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Women exiting old-school companies to start their own businesses

New research from the Urban Land Institute shows that if women don't get recognized, they'll leave
  • Women in real estate will walk out on their companies and set up on their own if not given the openings they want.
  • Companies should be rewarding talented women with interesting, well-supported “stretch assignments,” which should open doors to further promotion.
  • Women prefer informal policies, such as an inclusive day-to-day workplace culture, rather than well-meaning HR policies.

It’s official: Women in real estate are striking out on their own if their companies are not recognizing their talent.

The message was clear in new research from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), “Women in Leadership in the Real Estate and Land Use Industry”: If women don’t get the rewards and promotions they want from their companies, they will leave to start up their own businesses.

The figures show that women in real estate are regularly leaving their jobs to form their own organizations and gain the leadership opportunities they crave.

Who are the ULI research respondents?

The research conducted by ULI’s Women’s Leadership Initiative surveyed 1,234 female ULI members. One-quarter of women in CEO roles surveyed were sole proprietors, indicating that these women either start up or move to smaller firms for a culture they prefer or because of roadblocks preventing them from advancing in larger firms.

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Among ULI members who are chief executives or top officers in their firms, only 14 percent are women, and of the female CEOs surveyed, only 7 percent lead organizations with more than 100 employees.

These survey findings run in stark contrast to the ambitions of women working within the sector. More than two-thirds of survey respondents said they would like to hold C-level leadership positions or own their own businesses.

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Commenting on the report for ULI, Kathleen Carey, Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer, said: “These women are ambitious. If they don’t get what they want, they will leave — and these are not just millennials. If they don’t have challenging positions, they will go elsewhere.

“They are not afraid,” said Carey, a former senior executive at GE Capital Real Estate.

How to keep valuable talent from leaving for greener pastures

The most important recommendation from the research carried out by the Women’s Leadership Initiative, said Carey, was that women want to be given interesting, ambitious projects to help build and showcase their skills.

This might mean taking on new projects or responsibilities, moving to a permanent new position through a promotion or a lateral transfer, or perhaps stepping in as interim CEO.

High performers with big career aspirations and those currently at senior levels would especially value these types of assignments, the report found.

“If they want to get into management, the pathway should be obvious,” said Carey.

Opportunities ahead

“For a woman with 25 years’ experience — the glass ceiling is not so much of a barrier,” said Carey. They have other options, she warned, especially as baby boomers leave the workforce in the coming years.

“The sheer numbers of participants in the workforce are going to shrink because baby boomers were such a big generation,” said Carey. “So companies will be wise to retain their talented women. The smartest companies are figuring that out right now.”

Women can often be penalized for interrupting their careers to care for family members; some find it difficult to re-establish their careers on their return.

“For whatever reason people need time out, not necessarily child-rearing — it could be looking after parents — good companies need to help them get back to work,” said Carey.

Kathleen Carey Headshot, ULI Chief Content Officer

Kathleen Carey, ULI Chief Content Officer

“Flexibility is so important for both men and women, parents and singles,” she added.

And having a company culture where men feel comfortable accepting flexible policies is crucial.

Family leave (rather than maternity leave) and a flexible workplace were highlighted in the report as the most important formal approaches companies can offer.

“Provision of parental leave for both genders can mean that time required for parenting does not fall more heavily on one parent over another,” it said.

What can we do? What really works?

Carey, meanwhile, said she had been impressed by the responses by the ULI members to the report. It was released to a packed audience at the ULI fall meeting in San Francisco last week.

“It’s not been a case of, ‘Gee, this is a terrible problem,’ but rather, ‘What can we do? What really works?’” she said.

The report refers employers to six case studies of companies doing things well for their female talent, and the ULI will be featuring more online this year.

At Edens, the Washington, D.C-based retail developer, women are in five of the 12 most senior roles, and Jodie McLean leads the business.

“The very best organizations are gender-balanced. There has to be continued discussion,” she said.

“Because we know that Jodie has dinner with her family, it gives us permission to do the same,” said one employee.

Both work and family are highly valued among men and women at the firm. Negotiating with numerous stakeholders while paying careful attention to details plays to the natural strengths of some women, said the company.

“As the field becomes increasingly complex, a niche exists for women who can diplomatically deliver a tough message to an investor one day and can spend hours perfecting details in a model home the next,” said the company.

Taking an informal approach

Another message coming through loud and clear in the WLI report was that women prefer informal rather than formal approaches toward improving their career pathways.

While formal policies include steps such as objective hiring, promotion, flexible working and performance-evaluation policies, informal approaches are woven into daily work. They include job assignments, workplace culture, internal and external relationships, ongoing coaching from managers and sponsorship by senior leaders.

Said one woman in the survey, “I don’t believe HR policies alone will change the pace at which women advance at my firm. It takes at least one very senior line leader to take a stand and encourage a different way of thinking and acting.”

Next steps for companies

The research found that approximately three-quarters of female chief executive officers and nearly two-thirds of female employees rated the importance of external networks as very important to advancing their careers.

Organization leaders can encourage an inclusive culture by supporting employee efforts to develop a strong network of connections both within the organization and outside it through mentors, professional organizations and alumni organizations, said the WLI research.

Six top pointers from the report for companies wanting to do more:

  • Accelerate learning through job assignments, keeping an eye toward diversity.
  • Create an inclusive culture and value strong internal and external networks.
  • Adopt a talent mindset — regularly engage in talent conversations to identify a diverse pool of high-potential employees and agree on strategies to mentor and challenge existing employees.
  • Offer workplace flexibility for men and women — provide family leave for men and women and a culture that supports both genders in being involved in their lives outside of work.
  • Make mentoring and sponsorship of women a priority.
  • Support success via challenging work assignments by providing relevant training that includes men and women.

Email Gill South.