘Oh, are you here to take notes?’” Blanchard said. “They don’t see me as someone who will be providing them leadership.”

Although Millner and Blanchard have risen through the corporate ranks, neither were spared indignities due to their gender.

“There was one situation where I was running projects for years, and a certain client — and I knew their restaurants inside and out — over the years, the day-to-day person changed, though the company never did,” Millner said. “I developed relationships, but over the years, people moved on and a new regime came in. We started to get a lot more work with this client, and it was just more than I could handle by myself. I was young, but they trusted me. But as more of the projects came in, they would add another project manager.

“Months pass, and ultimately, the client said, ‘I really just want to work with one point person, rather than two,’" she said. "And wouldn’t you know, they chose the man who was brought on after me. So ultimately, I wound up being replaced by the person who I trained.

“I’ve been in situations where I was performing at a higher level than a male peer, but compensation-wise, I knew I was significantly lower,” Blanchard said. “When I broached partners on that particular problem, I think they were surprised I was aware of it, and they didn’t provide a reason for it. They couldn’t provide a rationale for why two people in the same role with the same experience were compensated at different levels.”

Both Blanchard and Millner left their respective firms after those experiences, and their success for other companies just serves to caution that employers who fail to respect their female employees or treat them equally can cause a firm to lose talent. Certain solutions should be obvious. 

SteelStacks, an arts and culture-centered revitalization of the shuttered Bethlehem Steel factory designed by SITIO

“Some of it is as simple as having transparency in the organization, so it’s very clear how someone can essentially rise through the ranks,” Blanchard said. “Obviously, it’s different for different people, but if it’s clear to everyone what it takes to advance in certain roles, you can almost take gender out of the equation.”

More importantly, it must be remembered that there are far more examples of women who experience situations similar to Millner and Blanchard who are discouraged and either see their careers stunted or change careers completely — most often at certain pinch points, as Blanchard called them, when child care or elderly parent care can impinge on one’s schedule.

“The culture in architecture is a 60-hour workweek,” Millner said. “It’s a demanding schedule and only over the course of the last few years have more firms become flexible in terms of work/life balance. The problem is that the second I felt like I had a responsibility outside of the office, I would never be looked at as someone who could take a leadership position.”

Child and parent care are not the exclusive domain of women, but on average, they still carry the bulk of domestic responsibility in heterosexual couples. If a company values a female employee, it needs to help ease the transition back from maternity leave, and allow all employees the ability to adjust schedules around the necessities of life outside of the office. Beyond an equality issue, it is a quality-of-life issue.

Nevertheless, conditions have improved, and the progress looks to only accelerate as more female leadership begets greater visibility; it is a reinforcing cycle.

“I’m very energized by the fact that consulting teams I work with in development, construction and engineering have a lot more females on the team,” Blanchard said. “The issue remains in having them in leadership roles later on.”