Tips from the Top: How Women Are Breaking through the Glass Ceiling in Commercial Real Estate

Presented at CREW Miami’s Luncheon Meeting, March 21, 2018

MODERATOR: Tere Blanca, Founder, Chairman & CEO, Blanca Commercial Real Estate Inc.

PANELISTS: Matthew L. Adler, Founder, President & CEO, Adler Kawa Real Estate Advisors; Jessica Goldman Srebnick, CEO and Principal, Goldman Properties; Arden Karson, Senior Managing Director, South Florida, CBRE; Nicole Shiman, Vice President, Investments, EDENS

In Miami, women make up 50 percent of the real estate workforce, yet they earn 21 percent less than men. The situation in South Florida is changing for the better, thanks to the growing number of women who hold leadership positions in commercial real estate.

Tere Blanca referred to a recent Wall Street Journal article that said 50 percent of women believe, when they enter the real estate industry, that they can make a difference, be different, and break through the glass ceiling. Yet by mid-career, the percentage of women with that can-do attitude drops significantly. She asked panelists why this happens, and what women and their colleagues can do to overcome the income disparity.

Jessica Goldman believes that leadership and a strong work ethic are key to everything. “I went to the Tony Goldman school of business,” she said, referring to her late father Tony Goldman, legendary for transforming declining districts, including Wynwood, into thriving destinations. “Whatever product you put on the market, make it your best work. You never know where it will lead.”

Nicole Shiman believes it comes down to cultivating a culture of diversity on the team – a culture in which differences are accepted and valued. Her current CEO is a woman, so diversity isn’t a topic there, but leadership and diversity are important. “Diversity means understanding people who are different from you–in age, education, ethnic background, gender, and more. To succeed, each person must bring the best of themselves every day.”

For Arden Karson consensus building is the bottom line for effecting change. Her views have evolved during 25 years in the workforce. In 2004 she was working with a lot of principal partners, concentrating on multifamily properties. When the economic downturn came, her connections paid off and she started consulting. “All my bosses really listened and asked good questions,” she said, including Jorge Perez of Related and Leonard Miller of LNR. Her style is consensus building, and she is able to relate to people at all different levels. “Our real estate culture in Miami is like CREW – everyone wants to help everyone else.”

Blanca: Are women more risk-averse than men? Are we never taught to take risks? Talk about the defining moments in your careers that allowed you to move ahead.

Goldman agreed that women are more risk averse, but knows they can learn, as she did, to be comfortable with risk. Her defining moment was losing her father and mentor, who taught her to think for herself; to come to him with solutions, not questions. She resolved to lead a life her dad would be proud of. “How you do business is changing so fast that you have to find ways to do things differently. Fail fast, get up, and do it differently next time.” For her, defining moments can be situations you can either control or not control. Either way, they put you off balance. Yet she sees them as opportunities, and she finds change empowering.

Shiman’s moment was deciding to leave CBRE, a large corporation, to join EDENS, a retail real estate owner, operator and developer. The change presented big challenges, but they were the same ones that a man would face. Risk builds character and demonstrates that there is little you can’t overcome, with the guidance of mentors. Being willing to be fully exposed teaches us humility, and also builds self-confidence in one’s ability to execute and deliver.

Adler’s defining moment was realizing that he preferred to be an entrepreneur rather than part of a third-generation family business. His advice is to “surround yourself with a great support group of people who have your best interests at heart.” 

Asked about her own defining moment, Blanca said it came following the loss of her mother in a 2007 accident. That caused her to reexamine her priorities, which led to the decision to risk starting her own commercial real estate firm. “The company is tied to who I am. I started small, now have 25 people on my team.” Resuming her role as moderator, Blanca referred to a recent national survey by CREW, in which 65 percent of women respondents said they had encountered gender bias in the last five years. She asked panelists what can be done to mitigate this perception of a pay gap.

Karson cited as progress the fact that CBRE has added a position called vice president of diversity and inclusion. The Women’s Network, the largest network to focus on developing mentorship programs, aims at forming affinity groups such as military, Hispanic women, and others, and devising opportunities for them in commercial real estate and other fields.

Goldman stressed that it’s about creating a culture of respect. The conversation is going on now and she hopes for zero tolerance as things are finally changing. In her family company she used to be the only woman, and admitted that opportunities for women to secure executive positions are few compared to those available to men.

Shiman pointed out that women in commercial real estate seem to self-select. Historically there have been few women in in the industry to serve as role models, but that is changing. Her firm’s executives are 42 percent women, and the EDENS board is 42 percent female. “What happens when you have women in leadership positions is that the modeling attracts the best and the brightest–women and men both.”

Adler commented that workplace diversity and pay disparity are complicated by the fact that men, in general, do not perceive or acknowledge those issues. “They lack this perception of imbalance, and they aren’t always aware of women’s situations.” He recognizes that women have to make decisions that are different from those men face. “People are the most important element in every business. Diversity is important, and our approach is simply look for the very best people.” He concluded that “corporate America is stupid if they fail to add women to the team.” 

— Susan Cumins CREW Miami member since 1998