Six Female Industry Leaders Spoke to CoStar News About Workplace Challenges
By Hélène Bigras-Dutrisac CoStar News
March 7, 2022 | 11:33 P.M.
Marie-France Benoit, director of insights for Canada at Avison Young, recalls that when she started her career 30 years ago, there were very few women in commercial real estate, especially in key decision-making roles.
"I remember wondering, in my early twenties, if it would even be possible for someone like me to reach the echelons I aspired to," Benoit said.
This year, International Women's Day is focused on erasing inequity from the workplace across industries, including real estate, with the theme #BreakTheBias. Recognized on March 8 across the globe for more than a century, International Women’s Day is designed to emphasize the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, while serving as a call to action for accelerating women's equality, organizers say.
Lean In, a U.S.-based organization advocating for more equitable workplaces, says members of underrepresented groups, such as women and people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, still experience the type of workplace bias that Benoit described. The organization emphasizes that whether conscious or unconscious, colleagues and employers often make assumptions about a staff member's abilities, skills or commitment to career that may influence who is favored in the workplace.
CoStar News spoke with six female leaders in commercial real estate to find out what a diverse and inclusive bias-free industry looks like to them.
The discussions come as women make up 36.7% of the commercial property industry across Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to a 2020 survey conducted by CREW Network, a global organization that seeks to advance women in commercial real estate. About 16% of respondents reported that 25% or more of the professionals in their workplace are Black, Indigenous or another race that is not white. The industry remains largely white, with 60% of respondents reporting a lack of diversity in the workplace.
“Commercial real estate is a white, male-dominated space," Melanie Chin, brand and community manager at real estate developer Hines in Toronto, told CoStar News in an email. "Unfortunately, throughout my career, I have had to deal with male counterparts openly questioning my direction, despite being the subject matter expert, which is very frustrating and adds to the stress of the job,” said Chin, who has worked in real estate for more than nine years.
This frustration is one reason why this year’s International Women’s Day theme is so important, Alison Kimmell, managing director in Toronto at Hines, told CoStar News.
“#BreakTheBias is about acknowledging that everyone, myself included, has subconscious biases and making a commitment to hold myself and others accountable when these biases surface,” Kimmell said.
Signs of Improvement
The situation seems to be improving, Kimmell said, pointing to changes she saw as she and Chin worked with Veni Iozzo, executive vice president in enterprise real estate and workplace transformation for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and Sunita Mahant, senior director of legal affairs and investment management at Ivanhoé Cambridge, on a massive office development that got started in 2017 in Toronto called CIBC Square.
The 49- and 50-floor office development by Ivanhoé Cambridge and Hines at 81 and 141 Bay St. total 3 million square feet of office space. The first tower opened in 2021, while the second is set to be complete in 2024.
“I started on the project in my late twenties. I was quite intimidated by all these older, more knowledgeable men, and would make a mental note of the ratio of women to men in our meetings,” Kimmell told CoStar News in an email. “I would catch myself wondering how I’d ever make it in this industry where there were so few women leaders to aspire to. Fast forward to today, and now there are strong, intelligent women … leading those meetings and I no longer make a mental note of the gender ratio. That’s not to say the industry is still not male-dominated, but it’s encouraging to see pockets of change.”
Solidarity between colleagues can make a real difference, according to Chin.
“I am fortunate though to have a small group of women on the CIBC Square team at both Hines and Ivanhoé Cambridge who look to uplift and support each other," said Chin. "So now I often look to them and take cues on how to hold my own in a meeting where I’m the only woman and have to push my direction forward.”
There are signs that perceptions are still changing. More than half of the CREW survey respondents noted a culture shift regarding diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry, mostly because of mandates from corporate leadership and external pressures from the industry.
“When I started, there were few women in architecture and fewer people" who weren't white, said Arlene Dedier, principal and executive vice president and Canadian practice leader of project management services at Avison Young. “I have become used to being the only one, but over the last 30 years, I have seen positive change. In a world scripted by others, women are extraordinarily underrepresented although some of the most talented people I have met in my career are women.”
For Mahant with Ivanhoé Cambridge, her more than 15 years in the industry have not always been easy despite her love for commercial real estate. She says that although some industry players still hold traditional views and are reluctant to challenge the status quo, positive change is taking place.
“There was a perception within the industry that women needed to pave their way through the school of hard knocks rather than the door being held open to create more access and opportunity for diverse perspectives,” Mahant said. “More recently, we are seeing that the industry is going through a major transformation where companies and stakeholders are putting diversity and representation at the forefront of their strategies, realizing that the inclusion of diverse perspectives at the table will help drive better decision, innovation and ultimately performance.”
Last year's International Women's Day was marked by the #ChooseToChallenge theme, which aimed to challenge gender, racial, and cultural biases. This year's #BreakTheBias is meant to "break down the barriers to entry and growth for women and diverse talent within our industry and our organization so that we can leverage the hidden gems within our teams and attract talent and investment opportunities for further innovative growth and success,” Mahant said.
This year's #BreakTheBias conversation "is extremely healthy, especially for those who make the effort … to dig within themselves to identify these unconscious biases and demystify and deconstruct them,” Benoit said. “When aware of the biases, we can get rid of limiting beliefs about others and biases that are internalized.”
According to CREW, companies that prioritize diversity outperform others, reporting greater earnings, better governance, greater innovation, and more opportunity.
"There are many women in real estate overall. But women are underrepresented in critical areas, such as brokerage, development, investment, C-suite and boardrooms, all of which are negotiation-based and where the measures of success are financial," Benoit said.
Being in the minority can be difficult, Dedier said.
“It is hard to be what you do not see, which is a shame. Because it is so rare to be a woman and a person of colour in construction and real estate, people find more reasons that you should not enter the field than reasons you should,” Dedier said. “To be successful in this industry as a woman and a diverse woman takes determination, tenacity and sheer willpower.”
Women continue to identify a need for guidance, consistently listing relationships with mentors as key to future success.
“Find a sponsor,” Iozzo said, when asked what advice she would give to women starting out in the industry. “Someone who can provide you with insight and help put you on track to achieve your ambitions.”
Collaboration is also emphasized on the International Women’s Day website, which states that “collective action and shared ownership for driving gender parity is what makes International Women's Day impactful.”
“Our business is built on relationships and the ability to collaborate,” added Iozzo. “As women, support each other. If you see someone struggling, pull her up and take her with you.”