Commercial real estate is a notable multidisciplinary industry that increasingly risks a notorious reputation for the largely uniform composition of its leadership ranks. International Women’s Day provides a timely peg for contemplating how to recruit and open the paths of advancement to a workforce that is more broadly reflective of the 21st century cities, tenancies and investors that drive growth and prosperity.
Almost invariably, that begins with an acknowledgment of the less than breathtaking pace of change to date. Commercial real estate is consistently on the low side of already unimpressive economy-wide averages for women in senior executive and board of director roles.
“Over the last 20 years, there’s been a circular conversation around gender equity with very little progressive action. The conversation is stagnant and counterproductive,” asserts Chandran Fernando, managing partner with the human resources consulting firm, Matrix360, which hosted a panel discussion on women in commercial real earlier this week. “We have observed that the stagnation is caused by a lack of understanding, dialogue that is not solutions-driven and where men are left out of the conversations.”
Aiming for an antidote to that stalemate, the evening’s discussion drew on a range of perspectives and experiences gleaned from brokerage and investment services, the real estate arms of two of Canada’s largest pension funds and organizations specifically advocating for gender equity. All panellists agreed that deliberate, active strategies are needed to rebalance commercial real estate’s workforce, but that momentum can build from a few painless adjustments and flow seamlessly into the next stage of progress.
“The issue can be that the pipeline (of entrants to the industry) comes from places that are not diverse,” observed Paul Morassutti, vice chair, valuation and advisory services, at CBRE Canada. “Just a slight change in how you identify talent can have an immediate impact.”
Career paths, pressures and goals
Both Morassutti and Scott Addison, president of brokerage services at Colliers Canada, conceded that their business domains, which are heavily focused on deal-making and commission-based earnings, tend to be overwhelmingly male. After 30+ years of market cycles, technological innovation and shifting social values, the demographic profile of staff and contemporaries could be one of the few constants of Addison’s career.
“There has been very little change on the brokerage side,” he told the predominantly female gathering in Toronto. “I look around the table at our sales meetings — there are a lot of people who look like me.”
The panel’s contingent of female executives came to commercial real estate through the professions of engineering and law. Veronica Maggisano, senior director, development, at Oxford Properties, and Sunita Mahant, senior director, legal affairs, with Ivanhoé Cambridge, underscored their ambitions as mentors and role models in addition to their weighty corporate responsibilities.
“I want women to have a say at the table. I want them to have a say in how cities are built,” Maggisano said.
Mahant pointed to her parents’ experience as immigrants to Canada as another important influence. “My parents came here for a better opportunity. I feel like I have a responsibility,” she reiterated. “I have a voice at the table and I want to keep the door open for all women and minorities who come through.”
Efforts to prop that door open might include: steps to help decision-makers recognize and neutralize unconscious biases that can influence who gets hired and/or promoted; flexibility and support for parents of young children; and harnessing data to measure diversity performance. Panellists endorsed all three measures — offering some personal context and a mea culpa or two.
Strategies and tools to support diversity
Addison recounted how he formerly looked to job candidates’ participation in team sports as an indicator of competitive drive and collaborative capacity without necessarily considering health, social and/or economic factors that might keep many keen, ambitious individuals off the playing fields. Whether it’s hiring staff, choosing service providers or forming friendships, decision-makers draw from their own experiences and comfort zones.
“People aren’t aware of how they are making decisions. I don’t think people who look like me are consciously trying to hold people back,” he submitted.
“Most people, truthfully, want to work with a team where they don’t have to constantly explain themselves,” added Stephanie Dei, coordinator of the United Nations’ Women program in Canada.
However, the paybacks of a broadened perspective have been enumerated, with gender and ethnically diverse organizations generally achieving higher profitability. Mahant equated unconscious biases to drivers’ blind spots, which are detectable only with tools (a mirror) and purposeful action. Overlooking a blind spot can be catastrophic for drivers and pedestrians and, similarly, a lost opportunity in business and life.
“You really have to look at yourself or get a coach to help you,” Addison advised. “Change your process and get more applicants.”
Sharing an anecdote from the bad old days of not so long ago, Morassutti also stressed that men must speak up when they see transgressions and work to change environments that can be unwelcoming or outright hostile to women. “I’d say the men in this room are part of the problem. Implicit and explicit biases can get crossed and a little bit blurred,” he maintained.
Maggisano recommended harnessing commercial real estate’s zeal for competition and data. The benchmarking and key performance indicators that now guide so much of management, operational and investment strategy could be expanded to include diversity metrics, even drilling all the way down to team-level dashboards.
“Reflect on what the data tells you and how you would feel if that data was released to your customers. What would they say?” she asked.
For his part, Addison would welcome such specifications from clients, noting that that institutional players, such as Oxford, are well placed to make the demand and brokerage services are predisposed to deliver. “If we know that’s part of our scorecard, we are addicted to competition,” he said.
Panellists’ dual role as parents added another layer of insight to the discussion. Moderator Robyn Gooding, senior manager of strategy and engagement with Matrix360, cited statistics that gender pay and equity gaps are most prominent in the cities with the highest daycare costs.
Dei noted that men’s careers tend to take priority in family decision-making, while high daycare costs can effectively push mothers out of their careers to stay at home with children. “In Canada, where women earn 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, you are already disadvantaged in that conversation,” she said.
As the mother of two young children, ages three and five, Maggisano has relatively recent experience with maternity leave, along with the current intensity of juggling work and childcare. Interestingly, from the development perspective, the process of birthing a new building is considerably lengthier than what’s allowed for a child, so work on big projects could be bookended around mothers’ time at home with newborns.
Morassutti outlined some of CBRE’s efforts to provide more home office support, both for women to maintain contact with key clients during maternity leave and for more flexibility for parents with young families. All panellists commended the Canadian government’s pledged introduction of a “use it or lose it” parental leave option for men, expected to be the similar to the five-week option already available in Quebec.
“In Quebec, 80 per cent of eligible fathers take it,” advised Jake Stika, co-founder and executive director of Next Gen Men. “Consequently, you can’t take for granted anymore that it’s only women taking leave.”
“That starts to make it easier for the macho male to say: I have to take it; I’d be foolish not to take the government’s money,” Addison agreed. Meanwhile, his parental focus is on two adult daughters, including one who is considering a career in commercial real estate.
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.