Women of color made up just 5 percent of executive/senior-level officials and managers in the S&P 500, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The situation is just as stark in commercial real estate.
Decision-makers in the industry need to recognize that this homogeneity marginalizes whole swaths of the population. The first step to bringing about change is amplifying the problem.
Last week, a number of Chicago real estate professionals attended a panel discussion on minority women in commercial real estate, hosted by Knoll at their new Fulton Market headquarters. Jennifer Sulentic, regional director of Knoll Chicago, kicked off the event and Derek Jayson Rusch, Knoll sales representative moderated the discussion.
Knoll brought together five highly accomplished Chicago real estate professionals to join the discussion: Ciere Boatright, vice president, real estate and inclusion for Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives; Elle Ramel, director of development at Farpoint Development; Smita Sahoo, design leader, vice president at CannonDesign; Navi Sandhu, vice president of finance and development at Fifield Companies and Steph Smothers, interior designer at Sterling Bay.
Rusch started the ball rolling by asking the panelists what their idea of the American Dream is. It’s a deceptively complex question that yielded interesting responses rooted in the five panelists’ varied backgrounds.
Sahoo described growing up in a small village in India and experiencing culture shock upon attending architecture school in Mumbai where caste, religion, gender and other traits were less important than intelligence, ambition and hard work. Once that experience opened up the world to her, the promises of the United States drew her here.
“In America, the only thing which will help you to succeed is how you’re going to perform,” Sahoo said. “It is the quintessential country for hope and aspiration and prosperity.”
Also born in India, Sandhu was raised from infancy in the U.S. following her family’s immigration. Her father toiled, built a company and passed on the values of hard work to his daughter. Even with this, she has had periods of doubt about her own abilities.
“I was recently promoted to a vice president and I told Steve [Fifield], ‘I don’t think I deserve this. I don’t think I’m ready,'” said Sandhu. “And he said, ‘No, you are. Just walk the walk and talk the talk, because that’s what everybody else in this industry is doing.'”
As women and as minorities, the panelists have all had to deal with the preconceived notions of some colleagues and clients. Boatright explained how the burden of inclusion too often falls on the excluded.
“Being a woman of color in a white-male-dominated field, if I tried to fight everyone’s stereotypes and micro aggressions, I wouldn’t be able to effectively do my job,” Boatright said. “With that said, I’d be foolish to think that I don’t try from time to time to combat that. But I recognize that we can’t do it alone.”
Overt racism and sexism aren’t the only barriers to entry for women and people of color. Representation, awareness and networking—or the lack thereof—can act as a source of inertia to maintain the white male dominance that currently permeates commercial real estate.
“Everything is led by men in real estate, which is a relationship business,” Smothers said. “But if this firm works with that construction company, for example, at what point does a woman-owned company get to insert themselves to have the opportunity to bid—or even know about the project—when that’s the pattern?”
Some firms may fall into the trap of hiring just to check off a diversity box. Though it’s unfair, again the burden of inclusion falls to the excluded who must advocate for themselves—not just to further their own careers but to bring about transformation in the industry.
“I used to not talk about being a minority. I was like, ‘If I just keep my head down and be really quiet, no one’s going to notice me.’ I’m actually starting to accentuate the fact that I am Asian, that I am brown,” said Ramel. “Every time I get dispirited, I think, ‘Okay, there’s one of me now, hopefully in 10 years there will be 20 of me,’ and then maybe I’ll look around and things may have changed.”