Personal Observations, Experiences and Thoughts on Diversity in the Commercial Real Estate Industry, by Susan J. Booth

Susan Booth, Partner, Holland & Knight LLP

Commercial real estate covers the world, quite literally. Every bit of land, water and air around the world is real estate in its broadest sense. If it is not a residence or publicly-held, then it is probably commercial real estate.

I vividly remember falling in love with commercial real estate shortly after college. I loved the tangible nature of the work, seeing and visiting a completed project, knowing that I had played a role in bringing it to life. Like many a young lover, I dove in headfirst, following only my passion.

Even if I had given it thought, with women representing about 50% and 30% of my graduating law school and MBA classes respectively, I would not have anticipated that, as a white woman, I would start my career as a significant outlier in my chosen profession. And it’s probably best that I did not know then that I would still be an outlier more than 25 years later.

At my first real estate closing, I was the only woman in the room. One of the men yelled across the table, “Sweetheart, come over here and sit on my lap.” No one else in the room gave any indication that the request was inappropriate. On my part, I sheepishly made a polite excuse and temporarily left the room.

The real estate industry has changed a lot since then. I am in awe of the confidence displayed by so many women in the post-Title IX generation. They grew up in an era where they received many of the same benefits and treatment as the boys/men around them. Studies show that the vast majority entered the real estate industry with the belief that the (close to) equal treatment they had enjoyed in the past would continue. They expect to be included in the industry. They expect that equal work will yield equal results and talent will be rewarded. And yet, there is a large chasm between their expectations and the reality of the industry.

Although white men represent just 36.7% of 4-year, college-educated individuals between the ages of 25 and 64, they are the dominant force in commercial real estate (other than clerical workers).

Job Category – Commercial Real Estate White Men White Women Ethnic Minorities
Senior Executives 77.6% 14.1% 8.3%
Mid-Level Managers 68.9% 16.8% 14.3%
Professionals 58.5% 21.6% 19.9%
Technicians 59.7% 15.2% 25.1%
Clerical Workers 14.4% 57.2% 28.4%

These statistics demonstrate that the commercial real estate industry lags far behind many others with respect to diversity.

My goal, and that of many others in the industry, is to create a diverse and inclusive industry which welcomes, nourishes and promotes people of all types by recognizing and rewarding individuals based on merit. Until that goal is realized, the aspirational goal and reality must co-exist. It is my hope that my experiences, while frequently the antithesis of ’what should be’, will help women and minorities find success in light of ‘what is’. As more women and minorities succeed, and the industry becomes more diverse and inclusive, ’what is’ and ‘what should be’ will become one and the same.

I believe that there are three principal contributors to the lack of diversity in the real estate industry: the importance of having a wide professional network; the level of assertiveness required to procure good opportunities; and bias, both deliberate and unconscious.

While personal relationships play a factor in many industries, these relationships are both the foundation and the building blocks of commercial real estate. The significance of these relationships to achievement and recognition cannot be overestimated. In my experience, the depth and expansiveness of an individual’s network is the single biggest predictor of success in the real estate industry.

When I began my career there were very few women, and even fewer minorities, in commercial real estate. It did not take me long to realize the importance of personal relationships in the industry and my need to make them. Recognizing that shared experiences and interests often provide a good start to a relationship, I looked in vain for some commonality with the white men around me. Talk of sports and rounds of golf always seemed to dominate the non-business part of every conversation. I knew nothing about sports so I stood by silently. Before long I tired of being on the outside, and I decided to find a way into the conversation.

I watched Sports Center every night and I read the sports page in the newspaper every day. I also learned to play golf. I used this knowledge to become a part of the conversation and to start a relationship with the men around me. Once the initial relationship was established, I looked to find other, more meaningful bases on which to build a stronger and more substantive relationship and expand my network.

My personal observation is that women and minorities in the industry frequently have smaller professional networks than their white male counterparts. I attribute this difference to a lack of shared experiences. Talk of sports and golf rounds continue to dominate conversations today. Many in the industry recognize that talent and experience, not a 2 handicap or knowledge of Tom Brady’s stats, should be reliable predictors of success, but that is not ‘what is’. For now, it remains incumbent upon those entering the industry to bear the burden of finding (or creating) camaraderie upon which to commence and build a relationship.

Another element of relationship and network-building is mentorship. When I began my career, I knew that I would need mentors to succeed. I also recognized that for most of the people in real estate at that time, welcoming a woman into the industry was not a natural instinct and helping her was a foreign concept. With little hope of developing mentors organically, I identified and pursued those that I thought could best help me. I tried to align my interests with theirs so that my success would positively impact them. This approach yielded tremendous results. I found many great mentors, virtually all of whom were white men, and I would not have achieved the success in my career that I have without their support.

