For the first few years of Kendra Hinderland's career in commercial real estate, she was a bit of an oddity — a woman in a man's world. When she sat down at the table to negotiate leases for her retail clients, more often than not she was the only woman in a room full of men. Even when Hinderland had the chance to bring another woman to the meetings, she chose not to.

“We were concerned that it would be difficult for the men to deal with — that they might be uncomfortable with us there,”recalls the 25-year veteran.

Today, Hinderland is no longer the odd woman out. In fact, she deals with women all the time as the head of Dallas-based Archon Group's retail operations. “Things have changed a lot since I started in this business,” she says. “Not only are there more women in retail real estate today, more and more women are taking on management positions.”

Hinderland, who always knew that she wanted to have a career in real estate, is part of a growing cadre of women holding leading positions at commercial real estate firms. New research shows that there are more women in commercial real estate today than ever before. A study issued earlier this year by Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), a 17-year-old organization focused on achieving parity in real estate, found that roughly 36 percent of all commercial real estate professionals are women, up from 32 percent five years ago during the group's initial study.

The great number of women in the industry has provided more role models and mentors for young women breaking into the industry — a key to a woman's success in this industry, according to experts.

However, women have made greater inroads in some parts of the industry than others. On an industry wide basis: 51 percent of asset/property management professionals are women, while 44 percent in financial/law services are women. However, only 23 percent of the CREW survey respondents said they were employed in a brokerage function, and 36 percent of development professionals are women.

In fact, the CREW study — as well as anecdotes of leading female executives in retail real estate — reveals a contradictory picture. Women's participation in the industry is at an all-time high, yet the CREW survey found that when comparing men and women with more than 20 years of experience, 44 percent of men held the title of president, chief executive or chief financial officer compared to 23 percent of women.

Some in the industry contend that women are not given the same opportunity as men to take on management roles, while others say women are turning down promotions to seek work-life harmony.

“Without a doubt, it's a challenge for women to balance work and family,” says Jodie McLean, president and chief investment officer with Edens & Avant. “Setting priorities is never easy, especially when it comes to your career.” McLean, who has a young son, has been with Edens & Avant for her entire 16-year career, joining the firm as an intern from the University of South Carolina. She was mentored by founder Joe Edens, ascending to chief investment officer just seven years after joining the company. She took on the role of president in 2002.

Many industry professionals feel things are changing. Earlier this year CREW and ICSC partnered to host a “Women in Real Estate” breakfast event at the Spring Convention in Las Vegas. More than 500 women attended the event, says Judi Lapin, president of Lapin Consulting Group and a member of ICSC's Board of Trustees. “We were just overwhelmed by the response this year since attendance doubled over 2005,” she notes.

Moreover, ICSC has had not one, but two, female chairmen — Rebecca Maccardini, who held the position from 1993 to 1994 and Kathleen Nelson, who filled the role from 2003 to 2004.

Indeed, with women holding influential positions the overall picture today is brighter than when many of today's leaders broke into retail real estate back offices. “Historically, females have been at a disadvantage going into this industry because it's male-dominated, but I think there are far more women working in it today,” says Rosemary Salerno, general manager of Zona Rosa, a mixed-use project in Kansas City owned by Steiner + Associates. “I see a trend toward women taking on management-type roles.”

One issue that's been tackled is that of recruitment. Hinderland planned a career in real estate from the start (her parents owned a residential real estate firm). But many other women fell into real estate without studying the industry in college or graduate school or came to it through other professions.

Salerno, for example, made inroads into the retail real estate world by doing marketing for shopping centers in her hometown of Kansas City, Mo. “When I was offered my first job managing a center, I kept telling the developers — I think you've got the wrong person,” she says. “Every general manager I had ever known was a man.”

Kristin Mueller, an executive vice president of Jones Lang LaSalle's retail group, has similar recollections. Mueller majored in finance at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “I really expected to end up in banking,” she says. But, a practice interview with now defunct JMB Realty Corp. pointed her toward commercial real estate and brought her to Jones Lang LaSalle in 1994.

“Twenty-two years ago when I first got involved in the industry, maybe 10 percent of general managers were women,” she says. Today, about 50 percent of the firm's management team is female.

Other firms are bucking the mold. At Taubman Centers Inc., for example, three of the mall REIT's top 10 officers are women.

“When I was looking for another job, I wanted to make sure that I found a place where there were other women in senior roles,” says Vice Chairman and CFO Lisa Payne, who joined the company 10 years ago, after spending several years as an investment banker. The presence of Denise Anton David, senior vice president of center operations, and Esther Blum, senior vice president, controller and chief accounting officer helped convince her to move to Taubman.

Retail leading the way?

CREW plans to conduct a follow-up survey to determine which commercial real estate sector employs the most women. Most industry experts expect the study will show that there are more opportunities for women in retail real estate than other sectors.

“The real difference is that there are more women in higher level positions then there were five to seven years ago,” McLean says. She contends that much of the change within the retail real estate industry can be attributed to the natural progression of women in the workplace. However, she doesn't discount the idea that women have found retail to be a natural entrance into the world of real estate. “You can't refute the fact that most retail business is transacted by women,” she says. “Because of that, women are able to bring an intrinsic value to retail real estate.”

