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Leveling the playing field in commercial real estate

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With women outpacing men in many professions, why is it that Wendy Lanahan, director of real estate for Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), is often the only woman in a room when she attends a business meeting? In the last decade, women have broken down the barriers in male dominated areas such as medicine and law to make the playing field more level. Yet why is the commercial real estate field still so tilted in the male direction?

Women who have established successful careers in commercial real estate offer up a wide range of reasons. Anne Benge, principal of Unisource Solutions and the immediate past president of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) in San Diego, observes that a lot of people come to real estate with a finance education and background. Traditionally, women have not gravitated toward the finance industry. Lanahan agreed; but with more females enrolling in business schools, she hopes this will change.

Benge and Lanahan also agreed that connecting the dots between finance and real estate can be hard, especially when few schools offer real estate-oriented curriculums. According to Benge, “Professionals often discover real estate through mentoring and networking … men in the industry seem more likely to bring other men into it.”

CREW provides a networking avenue for women. The national organization has an active local chapter that offers a variety of events and educational programs to help women enter and grow in the commercial real estate profession.

Bre’An Fox, owner and president of Facility Solutions, called CREW a “great find” when she joined the organization in the mid-1980s, and noted that she had no female mentors when she first started in commercial real estate. For women entering the industry today, Fox encourages them to join CREW, as it provides a network of national resources to call upon. She also stressed the importance of attending as many different real estate organization events as possible to build a contact base and to seek out a mentor with commercial real estate experience.

Amy White, vice president of Pacific Office Properties, said she is seeing a larger number of women in the property management side of commercial real estate, and thinks this due to the demands of the job. In White’s observation, women are good at taking on multiple tasks, and being in property management requires a variety of roles and responsibilities. “Men are comfortable in a more defined role,” said White, though she added that many men can and do handle all the property management roles equally well.

The differences between men and women have contributed to the historical divide in the profession. Women are often drawn to residential real estate because it is viewed as being more creative, less stressful and provides flexible hours, allowing wives and mothers to also take on the role of homemakers. Many females who did end up in the commercial side of the business had a design background, which historically was viewed as a more woman-oriented field. Fox became a real estate developer after working in the interior architecture and design sector. Although it was a predominately male industry, thanks to a supportive company, she had a positive experience before making the change back to design in 1993.

Not all women are as lucky as Fox. Some women speak of a “glass door” in the brokerage side of commercial real estate that is hard to break down. Yet Benge noted that CREW has several women brokers, including Lynn LaChapelle of Jones Lange LaSalle and Linda Greenberg of Colliers International, who are seen as leaders in their fields.

According to a national benchmark study published by CREW, women are starting to gain ground. In 2005, 36 percent of those entering the commercial real estate industry were women. In 2010 that number had grown to 43 percent. The trend toward more women is “refreshing” according to Lanahan, who noted that while her department at Qualcomm is run by a man, women comprise all other members.

White hopes that more women will give commercial real estate a shot. “You can make it into what you want,” she said. “Our industry provides such a variety of opportunities; you can design your career.”

Warren is president of TW2 Marketing, which is a sponsor of CREW San Diego.

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