Women in Commercial Real Estate Strike a New Balance Three Years Into the Pandemic
‘I think that the pandemic — especially for women — really led to this scenario where they were taking a look at: “Is what I’m doing every day aligned with my purpose and values? And is it worth it?” ’
By Anna Staropoli March 8, 2023 10:00 amreprints
When the pandemic hit, the realities of work changed. Suspended were the days of long commutes, in-person meetings and business travel. In their place? The workforce adapted to remote setups; home offices shared with roommates, partners or children; and, of course, a whole lot of Zoom.
Yet while all genders adapted to a work-from-home reality, the pandemic disproportionately affected women. In response to 2020, American women left the workforce in droves, both in commercial real estate and across other professional industries. The U.S. workforce at large saw the departure of roughly 2 million women.
Now, three years out from the start of the pandemic, the patterns for women in commercial real estate largely echo the patterns for women across the workforce. Namely, that rather than overcome the pandemic, women have used it to their advantage. COVID-19 prompted women to leave their jobs, but not necessarily the workforce. It instead motivated them to restructure their careers and reconsider their purpose, observers say.
Overall, the number of women in the U.S. workforce has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. As of January, roughly 77 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 were working or looking for work, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This percentage nearly matches women’s pre-COVID participation in the workforce.
Initially, the pandemic forced many women to juggle work with various household responsibilities. On the whole, women continue to shoulder the majority of caretaking within their households. Those early stages were a step backward, said Ann Gray, CEO of Gray Real Estate Advisors. The shift to work from home complicated women’s productivity in the short term and inhibited their abilities to return to work later on, she said.
“Data shows that women tend to stick to the decisions that they make,” said Dionna Johnson Sallis, director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for Ferguson Partners, a talent scout focused on the real estate industry. “So we do have a population of women that left the workforce to tend to their children and opted to not return.”
In commercial real estate in particular, the broader uncertainty reverberating through the industry further compounded the stress and responsibilities facing women. In addition to adapting to remote work, women had to grapple with an industry in flux, thanks to questions about the state of the office, the durability of the supply chain and the future of retail.
Such uncertainty can lead to both mental and emotional exhaustion, said Meredith Courtney, director of Smith Executive Education, a program for women in business through Smith College. The program supports women in business at all stages of their careers.
The pandemic and the ensuing period of uncertainty certainly caused a few headaches. Yet within that uncertainty, many women found possibility. The events of 2020 afforded working women new opportunities to overcome burnout, a lack of fulfillment and a lack of work-life balance.
For women who wanted to leave their jobs prior to the pandemic, 2020 presented a chance to reshape both their careers and their personal lives. Many women who left commercial real estate didn’t leave the workforce altogether; rather, they opted to join competing firms or start their own, said Sallis.
“While many [women] went into a reflective space at the height of COVID, it gave them motivation to do what truly drives them,” said Sallis. “There was a light shining on the importance of mental health and the importance of having psychological safety at work.”
This pattern holds true both within commercial real estate and the workforce at large. No matter the industry, women want a better work-life balance, and the pandemic created a turning point for deeper reflection. While many women opted down the entrepreneurial track, others switched organizations and even industries.
“People have talked for decades about the importance of being aligned with purpose at work,” said Courtney. “But I think that the pandemic — especially for women — really led to this scenario where they were taking a look at: ‘Is what I’m doing every day aligned with my purpose and values? And is it worth it?’ ”
As women re-evaluated their priorities, they also leaned into the benefits of hybrid and remote work. Work-from-home models offered a glimpse of employees’ and employers’ personal lives. This opportunity to see one’s co-workers and bosses as more than their jobs humanized them, said Courtney, and resulted in better transparency.
It also allowed — and has continued to allow — both women and men to try to establish a work schedule in alignment with the new normal.
As a result of the pandemic, “employers realize that a flexible working situation can work,” said Gray. “There’s a way to structure the workweek in a way that allows a work-life balance so that [men and women] can have the freedom to take their kids to ballet class. … I think we will find that greatly liberating, and I think it’s a huge step forward for both genders.”
