As a variety of industries witness a sea change in approach to gender issues in the workplace, TRD’s research finds

(Illustration by Hannah Barczyk)

As West Coast senior vice president of development for Seritage Growth Properties, Kacy Keys has reached a level of leadership that women haven’t often achieved in Los Angeles’ commercial real estate scene. But the road to Keys’ powerful perch was not without substantial hurdles.

“As a young woman in the business, there are often assumptions of who you are at the table,” Keys said. “I’ve been in rooms where people assume I was somebody’s assistant.” And Keys is far from alone, according to several interviews with women in managerial roles in L.A.’s commercial sector.

The #MeToo movement has led to scrutiny of the way power dynamics play out in the workplace, as well as an atmosphere of zero tolerance for claims of sexual harassment involving prominent men in entertainment, politics, media and business. But the dramatic gender gap in commercial real estate has many industry women saying that despite the increased attention to these issues, the boys’ club that has existed for so long will be difficult — if not impossible — to dismantle, stymieing the ability of many women to succeed in the sector.

“If you come in feeling unsure or feeling like it’s a man’s world, then you’re at a significant disadvantage,” said Jaime Lee, CEO of real estate investment, management and development firm Jamison Services.

As businesses across industries come under the microscope, The Real Deal took an in-depth look at just how the gender ratio of commercial brokers plays out in L.A.’s top firms by analyzing broker license data filed with the state.

Commercial firms were selected for inclusion in TRD’s analysis based on published rankings of both top investment sales and top leasing brokerages in L.A. County in 2016 and 2017. None of the firms had an equal ratio of male to female brokers, TRD’s analysis found.

HFF had the lowest percentage of female brokers in L.A., with none on their roster. Lee & Associates followed that, with 8.3 percent, while Cushman & Wakefield had the highest at 28.7 percent.

And the forecast for a major uptick in female commercial brokers is dim. In the leading educational program for commercial real estate, known as CCIM, only 29 percent of the program’s members were female, according to a company representative.

Not unlike Hollywood entertainment and D.C. politics, commercial real estate in L.A. also grapples with a severe diversity problem at the highest levels of leadership.

At L.A.’s top REITs in 2016 (as determined by Real Capital Analytics), hardly any women sat among the named executive officers. Local companies like Hudson Pacific Properties and national players like Macerich and Prologis had no women at the top, according to TRD’s analysis of the firms’ most recent financial disclosures, released last spring.

And another study supports these findings at the executive level: The 2015 Commercial Real Estate Women Network Benchmark Study found that 17 percent of men surveyed held executive roles, while only 9 percent of women could say the same.

Breaking into the Boys’ Club

Today’s female professionals in commercial real estate say the industry always has been and continues to be a boys’ club. “It’s still a fraternity and there are still golf games, outings, trips and retreats where women are not invited,” Keys said.

Some say the struggle for upward mobility is rooted in the fact that it’s an industry that relies heavily on connections and networking at events like those mentioned above.

“Commercial real estate really is a pool of experience and who you know,” said Sharoni Little, an associate professor at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “You almost have to be invited to certain levels of participation and, because it’s very relational, people by human nature find people who are similar to them.”

Many deals also occur in after-hours environments, such as the golf course, where women aren’t often present either because they weren’t invited or because they traditionally work 9-to-5 hours, said Lynn Owen, chief operating officer of investor and operator TruAmerica Multifamily.

Carol Schatz and Kacy Keys

“I think women are more serious about getting the deal done during the workday,” Owen added.

At her former company, Owen first had to work as a secretary to the two vice presidents before she could even work with customer complaints. “I couldn’t have a middle-management job — I was a female and I had to do this,” Owen added.

But that wasn’t her worst experience in trying to break into a male-dominated industry. While at the same firm, which Owen asked TRD not to name in this report, her idea in a company-wide contest won the $1,000 grand prize — except it wasn’t her name that flashed across the screen. The company had named her male supervisor — a man she refers to as a very handsome “Mr. Up-and-Comer” — as the winner. After raising the issue with the company’s president, who suggested her supervisor would “take her to lunch” in return, Owen resigned that same day.

Show me the money

But even when women do achieve recognition and promotion in the field, there’s another ugly truth at hand.

The wage gap in commercial real estate is among the widest in the real estate industry, with women making about 23.3 percent less than their male colleagues, according to the CREW report from 2015. The industry’s median annual compensation was $115,000 for women and $150,000 for men, the survey found.

Commercial landlord Douglas Emmett’s sole female exec, the chief financial officer, had an adjusted total salary — including base, bonus, equity and other compensation — of $749,000 in 2016, according to the company’s earnings records. While one can argue that different responsibilities come with differing salaries, it’s notable that her male colleagues in the C-suite — like the chief information officer and chief operations officer — made upwards of $3 million. Other male chief financial officers at comparable companies, such as Rexford Industrial Realty and Equity Residential, made at least $2 million. Douglas Emmett did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Colony NorthStar also used to have a female chief financial officer, Debra Hess, on its leadership team, but she left shortly after the company’s merger in 2017. Before her departure, Hess had pulled in an adjusted total compensation of about $4.5 million, earnings show. While her salary of $448,000 was relatively comparable to that of a male in the C-suite, a chief investment and operating officer who earned $510,000, her bonus for the year was a whopping $5 million short of what he’d received. That, coupled with a big difference in equity, translated to a $9 million gap in total compensation. Colony NorthStar did not return a request for comment on this story.

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