Social, environmental changes drawing more women to commercial real estate

Jo Anne Gottfried

Jo Anne Gottfried

by Jo Anne Gottfried, Executive Vice President, Urban Innovations

Commercial real estate  is a much more hospitable field for women today than it was when I started in the business 25 years ago, and it appears that young women view the industry as a viable career option in greater numbers than ever before. While there are many cultural and demographic reasons for this change, I’d like to think that one factor is the increasing realization that real estate development and management can be a powerful source of social and environmental change.

Back in the late 1980s, I could go to an industry symposium with hundreds of participants and count on two hands the number of women in the room. Today, a typical real estate conference audience may be one-third composed of women, many of them holding senior positions within their organizations.

That doesn’t mean women have achieved parity with men in the workplace. Although it’s easy to come up with names of female CEOs, loan officers and top brokers, they are still the exception rather than the rule. Commercial real estate, with its roots in the male-dominated construction industry, has opened its doors to women more slowly than some professional fields.  And that surely translates into lower average compensation for CRE women than men, in line with general business trends.

Overall, women’s earnings in 2010 were 81 percent of men’s earnings, up from 76 percent in 2000 and 65 percent in 1980, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The disparity is greater in the professional services sector, where women’s earnings were 76 percent of men’s in 2009. Assuming CRE is in line with other professional services businesses, there is still work to be done to reach pay parity.On the other hand, BLS reports that women with a Bachelor’s degree or better increased earnings by 30.8 percent on average between 1979 and 2011,almost double the 16.3 percent average increase for degreed men.

Women now account for about 60 percent of all Bachelor’s degree holders,and an increasing number are focusing on real estate. For example, the Graaskamp MBA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison show a sharp rise in women’s enrollment, from 24 percent of the class of 2013 to 31 percent of the class of 2014. An informal survey of other real estate schools seems to confirm that women comprise about one-third of most programs, an increase from 10 years ago but still half the rate of men.

Money Isn’t Everything

If more women are becoming interested in pursuing careers in commercial real estate, one reason could be that they see an opportunity to make a decent living while contributing to sustainability and community improvement.  A University of Cincinnati study found that business women are 1.17 times more likely than men to pursue social goals over financial goals, and 1.23 times more likely to choose environmental ventures over financially driven ventures.  As CRE development has focused more on sustainability and urban neighborhood rejuvenation in the past decade, it may be that more young women view our business as one that allows them to do well by doing good.

Admittedly, I may make more of this trend than others because of my background.  Virtually my entire real estate career has been spent at Urban Innovations, a Chicago-based real estate investment company that specializes in acquisition, development and management of commercial office space and affordable senior housing.

Urban Innovations was started in the 1960s by Doris Conant, a civic leader who, along with her husband Howard, was active in civil rights and women’s rights in particular. As a real estate developer, Doris has concentrated on affordable housing for seniors; however, her reason for starting the real estate business was a desire to preserve the low-rise buildings in the Near North area, some of which were in danger of being torn down as blighted buildings or to make way for high-rise construction.

At the time, the Near North/River North neighborhood adjacent to Chicago’s CBD was decaying from neglect. Doris, and later her son Howard Jr., helped bring about the rejuvenation of the neighborhood with office buildings such as 222 West Hubbard and 314 W. Superior, as well as affordable housing options for seniors.

Today, Urban Innovations owns and manages more than 750,000 square feet of office space in the vibrant River North and  West Loop  neighborhoods, as well as 34 affordable housing properties totaling more than 3,700 units in five states.  Howard runs the company with the same commitment to community support and human rights that his mother championed.

For example, the entire company participates in Chicago Cares Business Shares, an annual project to renovate a school or other public facility.  Howard serves on the board of Lawson House YMCA and is active in Human Rights Watch, while Doris recently committed $1 million to launch the Doris & Howard Conant Fund for Women’s Rights at Chicago Foundation for Women, to advance women’s rights in the Chicago area.

Partly because of Howard’s lifelong embrace of equal rights, and partly due to the social investment element of the work we do, Urban Innovations has always attracted more than its share of women. Today, women make up 46 percent of our workforce and exactly 50 percent of our senior management team.  But it has always been a place where gender is not an issue—which really is the goal.

If there are still glass ceilings in some places, they’re getting more cracks all the time. Commercial real estate can be a level playing field, where achievement alone determines compensation and recognition. But more important, CRE can offer women (and men )the additional reward of a sense of meaningful accomplishment, manifest in the buildings you restore and the lives you improve.

Jo Anne Gottfried is executive vice president of Chicago’s Urban Innovations.

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