Breaking the glass ceiling in real estate management

by Jon Gorey

Diane Glass oversees some 1,400 brokers as the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Chicago. But she got into real estate the same way so many women do: as a sales agent, in search of a more flexible, but still rewarding, second career.

When Glass and her husband moved back to Chicago in 2000 with their three young children, she couldn’t afford the day care needed to go back to teaching full-time for the Chicago Public Schools. “I needed a job that offered flexibility so that I could be a mother and contribute financially to my family,” she says. Glass started thinking about all the real estate agents she met while moving around the country the previous few years. “All of them were women, and many of them had young children, and it seemed to be a really good fit for them. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe this could be a good fit for me, too.’”

It was, but that was just the beginning of a story, not the end. “I was a good agent, and I sold a lot of real estate, but I was much more interested in the processes and the systems that could make the job easier,” Glass says. “If I did something a third time, I found a way to automate it.” So after about six years in sales, she gradually shifted to the training and operations side of the business, and rose through the ranks of corporate management.

That’s a leap women in real estate weren’t always able to make in the past. In 1978, women already outnumbered men as full-time sales agents, but just 21% of brokers were women, according to the National Association of Realtors. Today, though, 61% of real estate brokers are women — nearly in line with the 65% of female sales agents.

What’s more, Glass and other leaders are seeing more and more women in executive positions, too. “There’s definitely a shift, in that more women are advancing into leadership roles, and I see that today in my own company — women make up approximately half of the management and executive roles at BHHS Chicago,” she says.

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’

“I’m definitely starting to see more women in leadership roles,” says Michelle Mills Clement, CEO of the Chicago Association of Realtors. It’s not just among the CAR’s membership ranks, either. “We have an all-women leadership team for the first time in our association’s history — all our officers are women.”

That visibility alone helps normalize seeing women at the top, and even acts as a quiet form of mentorship with the power to draw more women into leadership positions, Mills Clement says. As an example, she points to Sue Yannaccone, who now oversees huge national brands like Century 21 and Sotheby’s International as president and CEO of the Realogy Franchise Group. “I remember when she moved into that position, it was just awesome,” Mills Clement says. “It shows you that women can be at that level. Because I always say, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’”

People’s concept of what makes a good leader is evolving, too, says Jenni Bonura, who oversees about 850 agents across 13 offices as president and chief executive at Harry Norman, Realtors in Atlanta. “You can be data-driven and still have a high emotional quotient,” she says. “You can achieve results and still have a heart.”

“We find more and more corporate organizations are getting very interested in topics like emotional intelligence and the well-being of their employees, and those types of organizations find themselves organically better served with women executives,” says Yuval Degani, CEO of Dream Town Realty in Chicago. “In that world, women have found more space in leadership.” Indeed, women now make up most of the upper management team at Dream Town. “That was not something that we designed,” he says. “It just happened that way.”

Hiring with intent

At the same time, on a recent list of the 200 most powerful people in real estate, men comprised the entire top 10. So women leaders say it’s important for brokerages and other firms to recruit, hire and train with intention.

“Intentionality is a critical component that the industry hasn’t really adopted just yet,” says Tanya Reu-Narvaez, who’s responsible for some 10,000 employees as chief people officer at Realogy. “I’m proud to have personally recruited, welcomed and really promoted a lot of females across the company who, frankly, were experiencing a glass ceiling at their previous company.”

When Reu-Narvaez first entered the real estate industry two decades ago, she was one of just a few women in management, she says, and the only Latina. She made it a mission to understand and change that dynamic. “Although we were a female-dominated industry, it was predominantly at the agent level. And so when you saw this vast drop-off both at the broker-owner level, and then clearly in the leadership ranks, I tried to understand why,” she says.

Today, Realogy’s executive committee is 60% female, and Rue-Narvaez says it’s because the company has walked the walk, actively fostering minority and women leadership candidates. “Companies have to be very intentional about what they want to accomplish,” she says. “They have to see the gap in an industry like we did and do something about it, not just talk about it.”