Today there is a group of people, including myself, who recognize that mentorship is critical to success and actively recruit and mentor diverse candidates. There is another, much larger, group of people that is less inclusive in its outreach, but when approached, will provide valuable mentorship to all. I look forward to the day when our industry reaches a level of inclusiveness in which all people who have achieved success reach out to welcome and assist those who are on the path. Until then, we need to be mindful of the difference between what ‘should be’ and ’what is.’ Those who want to succeed may need to be proactive in finding mentors.

In my experience, assertiveness (or lack thereof) is another reason for the lack of diversity in the real estate industry. I was raised to be humble, to put up a hand and wait my turn. This behavior will not lead to success in commercial real estate. Virtually any good opportunity is grabbed and disappears quickly.

My passion is structuring and negotiating large, complex real estate transactions. Those transactions do not get handed out to people on the sidelines. They go primarily to white men who have aggressively pursued them. In order to obtain the opportunities that I want, I have had to put aside humility, let people know how truly good I am at what I do and ask to be involved in transactions. For me, this is the most difficult part of my job, but if I want to succeed, it is essential.

I have encountered many women and other minorities who were raised, as I was, to wait to be asked, not to ask. In my experience, they are often reluctant to brag about their talents and are uncomfortable chasing desired prospects with the same sense of entitlement as their white, male colleagues. As a result, women and minorities often lose the opportunity to realize those prospects.

The last major factor that I see impeding the progress of diversity within the real estate industry is the perpetuation of bias, both intentional and unconscious. The prominence of intentional bias has decreased significantly over the course of my career, but not entirely. A few years ago I was in the audience of a Commercial Real Estate Women’s event, at which one of the country’s top real estate CEOs claimed to be a big supporter of women. As evidence of that claim, he said that he hires women although he knows that women always put family first and career second. Of course, this was news to virtually all of the women in the room. As someone (and I am not alone) who has made innumerable personal sacrifices to move her career forward, I was frustrated and angered by his remarks. However, his comments strengthened my resolve to ensure that my dream of a diverse and inclusive real estate industry, where advancement is based on merit, becomes a reality.

Despite the clear discrimination evidenced by the CEO’s remarks, I believe that unconscious bias is now the bigger impediment to the progress of diversity in commercial real estate. Unconscious bias is difficult to address because it is subtle and can take many forms. One example is asking the woman or other minority to take notes during a meeting or make a reservation for a group dinner. Another example occurs when someone apologizes only to the woman after swearing in a meeting. This may seem polite, but the underlying implication is that the woman is too delicate to hear such language. I always stop and think when I observe one group of people being treated differently from another. There may be legitimate reasons for the disparate treatment, but I want to make my own assessment as to whether bias appears to be in play. I encourage others to do the same.

My personal belief is that any bias, intentional or unconscious, should be addressed directly with the offender. I try to do so privately and in a way that is non-threatening, particularly when the bias is unconscious. In my experience, people are receptive to this approach and raising the bias to a conscious level frequently ends it.

There are also times when I have addressed the bias publicly. A couple of years ago, I received a “Save the Date” notice for a fundraising event for a charitable association in which I am involved. The announcement included the names of the 45-member Dinner Committee, all of whom were men, and only a couple of whom were minorities. When I learned that at least three separate people had raised the lack of diversity within the Dinner Committee with the Fundraising Chair prior to his sending out the announcement, and he had refused to address the concern, I knew that a discreet conversation would be ineffective. Instead, I raised the issue in a quasi-public forum. I received a lot of support when I did so. There was also a lot of backlash and I was the subject of some less than favorable comments. However, because I had raised the matter publicly the Chair could no longer ignore the matter. The Dinner Committee was subsequently expanded to include women and more minorities.

An increasing number of women and other minorities are entering the commercial real estate industry. They are also leaving the industry much more frequently than their white male counterparts. This is not surprising in light of the impediments to success that many women and other minorities face. As an industry we need to work together to create an even playing field, to make our industry inclusive of all people, and to reward talent and expertise.

Experience has shown me that the majority of people in the commercial real estate industry recognize the value and importance of diverse perspectives. Not only is it the right thing to do, but diversity provides tangible benefits, including an expanded talent pool, greater innovation and increased productivity. A large number of organizations have shown their commitment to diversity through direct outreach and the implementation of measures and programs aimed at increasing diversity within the organization. It is now up to those of us in the industry to be more inclusive and to give guidance and support to others. It is up to those who want to break into, or increase their success, in the industry to take the initiative, form relationships and pursue opportunities. It is up to all of us to recognize, reject and confront any bias that may exist. If we all work together, we can build a better, stronger and more diverse industry.

***

Susan J. Booth is a partner at Holland & Knight LLP, where she spent more than a decade as the head of the firm’s West Coast Real Estate Group and also served on the firm’s Director’s Committee. Susan has a national real estate practice and has closed more than $1 billion in transactions over each of the past few years. Her focus is on capital-markets transactions and data centers. Susan is Chair of the Capital Markets Committee of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers, Co-Chair of the Capital Markets Committee of the American College of Mortgage Attorneys and Trustee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. She has also served on the Stanford Real Estate Council and the Board of the UCLA Ziman Real Estate Center. 

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