Just saying the phrase makes some roll their eyes, some foam at the mouth, and others shift into denial mode. What is the “Old Boys Network” and how can women beat the old boys at their own game?

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As an Inman reader, you may be familiar with our weekly feature Pulse. There, we ask readers what we hope is a compelling question, usually focused on a topic related to our theme months or to recent newsworthy events.

A couple of weeks ago, we asked the question, “What are the biggest barriers to leadership for women in real estate?” It didn’t seem like a controversial question, at least initially. 

After all, with a she-cession in full swing, women in the workplace at their lowest levels since 1988, and plenty of statistics to back up the fact that women in real estate leadership positions are wildly disproportionate to their representation in the industry as a whole, there seems to be substantial evidence to underpin the question.

Simply asking the “barriers” question, however, led to a feisty back and forth of outraged denial, vehement agreement and a repeated refrain, “The Old Boys Network.” When we asked for more information — what do people mean by the phrase, does it exist and how? — it brought up even more stories, arguments and frustrations on both sides.

While some men shared their own tales of being rejected by the old boys in their markets, many men and women agreed that there is something unique about the way the “Old Boys Network” operates in relation to women, especially in real estate. Women shared their stories, including:

  • Having simple real estate terms “mansplained” to them
  • One Realtor having her calls ignored until her husband became a broker (so now they think it’s his name on the caller ID)
  • Being told by a male agent, “Oh aren’t you cute filling your time before you pick your kids up? Honey this business is for those of us trying to support our families.“
  • Being told by a male broker, “If an agent is staying home and making lunch for their kids, they’re never going to be successful.”
  • An agent sending a forged proof of funds letter and, upon being called out, insisting she should just “trust him.”
  • “Selections for lists, speakers, leaders, committee positions and more pulled from the lowest hanging fruit of male friends” rather than including women.
  • A 20-year veteran agent being told by a new male manager she’d have to prove herself to advance to a leadership role. 
  • And of course, enough sweeties, honeys and little ladies to float a battleship.

And then there are the more destructive and dangerous ways that the “Old Boys Network” rears its ugly head. Bro culture creates a hideously unprofessional working environment. Cultures that are rife with verbal and sexual harassment and intimidation. 

According to one source, speaking to Inman on the condition of anonymity:

“Women in executive leadership positions, they’re not really taken seriously. Even if a position is earned, you’re still not in that club.”

 

“If you speak out against your male superior you will have repercussions. You do not discredit them; they can discredit you.”

 

“They’ll take credit for the work you do, throw you under the bus and pay you less. There’s a ton of sexual harassment. An NDA or non-compete can’t stop a lawsuit, so they settle. HR doesn’t get involved. Men [in the industry] feel like … there are no repercussions on them.”

Too many discussions of this sort get sidetracked into whataboutism, including “What about mean women?,” “What about that one woman broker I know?,” “What about mean people in general?” and “What about me — I’m a good guy?”

This type of dismissal and denial comes from both men and women. Men who don’t treat women poorly often choose to focus on their good behavior, as if it diminishes the bad behavior of male colleagues. Women who have been successful choose to believe that the “Old Boys Network” and its ilk no longer exists or was never really real in the first place.

Men, you’ll have to be part of the solution

So many men have talked about the egregious behavior they’ve witnessed from other men in the industry, but rarely mention how they responded. It’s not enough that you didn’t laugh along or that you gave him a dirty look. Here, allyship is essential, and speaking up against outdated and misogynistic attitudes is everyone’s responsibility.

It can be intimidating to speak up, especially if the old boy in question is a friend or mentor. However, you are in a better position to make him realize that his behavior isn’t banter or “locker room talk,” but is, in fact, a problem and an unacceptable way to treat anyone, especially another real estate professional. 

It’s time to stop protecting each other and stop falling back on that old excuse “times have changed — he’s older and doesn’t realize” to let the men in your life off the hook. Women have been talking about these issues for decades, and we’re still having the same conversations.

In addition, sometimes you need to listen to women — even though you’re a good guy, even though you’d never treat a woman that way, even though your mentor was a kickass woman in the industry. Take a tip from Jay Thompson’s article, “Men, we need to learn when to shut up.”

It isn’t always about you. Centering yourself in a narrative as filled with frustration and pain as this one isn’t just clueless, it’s wrong. Let women feel how they feel and say what they need to say without making it about your hurt feelings.

So what can you do when the ‘Old Boys’ are running your team, brokerage or market?

Whatever your opinion — and we know that everyone, when it comes to this topic, has an opinion — we wanted to see what could be done to make these sometimes-choppy waters a little easier to navigate. Here’s some good advice on making your way through, past or around the “Old Boys” in your market.

Don’t waste your time where you’re not valued

According to Carla Cross, strategic real estate adviser at Real Estate Bees, when faced with the choice of stagnating in a role she had already mastered at a male-dominated company and taking the risk of making a big leap, she didn’t hesitate. She sought out a creative opportunity at another company, starting their comprehensive training program for 30-plus offices. It grew to 100-plus in the four years she held the position.

Her advice to women? “If you find a barrier you can’t take down, go around.”

Carla Cross

“We’re clever, creative, and willing to work harder than anyone else,” Cross said. “Use that to your advantage. We’re also invested in inclusion, tearing down the hierarchy, and mentoring others.”

Leading in an atmosphere where you are valued gives you the ability to empower yourself. 

Speak up for yourself (and for each other)

It can be intimidating to speak up for yourself, but it’s essential, according to Marina Vaamonde, the owner and founder of HouseCashin, an online investment property platform.

Marina Vaamonde

“I’ve had many times in which I’ve met with clients and investors for the first time and, upon seeing me, they would ask me where the owner of HouseCashin is or say to me ‘you must be the assistant I spoke to on the phone,’” Vaamonde said. “I’ve also overheard some people say that they don’t work with women in real estate because ‘they’re too emotional.’”

