Across the spectrum of commercial real estate, women are tasting power as chief executives, chief financial officers, company presidents and brokers as never before. And their ability to create value for their companies is the driving force behind their elevation to the corner office.

In Los Angeles, Janet Neman, senior managing director at brokerage firm Charles Dunn generated $160 million in sales over the last 12 months, and has been a top producer for 10 years in representing private and institutional investors as they acquire and sell portfolios.

In Chicago, Gwendolyn Butler was named president and CEO of real estate investment firm Capri Capital Partners after overseeing more than $500 million in new pension fund commitments to Capri. And in New York, because of her skill in devising a long-term strategy and helping to accumulate a portfolio of 31 properties totaling 8.9 million sq. ft., Joanne Minieri was promoted to president and chief operating officer of Forest City Ratner, a subsidiary of Cleveland-based developer Forest City Enterprises.

But women have a long way to go before achieving parity with men at the highest levels of commercial real estate, just as in other industries. Fewer than 25 women occupy CEO positions in the Fortune 1000. Among the 169 publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs), only three are run by female CEOs, according to the Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network. In a 2005 CREW survey, 32% of male respondents held the title of president, CEO or chief financial officer, compared with 13% of females.

“The reason there have not been more women leaders in real estate is that few women went into it 25 to 30 years ago. It takes that long to rise to the top,” says Peter Linneman, professor of finance and business and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Traditionally, commercial real estate was a family-dominated business, and most families focused on their sons, he says. “Over the next 15 to 20 years we are going to see a lot of top women leaders emerge, as talent is going in now.”

Among the 17,000 members of the Washington, D.C.-based Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International, more than half are women, an increase of about 25% from two decades ago, says Henry Chamberlain, president. But he estimates that fewer than 5% of member CEOs are women.

That percentage is likely to rise as more women earn MBA degrees, which Chamberlain believes hold the key to the C-suite. Companies need asset managers who can conduct financial modeling and pencil out costs, he says. “I've been here 23 years. The number of women has been rising steadily.” Half of BOMA's local associations now have women presidents.

This may be an ideal time for a woman leading her own company, says Lynn Smith, founder of the Global Diversity Summit in Commercial Real Estate. At the July gathering in Atlanta, representatives from several cities showed up, eager to find women and minority contractors. Memphis was particularly enthusiastic, sending a team of 19. “They were calling and calling,” before the event, Smith says. “[They were] going after minority companies, contractors and developers to come and do business there.”

Unequal pay

In the CREW Network survey of 1,834 male and female industry participants published in 2005, 58% of men reported income over $150,000, but only 24% of women reported income at the same level. Three times as many women as men had income below $75,000.

Only 8% of women earned more than $250,000, while 34% of men earned more than $250,000 annually. Overall, women reported lower income than men, regardless of their experience.

A 2007 study examined views on compensation and other issues. “The most surprising highlight was that [most participants] thought men and women earned equal salaries. In fact, they do not. Men were getting bonuses and ownership and stocks that women were not getting. We believe that women had been taught to focus on salary equity and had not learned as much as they needed to about the various structures of compensation,” says Gail Ayers, CEO and president of Lawrence, Kan.-based CREW, which published a compensation guide this year.

More than 60% of CREW's 8,000 members earn more than $150,000, Ayers says. Architects usually earn less than developers, who earn less than brokers. “A strong, established broker earns between $700,000 and $1 million a year.”

About 36% of commercial real estate professionals are women. More women surveyed specialized in asset and property management — 51% of the professionals — than in brokerage sales and leasing, where 23% were women. The percentage in brokerage had climbed from 20% five years earlier, while the percentage in asset management had risen from 47%.

Tough brokerage trade

“If you look at every firm in the industry, 10 years ago there were very few women in very senior positions,” says Suzy Reingold, executive managing director of the New York City offices of real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. She manages 180 brokerage professionals and oversees about 11,000 transactions a year.

In the past, a number of young women dropped out of the brokerage business before they could rise to top levels. “It's a tough business, full of conflict. But women are just as equipped — maybe better equipped — to handle conflicting and multi-tasking situations.”

As for her own rise, Reingold feels like a pioneer. “I was the first woman partner in a major New York City law firm. I've been through this a long time — I've been in the industry 37 years.”

One useful trait for a woman at the top of her game is chutzpah. Neman, the Charles Dunn broker, was negotiating the sale of a cluster of office buildings in Houston for more than $40 million when the deal nearly fell apart after a property inspection revealed problems and the lender demanded a new escrow fund for the deferred maintenance. Neither the buyer nor the seller would put up the money, says Neman. “Literally, the last second of the deal I put up a part of my commission — a significant part — and made the deal happen.”
— Denise Kalette is senior associate editor.