Women In Commercial Real Estate Speak Out On Industry’s Increased Diversity, Room For Improvement

Faith Hope Consolo omits names but doesn’t mince words when she describes her visits to Real Estate Board of New York meetings in the late 1980s.

“I once walked into a Stores Committee conference. Back then it was this little club. And some bozo—I won’t say who—said, ‘What are you doing here? Why don’t you try residential real estate?’” said Ms. Consolo, chairman of the retail group at Douglas Elliman.

Rosemary Scanlon, dean of NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, recalls some incredulous replies when she told people she was an economist. “They’d look at me and—in all seriousness—say ‘Oh, home economics. You must be a good cook,’” said Ms. Scanlon.

Upon hearing that Jennifer Carey, president of the Association of Real Estate Women and JLC Environmental Consultants, had majored in biology in college, “people all assumed I was a nurse,” said Ms. Carey.

Credit: Daniel Hertzberg

Credit: Daniel Hertzberg

While official numbers are hard to pin down, no one denies that a gender imbalance pervades New York commercial real estate. The most optimistic ballpark figures show women making up around 40 percent of the industry, and the gap seems especially stark in the high-octane “rainmaking” executive tiers that give the business much of its glamorous edge. But just as indisputable is the increased presence of women over the past decade, from winners of the Deal of the Year award to seats on the REBNY board of governors. There’s a long way to go, but, as the ad says, you’ve come a long way.

Women were woefully underrepresented in commercial real estate during the go-go 1980s, when New York was on the cusp of its dramatic resurgence after a long crime-ridden era of malaise. But that period forged a promising class of female professionals that included several of today’s brightest stars. MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president of commercial and residential development at Forest City Ratner Companies, was among the Ed Koch-era standouts.

“It’s fascinating to look back at where it was in the ’80s,” Ms. Gilmartin said. “There wasn’t a single woman on the REBNY board of governors. Women made up less than 5 percent of the industry. There were no women running companies with more than 15 employees. Look, we were prohibited from wearing slacks.”

There was no codified discrimination against women in commercial real estate 25 years ago. But the industry’s tight-knit elite ranks were difficult for newcomers to penetrate, given the family dynasties that dominated the field (and to a large extent still do). “Particularly in New York, a lot of the big real estate companies were family-owned, and the sons took over once their fathers retired,” Ms. Scanlon said.

Commercial real estate’s fraternal culture extended from the literal to the figurative sense. “There was this whole macho thing in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Ms. Consolo said. “I didn’t take part in that. I’m still a girly-girl.” Nevertheless, Ms. Consolo and her peers realized that forming partnerships, and friendships, with the men at the helm of the industry and its many moving parts was critical.

“I don’t think it was just perception; there were barriers,” said Mary Ann Tighe, New York tristate region chief executive officer at CBRE Group. “As always, the barriers to entry had to do with the composition of the industry on the whole. If the lenders and the potential clients are all men, it makes the effort to connect that much more complicated and nuanced.” Change came, however incrementally, thanks to two main factors: the nationwide cultural shift that brought women into the workforce in droves—in February 2010, a report from the Labor Department showed women holding a majority, 50.3 percent, of the country’s nonfarm payroll jobs for the first time in history—and the explosive growth of real estate as an economic engine in New York. Real estate represented less than 20 percent of the city’s tax base in 1985; today, it accounts for more than half of it.

“Society has changed,” said Steven Spinola, president of REBNY. “Also, you must give credit to the women who initially broke in—[Ms.] Tighe, obviously, Tara and Darcy Stacom, a whole bunch of others—and demonstrated that you can be damn good on the commercial side, no matter your sex.”

Today, 43 percent of REBNY members are women, outpacing the total number of members in 1985. Ms. Tighe became the 116-year-old lobbying organization’s first female chairman in January 2010. Women make up 31 percent of the industry’s Special Interest Group. The change has been pronounced outside of membership rolls and within the industry’s cheerier precincts. “One of the things that’s become obvious over the last decade is how our banquet looks different and, frankly, much better,” Mr. Spinola said. “There are more dresses and fewer black ties.”

