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Why commercial real estate is still a boy’s club

Only 36% of commercial real estate professionals are women, according to an industry report.
Commercial buildings
Posted at 2:52 PM, Mar 21, 2023

With a background in finance, Megan Fox decided to pursue residential and commercial real estate when she changed careers 11 years ago. As she grew and evolved as an agent at Compass Real Estate in New Jersey, she adapted into primarily residential realty.

"These are two very different sales tracks," Fox said. "I’m more of a people person. That’s why I like residential."

Women represent 66% of residential real estate professionals, according to the National Association of Realtors. But behind the deals of the large office parks, strip malls and warehouse facilities reveal a very different story. Only 36% of commercial real estate professionals are women, unchanged over 15 years, with only 9% holding C-Suite positions, according to The CREW 2020 Diversity Survey.

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That’s something that the head of one the largest real estate groups in the United States would like to change. Liz Gehringer was just named this year as president and CEO of Anywhere Franchise Brands, the umbrella corporate group for Coldwell Banker, Better Homes and Gardens, Century 21 and ERA. She was one of the women leaders at Anywhere Brands to propel the “What Moves Her” program. It helps women in real estate move into new opportunities.  

The program was launched in 2020 to help women get through obstacles in real estate as well as network. There are regular virtual meetings with real estate professionals on topics such as resilient leadership and setting business goals.

It’s about women helping women, Gehringer said.

"Women are looking to see women in leadership positions," Gehringer said. "We empower them."

Just three decades ago, men also dominated the residential real estate industry, Gehringer noted.   

Numbers and People

For Fox, the difference in commercial and residential real estate comes down to learning style. Commercial is about the numbers.

"What is the cost per square foot? How much can I lease the space for?" Fox said.

With residential, a Realtor is often dealing with the most important sale or purchase for their client.

"It’s emotional," she said. "It’s their biggest investment."

The opposite is true of commercial where it is all about the number, Fox said.

Placing women in leadership positions in commercial and residential real estate is part of Anywhere’s diversity and inclusion initiative, Gehringer said. The company sponsors an inclusive ownership program, with onboarding training for a year to help women, minorities and military veterans succeed as broker business owners, she said.

Women are attracted to real estate due to the flexibility of hours, Gehringer said. An attorney by trade, Gehringer, 52, joined Coldwell Banker 18 years ago as a busy working mom with three children. She’s juggled the sports practices and the college visits. Her husband Bob is an advertising executive and they have a tight-knit small family who lean on each other.

"It’s always been just the five of us," Gehringer said.

Flexibility in Roles

Fox appreciates the flexibility as a Realtor and working mom. She manages the household with her husband Tom, who is in manufacturing.  She wants to be a positive influence for her four children: Tommy, 23; Connor, 21; Reiley, 20 and Sean, 18. 

Her son Connor is all about the numbers and wants to go into commercial real estate while her daughter Reilly enjoys working with people and plans to go into residential real estate. Meanwhile, Tommy is about to become a residential real estate agent. The three are following in their mother's footsteps. Sean is still in high school.

Women have shown they can be leaders in residential real estate, Fox said. To bridge the gap in commercial, there needs to be more mentorship and onboarding programs, she said.

Karen Leonardi, who has been a real estate executive for two decades, now at Brown Harris Stevens residential real estate in New York City, thinks women are recognized for their efforts in residential real estate. In commercial real estate, it’s a lot of who you know and men have been in the game longer, she said. 

“It’s a small network,” Leonardi said of commercial real estate. “It’s a lot of relationships and connections.”  

Through programs such as "What Moves Her" and women helping women, Gehringer believes more women will move into leadership roles in all aspects of real estate.

"Women are intuitive," Gehringer said. "We are very good at understanding customers’ needs."