The raised eyebrow. That’s what Gayle Mercier, partner and chair of the real estate group in the St. Louis office of law firm Thompson Coburn, gets all too often when she mentions that she’s a leader in the commercial real estate business.
Why? Because Mercier is a woman. And the field of commercial real estate is still largely dominated by men.
But that is changing, Mercier said. Women are steadily rising through the ranks in commercial real estate. And though the industry has a long way to go before it can shed that “male-dominated” label, progress has been made, she said.
“We know that commercial real estate is still often associated with men instead of women,” Mercier said. “But we are making great strides in breaking through that glass ceiling, bit by bit.”
This progress was the main theme during the St. Louis Women in Real Estate Virtual Summit held Sept. 2 by Midwest Real Estate News. This summit, of course, was originally scheduled as a live event. COVID-19 changed that. But that didn’t change the mood of optimism that prevailed throughout the event.
Mercier encouraged women working in this industry to tell others what they do and to point out the major projects in which they are involved. This is one way to encourage other women to jump into commercial real estate, she said.
The big challenge today? While more women are pursuing careers in commercial real estate, men still hold the vast majority of high-level executive positions in the field. This needs to change for the industry to truly achieve gender equality, Mercier said.
“The time to create this positive change for women in leadership is now,” Mercier said.
Mercier also encouraged her peers to reach out to the younger generation of women. They should tell these younger women about the opportunities in commercial real estate and the positives of working in this field.
“The more other women see women in power and being successful in the industry, the greater the chances are of bringing more females into commercial real estate,” Mercier said.
Women will face challenges in commercial real estate. But they’ll face challenges in any career, Mercier said. The key is to work hard to overcome them.
“The biggest struggles come when you have children,” Mercier said. “You might not be able to make it to every kindergarten party. You might not be able to make it to every school Valentine’s Day party. That isn’t specific to the real estate industry, of course. That is the challenge for any woman who wants to be a successful, independent career-minded woman.”
That challenge can be even more pronounced today as a growing number of schools across the country open their academic years virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the panelists in the virtual summit said, the bulk of childcare still often falls to women. Working from home, raising kids and now making sure that these kids are completing their online studies can be a challenge for even the most organized real estate professional.
It’s important for CRE firms to recognize these challenges and to allow their female brokers, developers, architects and attorneys flexibility, Mercier said.
“I’m fortunate to have a good support system around me,” Mercier said. “I work for a firm that is very supportive of women in the workforce.”
Navigating family duties and work remains a big challenge for many women in the workplace, said Erin Torney, vice president with the St. Louis office of Colliers International.
Torney has experience in this. She is the mother of a 2-year-old. She does struggle to spend the time she wants to spend with her 2-year-old and the time she needs to spend as a broker.
“In my experience, men don’t always share in this struggle,” Torney said. “They might have different ideas of what their work-life balance is. I’ve felt guilt over going to the Christmas party at my son’s daycare during work hours even if I know I’m going to make up the work later.”
Torney said she used to worry about what her male counterparts would think whenever she took time off to attend her child’s events. Today, she doesn’t, knowing that she can still be there for her son and turn in top-quality work for her firm.
“Acknowledging and being OK with that difference has helped me,” Torney said.
Torney said that she has also learned to play to her strengths, even if those strengths might be thought of by some as being stereotypical of women.
An example? Torney considers herself a good listener. She’s also skilled at small talk and making clients feel comfortable. Many might consider those skills to be female-centric as opposed to the stereotypically male skill of diving deep into a complex financial analysis of a property.
But Torney can do both: She’s equally able to present complex financials and chat with clients about their spouses and kids. So she focuses on both, even if one of those skills has typically been considered more female-centric than the other.
“Things like listening and having empathy are also great leadership skills to have,” Torney said. “Rather than hide those skills, I’ve leaned into them. I’ve tried to use them to help our team and to help close deals.”
Samantha Hurrell, senior interior design professional at St. Louis architecture firm HOK, said that it’s important to remember that women, and men, who don’t have children also don’t possess unlimited free time. And that these professionals also struggle with balancing their work responsibilities with the responsibilities of their personal lives.
“There is a perception that younger people who don’t have kids have more flexibility. And that is true. I am not responsible for another human life. But my time is still valuable,” Hurrell said. “Sometimes companies think that if you are single and have no children that you have free time to work extreme hours. But that’s not true. It’s important to put in the work that needs to be done. But it is also important to have time for your life outside of work.”
Hurrell said that the pandemic has been a struggle. But it has also come with some positives. People have discovered that they can work productively from home and that they don’t have to endure long commutes into a central office each day.
Companies are learning, too, that not every professional has to work during the traditional 9-to-5 hours. Some CRE pros might perform better working early in the morning or later in the evening.
“Working from home has empowered people to create the day that works best for them,” Hurrell said. “There are a lot of lessons from how we are working today. I hope we bring those back when we all return to the office at some point.”
Sarah Luem, associate with St. Louis law firm Capes Sokol, said that women in commercial real estate need to be confident in their own voices. They need to understand that they have something to contribute and that they deserve a role in the decision-making process.
“One thing I found challenging was feeling confident enough to speak up and have my voice heard and voice my opinion,” Luem said. “This was particularly true in meetings. A large part of that came from this idea that everyone else in the room has been doing this a lot longer than me. I was often not only the only woman in the room, but I was often by far the youngest person. I assumed my opinion would not be as valuable.”
Luem has since learned, of course, that her opinion is as valuable as anyone else’s. She brings qualities and experiences to the table that others lack.
“I do know what I am talking about,” she said. “I bring a different perspective. The fact that I am a woman gives me a different perspective. My education allows me to bring a different perspective. We all bring something valuable.”
Appropriate for the world of commercial real estate, Luem uses golf to illustrate this point. When she was first learning to play golf, Luem didn’t want anyone to see how bad she was at the sport. Then when she played with golfers with more experience, she learned the truth: Most people were terrible at golf, no matter how long they’d been playing.
“That’s how it is in this industry. Everyone is figuring things out as they go,” Luem said. “Everyone messes up sometimes. But at the same time, everyone has valuable things to contribute.”
Jada Jordan, vice president and senior private banking officer with the St. Louis office of Wells Fargo Bank, said that the biggest challenge she faced early in her career was being taken seriously in an industry largely dominated by men.
Jordan said that there were multiple times when she was on the phone calling on clients and potential clients who assumed that she was a secretary or an assistant.
The key to overcoming this is to be confident in your own abilities, Jordan said.
“The confidence issue is so important,” Jordan said. “I deserve to have a seat at the table. I know just as much as everyone else sitting there. I did have some negative experiences trying to overcome that feeling that I didn’t deserve to be there. But that was early in my career. It really is about being confident enough to let your expertise show.”