Hitting Their Stride: Women in Commercial Real Estate
"When I started in 1970, women just weren't hired in commercial brokerage, except in clerical and accounting," said Letty Bierschenk, CCIM. She became the exception.
"It was a matter of pioneering, and every step was a struggle. I stuck to my guns and said, 'Look, I'm doing the job, and I want you to tell me that you like what I'm doing and pay me for it and give me the title that goes with it.'" Starting from a clerical position at Coldwell Banker Commercial's Los Angeles office, she became its only woman vice president in commercial brokerage and managed national activities for the Investment Marketing Services Division.
"It certainly is a lot different than it was 20 years ago," she said. "At least the door is open. There really was a solid wall for a long time, and some of us just scaled the wall. If they didn't open the door, we scaled the wall."
Over the past two decades, women have achieved tremendous inroads in commercial real estate. For example, in 1984, only about 100 CCIMs were women. Among today's CCIMs, more than 550, or about 13%, are women. And women are stepping into leadership positions in a number of industry organizations, including the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), where Rebecca Maccardini is immediate past president; the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (NAIOP), with Joan Woodard at the helm as president; the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM), headed up this year by President Beverly A. Roachell, CPM; and the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute, where B.K. Allen, CCIM, is first vice president.
Having scaled the wall, women are beginning to scale the heights, changing not only their own standing but the terrain of the field itself.
The Female Advantage?
Women of Qualities- For the most part, the qualities that have enabled outstanding women to rise within the industry are those that characterize successful men, perhaps magnified because women have had to prove themselves in what has been for many years a man's world.
"The successful women in our field pay greater attention to precision. They're honest, they're hard-charging, they're tenacious. That's not to say that women alone demonstrate these characteristics, but I think for a woman to succeed, these are prerequisites," said Linda Peroff, CCIM. "Women work hard and are detail-oriented, but anyone who works successfully in the field has those traits," added Ryan Lorey, CCIM. "Often women are classified as detail-oriented because that's how they had to earn their stripes," producing spreadsheets and technical documents.
Document presentation may represent a particular strength of women, according to Michael McCulley, CCIM, in partnership for 12 years with Barbara Monahan, CCIM. "The presentation we make is very different than the presentation we would make were Barbara not in the office," he said.
"When we put something together, he pays attention to content; how it's presented is very important to me. Certainly, some men have a presentation flair, but that's not the general rule," added Monahan.
Personal presentation, too, can work in women's favor. In doing appraisal re-search, for example, women often can glean more information from interviews because their sources see them as less threatening than men, said Debbie Skeans, CCIM, MAI, who has both male and female appraisers on staff.
"Women are perceptive, and less intimidating to investors who don't want someone telling them how to spend their money," Patricia Pollitt, CCIM, agreed.
On the down side, "women tend to perceive a personal motivation for any action that takes place," including some of the "cutthroat" tactics inherent to brokerage, Skeans added.
Peroff recalls an incident during her early days at Cohen-Esrey when negotiations turned ugly. She asked her associate at the firm how he could stay on speaking terms with his opponent after such a fierce exchange. "My associate looked at me like I was crazy," she remembered. "Men have such great ability to wrestle a deal down to the mat, then dust themselves off and keep right on going. You've got business on the one hand and social relationships on the other. Women have a harder time separating all of that and, perhaps as a result, we work harder to keep all negotiations amicable. Women are gentler negotiators, and I do not believe that means less successful. I don't think you always have to play hardball to win. In a truly successful negotiation, there shouldn't be a loser."
Whether women's special gifts are innate or apocryphal, one thing is sure, as Marianne Christian-Griffith, CCIM, noted: "If you are a woman in a male-dominated field, you're memorable. That's an advantage. You're never lost in the crowd."
Family Matters-Often conversations with women turn at some point to family. In women's lives, including their professional lives, family matters.