As for aspiring brokers, Ms. Scanlon pointed out that 28 percent of Schack’s freshmen students are women, compared with 24 percent of Schack on the whole. More notably, 31 of Schack’s 74 international students, or 42 percent, are women. “What that tells you is these young women know they can come to NYU, get a New York degree, as it were, then come back and break into the city,” Ms. Scanlon said.

Several top brokers agreed that New York was uniquely conducive to women rising through the ranks. “Had I started in Miami, Los Angeles or San Francisco, I wouldn’t have grown at this pace,” Ms. Consolo said. “They have smaller downtowns and lots of malls, which are dominated by men.” And while New York arguably has incomparable global appeal, it also suits brokers with a sharp eye for detail and a winnowed focus. “New York rewards expertise, no matter how minute,” Ms. Tighe said.

The rising tide of female real estate power brokers has not lifted all boats. Work site and construction management, for example, have lagged significantly behind brokerage. Ms. Gilmartin said that women compose 8 to 10 percent of those divisions. “If you look at a niche like development, it’s harder to find good female representation at high levels,” she said. “It’s quite often, still, that I find myself in a room full of 20 people where I’m the only woman.”

The disparity in development can partly be attributed to vestiges of the old boys’ club still in place. But even the fiercest proponents of gender balance in the industry concede that women are sometimes to blame for their own shortcomings.

“Women have to be more supportive of each other, especially in commercial,” Ms. Consolo said. “Men are supportive; women are competitive. Men go out for beers and a round of golf. Women talk about other silly things. If we want to succeed on a bigger level, we have to work together. Men do it—they have a club.”

Ms. Carey voiced similar sentiments when she mentioned the “pink ghetto,” or the tendency of women to be relegated to one or two sectors of the industry—as retail brokers or analysts, for instance. While this can often be attributed to a company’s infrastructure, Ms. Carey said, “Sometimes we do it to ourselves.”

The lack of a cohesive insular culture among women in real estate can also be attributed to the short amount of time they’ve spent in the business relative to men. Several organizations including AREW and Commercial Real Estate Women foster a valuable sense of community. The women they represent and bring together are often likely to have honed certain advantageous traits that industry men lack.

“Women tend to focus on education and skills, and realize they need to know more than their male peers,” Ms. Gilmartin said. “In the technical disciplines, we’re as competent as, if not superior to, the men. The tougher nut to crack is development and driving P&L, areas where you eat what you kill. I don’t want to say those areas require aggressiveness, but they cater to personality traits not always associated with women.”

Despite the challenges that persist for women in commercial real estate (and that don’t spare men), the industry in general fares well against others, particularly law. “Real estate is performance-based,” Ms. Gilmartin said. “Unlike in law, where you’re judged by your billable hours, here you succeed through creativity, effectiveness and rainmaking. Also, you’re not chained to a desk until the wee hours.”

Ms. Scanlon believes that real estate lags “maybe a decade behind Wall Street.” But finance is hardly a paragon of gender equity. “The women I know on Wall Street have done well off the trading floor,” she said. “But on the floor, it was terrible.” Ms. Scanlon said that the major breakthroughs in real estate came at the brokerage level, where stars like Ms. Consolo and Ms. Tighe stand to rake in millions of dollars in commission each year.

Looking forward, New York real estate’s prominent women anticipate a time when gender ratios are no longer a point of discussion, even if a divide lingers. “I will love the day when the idea of balance is off the table,” Ms. Gilmartin said. “We share a common bond, but we also have to elevate our game and talk about meaty topics and future growth.”

One of the most encouraging developments for women in New York commercial real estate pertains to the vaunted family dynasties that once seemed impenetrable, if not hostile, to young women. “The old families are part of the magic of New York City real estate—they set standards and maintained financial stability because they intended to stay in the marketplace forever,” Ms. Tighe said.

“Now, their daughters—Helena Durst, Samantha Rudin, Lisa Silverstein—are moving into senior roles. The gender walls are breaking down. It’s geometric growth, and a virtuous cycle.”

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