Addressing Female Diversity in Real Estate: Is it a Pipeline Problem?

Becky Zimmermann

By Becky Zimmermann, president of Design Workshop

March celebrates Women’s History Month which gives us a great opportunity to recognize and reflect on the efforts that have been made over the years to help women open doors and claim a seat at the table. It’s also a time to see what we need to work on as business leaders to continue to provide opportunities for women in leadership roles and make sure our teams are more diverse. To gain perspective of why women claiming a seat at the table in real estate and related fields is more complicated than simply encouraging them to do so, requires visiting the facts.

The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a professional organization that provides leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide, has a membership where women make up 28 percent of their total membership and 21 percent full membership (a category with higher membership fee and engagement opportunities), but women only account for 14 percent of its CEOs.

According to ULI, while progress has been made in the past decades in advancing women within ULI and the real estate industry overall, there is still a long way to go before gender balance is achieved at the top of real estate organizations. With such a low number of female CEOs in the industry overall, even fewer run large firms. Of the female CEOs surveyed, only 7 percent lead organizations with more than 100 employees. What can be done to change this for the better?

The ULI created the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) to help advance women in the real estate industry. They strive to increase the number and visibility of women who serve in leadership positions. The WLI research suggests that organizations and companies succeed in advancing more women when they change how work is done each day. Specific recommended actions include to think and act with an eye toward diversity when making assignments to lead high profile projects, providing coaching to those in new roles, accelerating learning through job assignments, investing in training to drive change, and creating an inclusive culture.

In my career, I find it extremely valuable to have women leaders participating at high levels of decision-making. This includes serving on a board of directors, being part of leadership groups for organizations or influencing decisions at the landscape architecture and urban planning firm I work with, Design Workshop. Both men and women need to be at the table, they each bring a distinctly different perspective. Women bring emotional intelligence, trustable intuition and problem-solving. Throughout
my career, I have coached and mentored young professional women, encouraging them to be leaders in their profession.

Here are seven tips to help increase the number of females in real estate-related fields:

  • If the door cracks open for you because you are female, run through the door. This is not the time to fall on your feminist sword and refuse an opportunity because there is a need for more women at the table. Accept the invitation and then prove you deserved to be there regardless of your gender. I have experienced this situation numerous times and there is not once that I regretted my decision to accept the opportunities presented to me.
  • It is never too early to build your network. Female CEOs cite developing external networks as key to having advanced their careers and say it should be a top priority going forward, according to the ULI WLI survey. My circle of networks such as Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and ULI have been an invaluable resource for me to hone my leadership skills and seek mentorship from others.
  • Get involved on boards and/or leadership positions for nonprofits. This builds leadership skills and demonstrated experience for future opportunities. My first nonprofit board experience was for the National Sports Center for the Disabled and I currently serve on other Foundation boards.
  • Seek mentors. Don’t wait for someone to offer of being your mentor. Leaders have a full plate but they are usually willing to coach or mentor others if asked.
  • Don’t wait for permission.  Initiative and appropriate patience is a winning formula to advancing your career.
  • Pay it forward. Never forget what others have done to assist your career advancement and be sure to pay it forward.
  • Get involved with professional associations, groups or networks. This will give you the opportunity to collaborate and learn with your peers and find mentors. For example, the Women in Landscape Architecture (WILA) Professional Practice Network works to create resources for women in the profession, provide mentorship opportunities, encourage discussion of work/life balance concerns, and establish a virtual home for members.

To continue to see an increase of women leaders and to help increase diversity in real estate-related fields, it all starts with the basics and then building upon those efforts. We need to start young and develop programs to educate high school students about career opportunities in real estate, continue developing partnerships with universities and higher education platforms and be active in professional organizations. At work, it’s important to instill a culture of inclusion, diversity and equity to make sure
everyone has the opportunity to grow and thrive in this industry.


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