By: Lisa Prevost
Women are pushing to establish more senior roles for themselves in commercial real estate, an area where they are severely underrepresented.
As a highly successful woman in New York’s male-dominated development arena, MaryAnne Gilmartin has a “mini-obsession”: She wants to oversee a commercial real estate project in which every part of the process is headed by a woman.
Ms. Gilmartin, the founder of L&L MAG, a real estate development company, knows from experience how to run a real estate project. As the chief executive of Forest City Ratner Companies, she oversaw such prominent projects as the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the Renzo Piano-designed New York Times building in Manhattan.
Now, she has set her sights on doing the same with an all-women team. Ms. Gilmartin calls it a “she build,” and she knows “exactly where to go to find the right woman for every single part of the deal,” she said.
Her biggest challenge is securing the capital — the idea does not get a lot of traction in a room full of male investors, she said. But she is working at it, believing that if she can make such a project happen in New York, it will serve as a beacon to other aspiring developers who are women.
“We outliers have to keep at it,” Ms. Gilmartin, 55, said.
That’s because, despite progress in many other professional realms, women remain severely underrepresented in real estate development and investment, particularly in senior roles.
Women held just 4 percent of senior investment roles at major real estate firms, according to a widely circulated 2011 study, and their numbers have improved only “marginally” since, said the study’s author, Nori Gerardo Lietz, who is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and a longtime real estate investor.
Ms. Lietz reviewed the senior ranks of 82 major real estate investment firms for the study, as well as many more private equity and venture capital firms, and found that women were noticeably absent from the most highly paid, “touch the money” jobs.
Her study attributed the gap to a combination of factors, including institutional sexism and more mentoring attention being paid to men than women.
Eight years later, “the larger firms are trying to open up the funnel and get women in,” she said. “But they’ve not done a good job at retaining them.”
Firms should try harder to keep female employees on track, Ms. Lietz said, perhaps with policies for new mothers that allow them to balance the 80-hour workweeks required during transactions with time off.
One of the firms in Ms. Lietz’s study was Stockbridge, a real estate investment management firm in San Francisco with nearly $15 billion in assets. At the time, women held 17 percent of the firm’s senior finance positions. Today, the percentage is closer to 30 across all of Stockbridge’s senior positions, including finance, according to Kristin Renaudin, the firm’s chief financial officer.
Ms. Renaudin, 42, said she saw a growing number of women involved in real estate investment — all of the main players working with her on a major real estate portfolio purchase earlier this year were women. But the pipeline of candidates for the deal-making jobs is still heavily male, she said.
“The transactional, investment side is the last to come around,” Ms. Renaudin said. That was partly because many women did not pursue those jobs, she said, either because they are put off by a difficult-to-shake stigma that deal-making is a male-oriented culture or, if they have families, because they are discouraged by the significant travel and often-unpredictable work schedule.
Family life is definitely a factor, said Melissa Burch, 43, the executive general manager for New York development at Lendlease, a multinational property and infrastructure firm.
“These roles are all consuming when the deal is hot,” she said. “You have to be ready to sprint when the opening is there, and that unpredictability can be unappealing.”
Ms. Renaudin said she had been fortunate to have had “no shortage of opportunities” at Stockbridge, but recognized that she was a rarity in the industry. In fact, throughout her 21-year career, she has not had one female mentor or role model, she said.
That lack of role models could also hinder women’s rise up the ladder, said Taya Cook, the director of development at Urban Capital, a condominium development firm in Toronto.
“There are women I look up to in the industry, but they haven’t acted as mentors or role models,” she said. “I’d like to provide that for the younger generation.”
Ms. Cook hopes to do that with her own version of a “she build.” She and Sherry Larjani, the managing partner at Spotlight Development, also in Toronto, are leading a handpicked, all-women team to develop a 200-unit condominium building called Reina (the Spanish word for queen) in the Etobicoke district of Toronto.
The idea came last year after Ms. Cook, 38, read a Toronto Life magazine article that highlighted the city’s leading condo developers. All 20 were men.
“Honestly, it’s insane,” she said. “When you step back and have a look, it’s probably one of the last industries that’s really just so unbalanced.”
Ms. Cook noted that the backing of Urban Capital, which is run by two men, had eased the path to financing. Without their successful history behind her, “I would expect the experience to be much more difficult,” she said. “Finance is definitely on par with construction and development as a boys’ club.”
The Reina project has garnered considerable publicity in the Toronto area, said Ms. Larjani, also 38. Like Ms. Cook, she hopes the publicity will draw more young women into development.
“The point is to show that these women are working in all these roles, and they are roles you can take on,” Ms. Larjani said.
Ms. Gilmartin said that she never felt intimidated or thwarted at the table by men, but that young women coming out of top business schools “looking at a landscape of males” could have trouble seeing a way to breakthrough.
“There are just not enough examples for these women,” she said.
Ms. Burch said that women should feel confident that if they can just “get into the room,” even if it is filled with men, they will figure out how to use their talents to rise.
She spent the first 13 years of her career at Forest City Ratner, where, she said, she started out as a “human clicker,” running the digital portion of presentations that the company co-founder Bruce Ratner made to investors. Just sitting in on dozens of those presentations was instructive.
“I soaked in every one of those conversations,” Ms. Burch said. “How do you convince investors? How do you lay forth a vision and bring others along?”
Eventually, she jumped in and made some of those presentations herself, and later worked closely with Ms. Gilmartin. Now, she’s hiring women for her own team at LendLease, including one who’s in charge of acquisitions.
“She’d been in development for 10 years and never had a female boss,” Ms. Burch said of the woman she hired. “She told me one of the big reasons she came here was to have that. It was important to her.”