Women in Commercial Real Estate in 2023 and Beyond

Historically, men have dominated the commercial real estate industry, but times, they are a’changin. Women have always played a role in CRE as secretaries and in other administrative support roles. But in the 1990s, the number of women working as brokers and agents began ticking up. 

Now women comprise nearly 70% of realtors in the U.S., which marks a big win considering the male-dominated industry of the last century. However, while they comprise almost two-thirds of property management and real estate brokerage industries, women fill a mere 1.3% of CRE C-suite positions, and 36% of real estate firms lack any women in senior exec positions. 

But let’s backtrack three years to the COVID pandemic, which upended the world as we knew it and dramatically shifted the realities of work. Study after study shows how women were disproportionately affected by the work-from-home pivot necessitated by the pandemic. In fact, about 2 million women left the workforce entirely from all sectors, including commercial real estate. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 77% of women ages 25 to 54 were working or job-hunting in January 2023. As they adapted to remote work, women seeking a return to — or an initial foray into — the commercial real estate sector found an industry in flux resulting from an office sector adjusting to remote and hybrid employees as the “new normal,” a supply chain still in recovery and significant upheavals in the retail sector.

These women have taken the opportunity to reshape their real estate careers, striving for a more equitable work-life balance and a better alignment of jobs with their own purpose and values.

Leaning Into Hybrid and Remote Work

Women leaned into the benefits of hybrid and remote work during the pandemic, and they — like professionals across all industries — continue extolling its value. It’s allowed them to establish work schedules aligned with their private lives. Organizations have recognized flexible working situations can benefit companies and employees. Some have argued that remote work hinders career progression, negatively impacts productivity and efficiency, and reduces face-to-face interactions essential for building and maintaining relationships. 

Because CRE is a social business, people are expected to meet their clients in person. It’s easier to read the nuances when sitting across a table or sharing a meal with someone than chatting via a Zoom window. But not every aspect of the industry requires those interactions all the time, so obtaining a balance is perhaps not as tricky as some suggest. 

Breaking Through Stereotypes

The glass ceiling is real. Gender challenges are ingrained within the CRE industry’s wide-reaching umbrella. Although more women work as brokers and agents — or in finance and design roles — traditionally male-dominated sub-sectors, like construction and technology, remain more heavily male-dominated.

Part of that trend connects to the “tradition” and stereotypical expectation that men are better suited for architecture, construction and other roles associated with engineering. 

  • A 2022 National Architectural Accrediting Board report found that women comprise only 26% of the licensed architect workforce.
  • According to a 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, women comprise only 11% of the construction workforce.
  • Women comprise only 28% of the workforce in computer and mathematical occupations, according to a 2022 report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
  • As per a 2023 American Society of Civil Engineers report, women comprise only 14% of the engineering workforce.

Many factors contribute to their underrepresentation, including ongoing gender stereotypes. Girls and young women are still discouraged from pursuing careers in these fields, which are often perceived as being male-dominated, although that perception is changing slowly. These fields also have few women in positions of leadership or mentoring, making it difficult for young women to see themselves in these roles. Finally, unconscious bias remains a reality, with employers unconsciously favoring males over equally qualified female candidates.

Despite these challenges, there’s a growing movement to support women in CRE. A number of organizations are working to promote diversity and inclusion in the industry, and many women are breaking down barriers and achieving success in these fields, including:

  • Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup and the first woman to lead a major Wall Street bank.
  • Mary Callahan Erdoes, CEO of JPMorgan Chase Asset Management, the world’s largest asset manager.
  • Kimberly Ross, CEO of Hines, a privately held global real estate investment, development and property management firm.
  • Barbara Corcoran, venture capitalist and founder of The Corcoran Group, a premier luxury real estate company.
  • Hope Atuel, national director of the Asian Real Estate Association of America.
  • Melissa Alexander, VP of Foundry Commercial and previously a broker and partner at Cushman & Wakefield.

The Challenge of Achieving Leadership Roles

The women mentioned above notwithstanding — and even with the number of women in CRE growing in recent years, with more women promoted into middle management positions — the industry’s senior and executive management levels remain unbalanced. 

A mere 9% of women hold CRE C-suite positions, earning 10% less than men and 56% less in bonuses and commissions. One issue women face? A dearth of support. A 2022 CREW Network survey found that only 56% of respondents had access to a mentor or sponsor between 2020 and 2022. Among women of color, the number was even lower: 21%. 

While female mentorship was incredibly rare in past years, today’s women CRE professionals can benefit from a wealth of knowledge from the trailblazers who’ve led the way. One such organization of women working in CRE is CREA United’s Powerful Women in Real Estate group, led by Ella Burns. This curated peer group of contemporaries meets monthly to work through challenges and share experiences with the help of a professional facilitator experienced in executive leadership development.

Are you a commercial real estate investor or looking for a specific property to meet your company’s needs? We invite you to talk to the professionals at CREA United: an organization of CRE professionals from 92 firms representing all disciplines within the CRE industry, from brokers to subcontractors, financial services to security systems, interior designers to architects, movers to IT, and more.

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