Instead of simply correcting them, Vaamonde asks “why they mistook [her] for a secretary.” She doesn’t ask to shame them, she says, but so that it becomes a “learning moment” for them and for her. “Most of them tell me that it’s because they’ve never seen women in real estate, except when they’re real estate agents.”

Author and coach Lee Davenport doesn’t allow questions about her qualifications or background to keep her from bringing her “A” game.

“I have lived in this body my whole life,” she said, “where so-called ‘micro’-aggressions have become a dismal rite of passage.” However, Davenport doesn’t stand for this type of “death by a thousand cuts” silently, choosing to speak up instead.

Lee Davenport

Subsequently, she finds that those who start out most combative often end up inviting her to speak at other events, where she brings other Black, female and “underrepresented yet dynamic speakers” along with her.

“In short,” she said, “I show up chipper with 10 toes down because I am certain of the value that I bring, report those that mistreat me, and hold the door open for others once it is apparent there is an opportunity to improve the treatment of marginalized groups.” 

Pursue legal and professional avenues for redress, and get involved in leadership yourself

Bad behavior isn’t just rude or tacky. If someone is lying about or denigrating a woman who’s a Realtor, it may be a violation of the code of ethics. Some intimidating and harassing behavior may be grounds for a lawsuit or criminal charges. At the very least, it’s a great way to get a bad reputation and limit the scope of a professional network.

Jennifer Branchini, CAR 2022 President-Elect

According to Jennifer Branchini, 2022 California Association of Realtors’ President-Elect, “While I can’t determine what is a violation, Article 10 of the Code of Ethics prohibits discrimination.” After having recently received a complaint about harassment by a male Realtor, Branchini referred the woman involved to her local association for guidance, to file a grievance complaint and suggested that she file a police report based on the behavior described.

“Bottom line, if a female Realtor has been harassed or mistreated, she can file a grievance complaint with the local association to which the accused belongs. If it is an agent, she may also want to contact the responsible broker,” Branchini said.

Having heard “more stories than [she cares] to recall,” Branchini chose not to complain but to get involved with the association to take action.

“I realized that this wasn’t just a gender issue but a much larger issue and started asking questions and listening to those that would share their experiences,” Branchini said. “In C.A.R. we have 212,000 diverse members over our large state and these faces were not reflected in the voices at the top.”

Branchini pointed out that C.A.R. leadership teams over the past few years “have been committed to inclusiveness” so that it would be more representative of the membership composition. This is reflected in top officer leadership and in the state and federal legislative committees.

In addition, she pointed out the WomanUp! initiative, begun by C.A.R. in 2017 to address the gender disparity in real estate leadership, connecting and developing leaders, “Through collaboration, mentoring and connection, brokerage owners, executive leaders in the real estate industry and those interested in stepping up in leadership are supported in a welcoming community.”

“Big change in this area does not have to be a fight,” Branchini said. “Rather it is an opportunity to become an inclusive profession that benefits from all of our voices. I am proud of the progress we are making in California, and I am excited for our profession and the amazing leaders to come.”

Remember, that empowered women empower women

According to Jenelle Isaacson, owner of Living Room Realty in Portland, Oregon, women creating spaces for themselves can have a powerful impact on their careers. “I once put a deal together because another agent, and I knew each other from the same hair salon [which was] owned by a savvy businesswoman who ended up connecting us,” she recalled.

Jenelle Isaacson

Again and again, this was what high-achieving women saw as a way to counter the effects of the “Old Boys Network” — women supporting, helping, mentoring and empowering each other. It’s also one of the things many women seem to struggle with the most, perhaps because of the scarcity mindset and the idea that opportunities for women are exceedingly limited resources.

Isaacson sees the era of “Old Boys” going the way of the dodo. “It’s been a competitive advantage for me to be a ‘female-owned’ business,” she said. “I have been able to build the most diverse leadership group in the city and we attract incredible agents and clients who want to support a business that aligns with their own values.”

Noting that the second-largest homebuyer segment after couples is single women, Isaacson says, “They come to us because they want to be treated with respect and know they are supporting a business that gives women opportunities.”

Ericka Rios

According to Ericka Rios, principal and director of leasing at Chicago-based Downtown Apartment Company, “the lack of leadership roles for women hinders the real estate industry as a whole” and is something they’ve actively worked to address at her firm.

In addition to Rios’s role, the team at Downtown Apartment Company and Downtown Realty Company includes women serving as director of broker development, of recruitment, and of operations, as well as many team leaders and top-earning brokers.

“One of the most rewarding things about running our own company is the opportunity to help develop the next generation of female real estate leaders as they take on new roles and responsibilities,” Rios said.

Hilary Saunders

To help empower women at her company, Hilary Saunders, co-founder and chief broker officer at Side, founded Side Sisters to help women develop skills in entrepreneurship, leadership, public speaking, software development and coding and more. Today, over 50 percent of Side partner brands are women-owned, higher than the industry average.

According to Saunders when women in the real estate industry “stop comparing themselves to others and showcase the skills and qualities that make them unique and proud, any level of accomplishment desired can be reached.”

Calling out the “Old Boys Network” isn’t about painting all men with the same brush, making excuses or picking a fight. While the “Old Boys Network” may never entirely go away, by calling it out for what it is, we empower ourselves, and each other, to transcend it.

Christy Murdock is a Realtor, freelance writer, coach and consultant and the owner of Writing Real Estate. She is also the creator of the online course Crafting the Property Description: The Step-by-Step Formula for Reluctant Real Estate Writers. Follow Writing Real Estate on TwitterInstagram and YouTube.

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