A Real Estate Group Launches Effort to Put More Women on Corporate Boards

WX will use 2024 to organize the new initiative, which focuses on female executives in the latter stages of their career

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Susan Swanezy is planning to retire at the end of March after more than three decades working in real estate finance, but she isn’t moving to Florida for leisurely games of shuffleboard.

The Hodes Weill & Associates partner, who specializes in real estate investment management and is a board member of AvalonBay Communities, is instead exploring a move to join another corporate board sometime later this year.

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“Once you’re in, it’s really helpful [for joining more boards], but getting on that first board is tricky,” Swanezy said. “Other board members see your contributions and think, ‘Oh, you’d be of value and there’s an opening coming up on our board.’ If you just hire your friends, people in your club or people you play lacrosse with, you’re just going to the same kinds of people.”

Swanezy is part of a trend of more women joining the boards of directors of public companies that has ticked upward in recent years. In 2022, 45 percent of new board appointees to Fortune 500 companies were women, and the percentage of female board members at these companies approached 30 percent.

But progress has been slow. The percentage of women joining boards in the Russell 3000 Index fell to 39 percent in 2022 from just over 40 percent in 2021 and 2019. As of early 2023, only 28 percent of women had a seat in corporate boardrooms, according to data compiled by Equilar. There’s also been a backlash in the corporate world over the need for diversity and inclusion programs as well as environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) benchmarks, which has put some executives on the defensive about making changes to their boards’ constitutions.

However, a new initiative could make a difference in the commercial real estate industry at least. WX — the 250-member, invitation-only association for women in New York real estate — is launching an effort this month encouraging women real estate executives in the latter stages of their careers to join more for-profit boards. The goal is to counteract the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions throughout the private sector while improving business outcomes. 

“Companies with more women on their board improve decision-making, and more diverse boards mean more diverse opinions and perspectives,” said Sarah Berman, president of PR and marketing firm the Berman Group and a longtime WX association administrator. “WX is the perfect organization to advance this important agenda item as they are the women with the track records and experience to join boards and to encourage like-minded female business leaders to take on this cause.”

The group has a wide mandate in terms of helping women in commercial real estate. WX previously launched a scholarship program for college students, held monthly breakfast panels with public officials and developers, and ran a mentorship program pairing experienced members with women starting out in real estate. This year, it will help its members network with others who currently serve on boards to understand the responsibilities involved, identify opportunities that could match their backgrounds, and get recruiters to put WX members on their radar screens. 

WX does not have targets yet for how many women it wants to help put on boards — it’s too early to set them, the group said. This year is a time for organizing and implementing the initiative. 

Ann Cole.
Ann Cole. PHOTO: Courtesy JP Morgan

“There’s a need for incredible talent across our organization, and we’re going to advocate for them and support them as they pursue these opportunities,” said Ann Cole, global head of real estate client strategy at J.P. Morgan Asset Management and a WX board member. “Board seats are highly competitive, and what we’re really trying to do is facilitate more opportunities for our members to be considered for boards and help our members position themselves for success.”

Nina Roket, co-managing partner at law firm Olshan Frome Wolosky and a WX member, has represented owners, developers and hotel operators, but started thinking about becoming a corporate board member after a recent experience helping a fashion company restructure and reorganize as it sought to expand. She hopes to join a hospitality or lifestyle company’s board with WX’s help.

“I was the first woman to become an equity partner at my firm, and I immediately saw the value that I brought to the table — the outcome and profits, the financial betterment of the firm by seeing things from a different perspective,” Roket said. “It’s having the ability to have a say in a company’s direction.”

Serving on a board carries significant responsibilities. Board members typically meet quarterly while also serving on committees or subcommittees that oversee audits, governance or executive compensation. The work is fairly compensated, but there can be many obligations beyond the core responsibilities, such as heavy reading loads so members are prepared to contribute at meetings.

WX said they are working to ensure members know their expectations ahead of time.

“We’re going to meet with members who say, ‘Here’s how it works, here’s how you position yourself to be on this type of committee versus on this other type of committee,’” Cole said. 

Susan Swanezy
Susan Swanezy. PHOTO: Courtesy Susan Swanezy

Some people apparently refrain from serving on boards because of the time commitment or conflicts of interest that could develop if the board of the company they serve on overlaps too much with their employer.

Swanezy said she was fortunate her firm allowed her to serve on the board of a multifamily developer while she was working full time. She joined the board of AvalonBay, a real estate investment trust that has developed and managed properties on the East and West coasts, in 2016 and has helped diversify the company’s board and leadership team. 

“They’re pretty sophisticated when it comes to gender,” she said. “They have visions for having women in leadership roles as well as racial diversity in leadership roles. They’re very good when it comes to hiring, providing access to a diverse slate of candidates from schools, including women in leadership positions. That has not been a blind spot.”

Swanezy credits WX with helping market herself and letting her know what boards were looking for in a candidate. More importantly, it provided a community of professionals. including architects, city planners, developers and lawyers, so she could understand how the industry works and network outside her area of expertise.

“WX is not only helping women on the way up but also women at the end of their careers, by taking advantage of their expertise to understand the ropes of how to get onto corporate boards, and understand what skill sets they have that may be valuable,” she said.

Roket hopes those connections in the real estate industry that she has made through WX will prepare her to take on more leadership responsibilities in the next stage of her career. 

“Meeting different people in the industry is important, but it’s more than business relationships. It’s very deep personal relationships, which are the base and foundation of further growth,” Roket said. “Being able to do business aligned with people who share a common path and trajectory is super important. There’s tremendous power in women uniting, and WX has underscored that.”