However, remote work has also hindered women. Work from home has been widely criticized for a supposed lack of productivity and efficiency, as well as a lack of face-to-face interaction.
“There’s always the classic situation of when you’re not seen by your supervisors they forget you exist, and you’re not in the line for promotion and challenges and new assignments,” said Gray.
During the pandemic, the consequences of hybrid work likely affected younger women starting out more than they did older women in more senior roles, said Gray.
Real estate is often a social business that requires relationships with the people you work for and with. While all women in real estate had to adapt, senior brokers with secure client bases likely had an easier time than, say, junior brokers who had yet to develop those important relationships, said Gray.
Still, real estate is a wide-reaching umbrella, so not all sectors of the industry require those interactions. Gray, for example, had just started to manage the construction phase of a project when the pandemic hit. Because the project was outside and didn’t require close proximity to people, little changed for her, she said.
Yet the gender challenges ingrained in the property professions are wider-reaching than those spurred by the pandemic. Construction — which has overall improved for women — contains a legacy of maleness, said Gray; anything related to mechanics, engineering and cost-estimating overlaps with stereotypical notions of masculinity and has created a heritage of male dominance that still permeates the sector and the wider industry.
The number of women in commercial real estate has grown in recent years, with a steady progression of women into middle management. But certain levels of the industry — specifically the executive management and senior management levels — have seen the departure of women at a rate higher than their promotion, said Ferguson’s Sallis.
The C-suites and boards of directors, as well as lower management levels, have proven similarly difficult for women to break through. In fact, the organization Women in Technology International (WITI) uses the phrase “the glass step” — meaning the inability of women to reach that first level of managerial positions.
If women can’t even make it up the first step, then they won’t be in the pipeline for those top leadership positions, said Smith College’s Courtney.
“You’re always going to have the Barbara Corcorans of the world who are knocking people’s socks off,” said Gray, referencing the founder of residential brokerage the Corcoran Group who went on to publishing and television fame. “But it’s kind of a shame when you see articles saying ‘The Five Top Women’ or ‘The 50 Top Women’ and then you realize, yeah, like that is all there is. There isn’t 51.”
Opportunity gaps likewise remain. Women of color at the executive level left the workforce during and after the pandemic at a higher rate than white women, according to a report by McKinsey.
A woman’s decision to leave doesn’t necessarily fall on her shoulders but on the shoulders of her company. Some companies simply don’t provide ample opportunities for women to advance, and the pandemic — as well as talk of a recession — have placed women in an ongoing state of limbo. Without a clear path for advancement, women have had to decide whether to leave.
“The choices [to leave] were made for [women] in that they had to prioritize their own wants and health because of their work environments,” said Sallis. “And so I think the pandemic, in many ways, helped to foster that courage to make the move.”
In the same vein, women who have chosen not to leave their jobs but to work from home should not be — and won’t be — punished, if they’re with the right company. If a company’s culture is inclusive and accommodating, then it shouldn’t matter whether a woman is working from her desk or at home with her children, said Sallis. “I don’t firmly believe that being in-person is the only way to be seen and the only way to be promoted, especially for those that may work on a global team.”
DEI policies have begun to nurture a better culture for women. Programs that promote work-life balance, such as flexible work arrangements or nursing facilities, can go a long way. Hiring underrepresented employees and leadership can similarly make a resounding impact.
“It’s a matter of ensuring that policies that are displayed and marketed are in fact practiced within these respective organizations,” said Sallis.
As for where women in real estate go from here, both literally and figuratively, it depends largely on how the industry responds.
There’s a lot of opportunity, said Sallis, but there’s just as much work to be done. Companies continue to focus on the recruitment of women, but retention is an equally important area for attention. Real estate not only has to get the talent, but also has to foster the right culture to keep women — and men, for that matter — engaged and fulfilled.
“I think the pandemic has shown a revolutionary new relationship that we can all have with our jobs and our lives,” said Gray. “But, in the arc of equality, it was a blip.”
Anna Staropoli can be be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.