When her children were young, B.K. Allen, CCIM, tried to come home by 2:30 p.m. or 3 p.m., avoid weekend work, and take off as much of the summers as she could. To keep pace with the demands of her business, she devoted her office hours to personal contacts and spent her evenings on paperwork and planning. If necessary, she brought her children to her office, where she had set up a playroom.
Rather than bring her two children-ages 3 and 6-to work, Christian-Griffith has taken her work home, saving, by her calculations, 12 hours a week once spent commuting or lunching. From her home office, she has carved out a new market niche in corporate real estate-retail site selection and acquisition-achieving a higher volume of business each year. Because her clients are based out of town, she communicates by long-distance calls rather than face-to-face meetings, making her work schedule even more efficient.
As more women are assuming the role of chief breadwinner, family matters are hitting home for men, too. "My four-year-old is being raised by her dad more than me," said Cynthia Shelton, CCIM. "He gets her ready for child-care, feeds her and bathes her and puts her to bed at night when I'm traveling 12 states."
"I used to do strange things like put my hair in a bun and wear dark suits, very conservative, to be able to be taken seriously," recalled Cynthia Shelton, who entered the field in her early 20s. "Over the years, a few gray hairs later, I realize that people [now] take me seriously because of my age and my experience. I'm respected, I think, in the commercial world."
That respect both reflects and contributes to her active industry role, as president of the Tampa Board of REALTORS®, chairwoman of admissions for the Florida Association of REALTORS®, vice president of the Florida CCIM chapter, board member and chairwoman of research for the National Association of REALTORS®, and now, a member of CIREI's Governing Council.
Her success "has a lot to do with persistence and battling back and not taking remarks as personal, being a professional in the world of commercial real estate."
"Young women today don't realize how much easier it is now. The other day, I met with a young lady who is working for one of the developers I knew when I first started out. There's no way 20 years ago that she would have had that job. She wouldn't have been considered for one second. She would have been typing. And it would have been a shame for both her and the company," Bierschenk said.
"People are no longer shocked when I walk into their shop and I'm female. That wasn't the case as recently as 10 years ago," Allen added.
The times are changing, both because men have grown more accepting of women, and because women have grown more knowledgeable about the field, according to Pollitt, who now has three men working for her, sharing ideas and networking. The CCIM designation in particular demonstrates that "women can, in fact, use a calculator. We can analyze properties," Shelton said, "as well as show properties with bathrooms and kitchens."
As men's attitudes and women's aptitudes have changed, the industry itself has undergone a transformation. "The way the field is changing is well suited to the way women work," noted Patricia Lynn, CCIM. "The meetings seem more professional."
"It's a more businesslike atmosphere than it was," Bierschenk agreed. "It's no longer like a big beer hall. The language that I would hear in the office when I first came aboard was pretty raunchy. The men didn't pay any attention to the fact that they were talking in a way that could be offensive. ...Just having women aboard has made a big difference in that regard."
Though their numbers are still relatively small, women are making their presence felt, as Peroff and a male colleague found in a recent transaction. They were marketing an institutional-grade property and contacted 75 prospects. "Only in two instances did we find ourselves dealing with a woman," she recalled. "One of them ended up being the buyer."
So Much for Stereotypes
Forget the image of the math-phobic female. "I was a math and chemistry major," Allen said. "I had a father who convinced his two girls that they could do anything his son could do." She also had a mother who, in the 1940s, was a menswear buyer for a major department store. Her parents' influence steeled her against stereotypes.
When Allen entered the real estate field, "It was a good-old-boy network. I started in residential real estate. I could tell you the color of carpet in every house listed. Then I had the opportunity to list a 90-unit apartment building. I had no idea what to do." Characteristically unintimidated, she partnered with a male commercial real estate professional, who introduced her to the CCIM courses. She raced through the program in 12 months, received her CCIM designation in 18-and had the pleasure of awarding him the CCIM pin when he completed the classes some time later.
"When I went through the CCIM program in the late '70s, I was the only woman in the last classes," she recalled. "Thirty percent to 50% of the class is female now. When I started in business in 1972, I never worked with women, only men. Today at least 40% of the people I work with are women. The field doesn't intimidate women any longer."
