Deserving a seat at the table: St. Louis Women in Real Estate Summit showcases the strides women have made in CRE and the challenges they still face
The raised eyebrow. That’s what Gayle Mercier, partner and real estate group chairman at the Thompson Coburn law firm’s St. Louis office, gets all too often when she mentions she’s a leader in commercial real estate.
Why? Because Mercier is a woman. And the commercial real estate area is still largely male dominated.
But that’s changing, said Mercier. Women are steadily rising through the ranks of commercial real estate. And while the industry still has a long way to go before shedding this male-dominated label, progress has been made, she said.
“We know that commercial real estate is still often associated with men rather than women,” said Mercier. “But we will make great strides if we break through this glass ceiling piece by piece.”
This progress was the main topic of the virtual summit for Women in Real Estate in St. Louis held by Midwest Real Estate News on September 2nd. This summit was of course originally planned as a live event. COVID-19 has changed that. But that didn’t change the mood of optimism that reigned throughout the event.
Mercier encouraged women who work in this industry to tell others what they are doing and to point out the big projects they are involved in. This is a way to encourage other women to get into commercial real estate, she said.
The big challenge today? As more women pursue careers in commercial real estate, men still hold the vast majority of high-level leadership positions in the field. That needs to change for the industry to truly achieve gender equality, Mercier said.
“The time to make this positive change for women in leadership positions is now,” said Mercier.
Mercier also encouraged her colleagues to reach out to the younger generation of women. You should explain to these younger women the opportunities for commercial real estate and the positive aspects of working in it.
“The more other women see women in power and are successful in the industry, the greater the chances of getting more women into commercial real estate,” said Mercier.
Women face challenges in commercial real estate. But they will face challenges in any career, Mercier said. The key is to work hard to overcome them.
“The biggest problems come when you have kids,” said Mercier. “You might not make it to every kindergarten party. You may not make it to every Valentine’s Day party at school. This is of course not specific to the real estate industry. This is the challenge for every woman who wants to be a successful, independent, career-oriented woman. “
That challenge may be even greater today as more schools across the country are virtually opening their school years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the panellists at the virtual summit said, the bulk of childcare still often falls to women. Working from home, raising kids, and now making sure those kids complete their degrees online can be challenging even for the most organized real estate professional.
It is important for CRE companies to recognize these challenges and allow flexibility for their brokers, developers, architects and lawyers, Mercier said.
“I’m fortunate to have a good support system around me,” said Mercier. “I work for a company that is very supportive of women in the workforce.”
Managing family responsibilities and work remains a major challenge for many women in the workplace, said Erin Torney, vice president of Colliers International’s St. Louis office.
Torney has experience with it. She is the mother of a 2 year old. She is struggling to get the time she wants to be with her 2 year old and the time she has to spend as a real estate agent.
“In my experience, men don’t always share this fight,” said Torney. “You may have different ideas about your work-life balance. I felt guilty about going to the Christmas party at my son’s daycare center during work hours, even though I know I will catch up with work later. “
Torney said she always wondered what her male colleagues would think if she took time off to attend her child’s events. Today she does not know that she can still be there for her son and do quality work for her company.
“It helped me recognize and agree to that difference,” said Torney.
Torney said she also learned to play with her strengths, although those strengths might be viewed by some as stereotypical for women.
An example? Torney sees herself as a good listener. She also masters small talk and makes sure that customers feel comfortable. Many may view these skills as feminine as opposed to the stereotypical masculine ability to delve deep into a complex financial analysis of a property.
But Torney can do both: she is equally capable of presenting complex financial data and talking to clients about their spouses and children. So she focuses on both, even if one of these skills is usually more female-focused than the other.
“Things like listening and empathy are great leadership qualities too,” said Torney. “Instead of hiding these skills, I leaned on them. I tried to use them to help our team and close deals. “
Samantha Hurrell, senior interior designer at HOK St. Louis architecture firm, said it was important to remember that women and men who don’t have children don’t have unlimited free time either. And that these professionals also have difficulty balancing their job responsibilities with the responsibilities of their private lives.
“There is a perception that younger people who do not have children are more flexible. And that is true. I am not responsible for any other human life. But my time is still precious, ”said Hurrell. “Sometimes companies think that if you are single and have no children, you have free time to work extreme hours. But that’s not correct. Getting the job done that needs to be done is important. But it’s also important to have time for your life outside of work. “
Hurrell said the pandemic was a struggle. But it also has some positive aspects. People have found that they can work productively from home and don’t have to walk long distances to a head office every day.
Companies also learn that not every professional has to work during the traditional 9 to 5 hours. Some CRE professionals may work better early in the morning or later in the evening.
“Working from home has allowed people to design the day that works best for them,” said Hurrell. “There are many lessons to be learned from the way we work today. Hope we bring these back when we all get back to the office at some point. “
Sarah Luem, an associate at Capes Sokol law firm in St. Louis, said that women in commercial real estate need to have confidence in their own voices. They need to understand that they can contribute and that they deserve a role in the decision-making process.
“One thing that I found challenging was feeling safe enough to speak and hear my voice and express my opinion,” Luem said. “This is especially true for meetings. A big part of it came from the idea that everyone else in the room has been doing this for a lot longer than me. I was often not only the only woman in the room, but also the youngest person by far. I figured my opinion wouldn’t be that valuable. “
Since then, of course, Luem has learned that her opinion is just as valuable as anyone else’s. She brings qualities and experiences that others lack.
“I know what I’m talking about,” she said. “I bring a different perspective. The fact that I am a woman gives me a different perspective. My training enables me to bring in a different perspective. We all bring something valuable with us. “
Luem is suited to the commercial real estate world and uses golf to illustrate this point. When she first learned to play golf, Luem didn’t want anyone to see how bad she was at the sport. Then, as she played with more experienced golfers, she learned the truth: most people, no matter how long they had played, were terrible at golf.
“That’s the way it is in this industry. Everyone finds out things as they go, ”said Luem. “Everyone messes things up sometimes. At the same time, everyone has a valuable contribution to make. “
Jada Jordan, vice president and senior private banking officer in the Wells Fargo Bank St. Louis office, said the biggest challenge she faced early in her career was how to, in an industry that is largely male-dominated, to be taken seriously.
Jordan said she phoned multiple times to call clients and prospects who assumed she was a secretary or assistant.
The key to overcoming this is to rely on your own abilities, Jordan said.
“The trust problem is so important,” said Jordan. “I deserve to sit down at the table. I know as much as everyone else sitting there. I’ve had some negative experiences trying to get over the feeling that I didn’t deserve to be there. But that was early in my career. It’s really about being confident enough to put your expertise to the test. “