With women buying or influencing at least 80 percent of all household, spending according the U.S. Census Bureau, they hold more than $2 trillion in spending power. It is not far-fetched to say that women have a natural affinity for retail real estate, some experts contend.

In fact, when Mueller had the opportunity to pursue any sector of commercial real estate, she decided that retail would be the best fit. “Shopping was familiar to me; I had never spent any time in an office building,” she admits. She thought she could contribute more about retail than, say, industrial.

“In many instances when I am working on a shopping center project, I am the demographic — I am the customer who the center ultimately wants to attract,” says Sally Vogel, managing director of the retail group at RiverRock Real Estate Group in South Coast Metro, Calif.

Vogel's personal experiences have contributed to her professional success. For example, as an avid runner, she is familiar with the common injuries women runners face and the importance of good running shoes.

“I know women suffer bad knees and I often talk to friends about having to go on an excursion to find the right running shoes,” she notes. That personal knowledge came in handy when Vogel was tasked with finding an athletic shoe retailer for Paseo Colorado, a mixed-use project in Pasadena, Calif.

“When I looked at the traditional retail offerings, I just wasn't convinced that any of them would appeal to the runners in the market — women just like me,” she explains. Vogel identified A Snail's Pace, a high-end athletic shoe retailer that sets up treadmills in its stores for its customers to test out sneakers. Salespeople can understand the physiology of each customer's running style and make suggestions based on that style. “The other retailers just sold shoes, and I knew that the center needed a retailer that focused on the experience,” she says.

To that end, Vogel says that retailers and retail real estate owners have realized that they need to bring in diverse perspectives that reflect the diversity of shoppers. “I think people who work in retail understand the value of the female voice, and as a result, women are given a lot more opportunity in retail,” she notes. When putting together project teams, Vogel makes sure it has both women and men on it. “The right mix of leasing people helps get the right mix at a shopping center. It's very powerful.”

Industry experts speculate that women have the ability to identify with shoppers in ways that make a concrete difference. For example, because many women shop with their children, convenience amenities such as large bathroom stalls and children's play areas are a critical part of the shopping experience, says Linda Swearingen, executive vice president of asset management for Casto, a Columbus, Ohio-based shopping center owner and developer. “What woman can't relate to the need for bathrooms at an outlet center?” she asks.

Few women pursue development

However, integration has not been uniform. Women have had less success cracking the development side of the business.

Gwen McKenzie, senior director of acquisitions for Federal Realty Investment Trust, says there are far more women who work in property management, leasing and finance positions than in development or brokerage. She contends that women are afraid to take on development and acquisitions positions where compensation is based on performance and volume of transactions. The CREW study supports her charge: 70 percent of female respondents would not be willing to consider a job where 100 percent of the compensation is commission based — a number that is significantly higher than the 48 percent of men who said “no” to a commission-only job.

McKenzie, who boasts more than 20 years of commercial real estate experience, has always focused on retail, first as a property manager, then as a leasing broker and most recently, as an investment sales broker. She recently joined the Rockville, Md.-based REIT after stints at Sperry Van Ness and Donahue Schriber.

“Because development is still male-dominated, I have to spend more time proving that I am a good leader,” Swearingen says. “There's still is some trepidation, and it takes more time for that group to understand that you know what you're talking about.”

Edens & Avant's McLean also has noticed the dearth of women in retail development and construction. “It has been hard for us to recruit and find strong women in that area,” she says. However, Edens & Avant was able to recruit a woman who specializes in environmental development to take on a construction associate position and has hired women to head up its development in both New England and South Florida, McLean says.

Elizabeth Furnelli, vice president of development for Edens & Avant's northeast region, says she works with more men than women. “But, I don't see development as something that women would not enjoy,” she says, adding that she would encourage her daughter to pursue a career in retail development.

If she does, Furnelli will enjoy something that an earlier generation of women in real estate did not: role models. More women are offering themselves as mentors, Lapin says. “I am not alone in feeling that mentoring is important,” she explains. “Women in this industry have always been particularly passionate about mentoring young women. We feel it is our responsibility, and it's a discipline that most of us have taken on.”

Moreover, both CREW and ICSC are continuing to work on mentoring and networking programs. CREW for example, is reaching out to female students through the CREW Foundation to encourage the entry of more women into commercial real estate. The organization boasts a membership that is more than 7,000 strong in 60 chapters across the globe.

“A lot of the success in retail real estate has to do with role models, but because real estate has been so male-dominated, it's difficult for women to see themselves in top positions,” says Mary Lou Fiala, president & COO of Regency Centers Corp. “The biggest opportunity is to get out into the colleges and teach the women to go into real estate. We need to help them understand that there is an opportunity and career for them.”

Fiala notes that it's important that younger women look for role models who have managed to build successful careers and personal lives. “It's really important to have a role model that advocates a balanced life,” she explains.

“I really believe that women have to take responsibility and seek out companies that offer them the ability to have some balance,” says Taubman's Payne. “And, most of all, they need to look for companies that are gender-neutral — companies that offer women and men the same opportunities.”