The More Things Change
"We just had a really interesting situation here in Kansas City," Peroff said. "A woman CEO brought suit against one of our most prestigious golf clubs for preferential treatment of males regarding tee times. She went to her club with three associates for a business golf game and was denied access to the course. The men could have gone on and played, but she was not there at the right time; she was not there at the time the women could be there." Fortunately, in the end, the golf courses in the area changed their policies; they now grant tee times regardless of gender. Times may have changed, but ladies' tee times have been a little slower.
Another time-honored cliche, the good-old-boys network, still survives, not only as a grapevine for jobs and advancement, but as a safety net for men. "Women typically operate outside the good-old-boys network, leaving them to rely on their own excellence to earn the business," said Peroff.
Even with excellent skills and credentials, women can face hurdles. Women may find themselves passed over for management positions, according to Lynn, when high-level executives question whether men would willingly report to a female. And McCulley said that he sometimes must act as a spokesman for the women in his office. Reiterating a female staff member's request for information or action, he can get results where she got resistance, even if he deliberately uses the same words.
Even in professional associations, gender roles come into play, Shelton noted. "Our state chapter had a problem wondering if they should have a president and a president-elect, both female, back to back. I said, 'Have you ever questioned having two men back to back? It's never been an issue.'"
"For my first 16 years in the business, I worked for my father, who owns a construction and development company," said Joyce Slone Broholm, CCIM. She had just finished high school and started part-time college studies when she went to work as her father's first full-time employee. At age 18, she was handling financing and attorney relations, introducing a new bookkeeping system, and upgrading the company's insurance.
Six months after leaving her father's company for the sales side of the business, she knew she had what she needed for success. "I saw a single-story office building with open space and thought it would be a dynamite shared office." Without an established network of contacts, she called through the phone book to find a customer for the building. "When I was working for the family business, no one had patted me on the back. But when I went out on my own, all the tools I had been using for years came to the surface."
Into the Future
Today, the student profile is growing younger and more female. In CI 101 classes, "as many as 50% of the students now are women," reported Lynn, until recently the only female CCIM instructor, who said she believes that the women in the classes appreciate her presence as a role model.
As younger women progress in their careers, "It will seem very natural for them to hire women and bring in the next generation," Peroff added. In the meantime, "Women in our business need to recognize that they can't look for problems. We just have to look forward and work very hard and be tenacious."
"I got into commercial real estate really as an investor," said Linda Peroff, CCIM. "I began studying in 1977, taking real estate investment courses on my own....My first investment was a four-plex. It had a steam boiler, so I learned about steam boilers." She made a profit on her investment and, the following year, left her career as a speech and language therapist to enter the field of commercial real estate.
"One cannot fail to observe that in 1978 commercial real estate was-and remains today-a male-dominated profession. But I do think women are making substantive inroads. When I joined this firm [Cohen-Esrey Real Estate Services Inc.] in 1982, there was only one other woman. Today, it's somewhat larger, but not a great deal larger, and we now have six women in leasing and sales."
In 1985, Peroff became the first woman named Commercial REALTOR® of the Year by the Metropolitan Kansas City Board of REALTORS®. "Since that time, three others have received that honor," she added, "so I think I see a trend forming."
Most of the factors that determine success in commercial real estate know no gender. Do the homework, learn the product, put in the hours, nail the details. These are androgynous axioms.
Others are the established canon of gender relations. Treat men and women equally. Don't flirt. Don't seem to flirt. Don't start an office romance.
One last kernel of counsel from Skeans: find an apprenticeship opportunity or a mentor, male or female, respected for fairness. "For women, that's probably more critical. Interview potential em-ployers and see how they treat women employees. Ask if they've trained other people similar to yourself. Tell them that sometimes a woman likes to have a role model. Whom do they respect? See what they appreciate in that person as a colleague."
Chances are, they will name a woman who does the homework, knows the product, puts in the hours, and nails the details.