Brokerages need to understand the difference between equality and equity, Glass says, and how those concepts impact people based on gender identity, race, ethnicity and disability. “Equality is treating everyone the same,” she says. “Equity is ensuring that everyone has access to the same opportunities and resources, and recognizing that advantages, disadvantages and barriers exist, and that as a result, we don’t all start from the same place.”

In simple terms, Glass says, “Equality is like giving everyone on a baseball team the same size shoes, but equity is giving the players shoes based on the size of their feet. Equality sometimes perpetuates barriers, and equity is the process of adjusting and correcting that imbalance.”

At the brokerage level, that might mean offering remote training opportunities to ensure women agents who are family caregivers can still advance in their career. Glass says it’s also important to offer paths for new agents to start earning income right away — allowing new agents to earn commissions on rentals while building a sales pipeline, for example, and offering individualized business planning and coaching to agents.

“Real estate has been one of the most welcoming industries for women and family caregivers because of the flexibility… but as an industry, it’s also a very challenging career for women, and anyone from a less advantaged background, to take that leap into real estate as a full-time or primary income earner for their households,” Glass says. “So we need to do what we can to help them make that jump to go from learning to earning.”

Fostering talent and creating new paths to success

It’s also incumbent on leaders to actively look for women with leadership potential, even if those women don’t yet see it in themselves. “The company cultures I admire most are those that have open eyes, open ears and open minds,” Bonura says. “And what I mean by that is, from an open eyes standpoint, that you’re actively looking for talent, and cultivating it within your own organization. You’re not waiting for people to raise their hand.”

Simply paying attention to people — with “open ears” — can help, Bonura says. “When you’re listening to the things that excite them, and the things that they want to do and how they want to spend their time, you can help identify potential leaders — maybe even before they realize it’s something that they want to do.”

“If you’re not taking the time to step back and think about all of the agents that are within an office, and what the potential is for each person, and really focusing on the individualization of that person and what their strengths are, and then maximizing their strengths and helping them see what they can’t see yet for themselves, then you’re doing them and yourself a disservice,” says Rachael Rohn, regional president at Compass.

It can also mean blazing nontraditional, customized trails forward for the right people. “One of the things I’m most proud of is we create paths for people to excel in, versus sort of the more traditional, ‘OK, you have to do this job in order to get to this job, in order to get to this job,’” Bonura says. “There’s a lot of latitude for taking great people and exposing them to different facets, giving them the opportunity to grow and watch them shine.”

Similarly, Compass doesn’t look at career growth as a ladder, Rohn says. “We look at it more like a jungle gym,” she says. “Thinking of what are your strengths, what are your skill sets and where are they best applied — rather than just having to wait for a role to open up, we really are encouraging people to be proactive in what they want, and creating the right fit for them.”

Leadership can be defined in a lot of different ways, Glass says, and many women — and others who haven’t followed or had access to the traditional leadership path — are paving their own road to the top. “Instead of going into debt and starting a brokerage, a lot of women and people of color and LGBTQ+ brokers have realized that forming teams within brokerages is a very rewarding way to run a business,” Glass says. “At BHHS Chicago, the majority of our top teams are led by women, and many of our fastest growing teams are led by women of color.”

The merits of mentorship

Tami Bonnell, CEO and co-chair of EXIT Realty International outside of Boston, has been in the real estate business for a long time — ever since she sold her first house at age 13. But she wouldn’t be where she is today, she says, without the help of some inspiring mentors along the way — starting with her grandmother, who took over her grandfather’s construction business when Bonnell was an infant.

Bonnell suggests women vying to get ahead in real estate find a mentor, and also recommends they try to meet with a leader in their industry every week. “Doesn’t matter who it is, offer to buy them a cup of coffee,” she says, or at least set up a phone conversation. “All of us are willing. Strong women love strong women and want to see them succeed.”

Rohn says she’s “obsessed” with mentorship. “I think it is absolutely critical to fostering every generation of women,” she says, whether you’re the mentor or mentee. “No matter where you are in your career, there’s value to be had there.”

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