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Championing women’s rise to senior CRE executive positions

Empowering Women in CRE luncheon
Empowering Women in CRE luncheon panelists (from left) Ruth Fischer, managing director, CBRE Quebec; Karen Sweet, managing director, Canadian CRE practice lead, Accenture and president, Toronto CREW; and Jaime McKenna, managing director, group head of real estate, Fengate (not seen to right). (Ann White, RENX)

Empowering women to rise through the ranks of commercial real estate companies into senior positions is an intentional process that requires strategies both women and their "male allies" can deploy.  

That was a common theme that emerged at the inaugural Empowering Women in CRE luncheon held  in conjunction with this year’s Toronto Real Estate Forum.  The luncheon featured a discussion by a panel of three senior female CRE executives who shared their experiences of being a woman in the industry.

Panel moderator Jaime McKenna, managing director, group head of real estate for Fengate said, "There’s not a lot of us and we want there to be more."   

McKenna welcomed "male allies" attending the luncheon because she said, "they play just as important a role in the journey (as women)."  

A 2022 CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) Network report, Building the CRE Workforce of the Future, while acknowledging the advancement of women in workplaces, also highlighted how women’s positions slipped during the global pandemic. 

In Canada, a survey referenced in the report conducted by The Prosperity Project found women’s participation in the workforce declined during COVID. Fewer women are working full-time — 62 per cent in 2022 compared to 70 per cent pre-COVID.

“A majority (of Canadian women) would like the flexibility offered during the pandemic to continue, specifically the option to work remotely some of the time,” Andrea Spender, CEO of The Prosperity Project, says in the report.

Maternity leave a uniquely female experience

Panelist Ruth Fischer,  managing director for CBRE in Quebec, has been interested in city building since high school and worked in various planning and development roles in the U.S. and U.K.

She eventually moved to Canada, destined to work in real estate, starting in a consulting role at CBRE and then advancing to her current position in 2021.

“I was really lucky in my career to have had a lot of really supportive people throughout,” Fischer said. “Parenting though, becoming a mother, was definitely a challenge that brought to the fore the issues of being a woman in business . . . and being lucky enough to be in Canada, where you get maternity leave options, unlike the U.S. where I grew up.”

After returning to work following her first maternity leave, Fischer challenged a senior male colleague at CBRE, who was "sneaking out" of work at 3 p.m. to attend his child’s events, to announce the reason he was leaving to the office.

The announcement was to help establish that men, not just women, have parenting responsibilities.

Fischer described how she wants to be available to her children, at least one day a week so “. . . that I see my kid coming out of school, that I see his teachers, that I see his friends, all of those things, and then with my daughter as well.” 

“It is about trying to be a good employee and to be a good parent. For me, those are the challenges that I still try to balance.”

A question McKenna is often asked is, “How do you deal with the fact that you go off a mandate for a year, or 18 months, or whatever you choose (for maternity leave). How can you be clear that your career doesn’t get impacted?

“I don’t have an answer to that question. It is the unique challenge that we all have."

Being excluded from business deals, company activities

Karen Sweet, managing director, Canadian CRE practice lead, Accenture and the president of Toronto CREW (Toronto Commercial Real Estate Women) said in her experience “it’s not been one consistent thing.” 

Sweet explained that in some roles gender issues did not arise, teams were fully collaborative, and she was included in everything.

At other times and with various teams, she said she was not included.

The way in which Sweet was excluded she explained was not a "deliberate choice" but nevertheless required some "hard conversations" about why she was not involved.  

An example Sweet provided was a charity golf tournament sponsored by her company to which she was not invited on the basis that "It was going to be a long day. And I know you have young kids." Sweet only discovered the omission upon arriving at a near-empty office – not through any company communication.  

Given a choice, Sweet said she could have made child-care arrangements which would have allowed her to attend the tournament.

She went on to say that “I’m certain that wasn’t the only time I wasn’t included. That was just the time that was very obvious.”  She noted “you don’t want to constantly be talking to your boss and colleagues about these issues” but these situations need to be called out.

 Jaime McKenna, managing director, group head of real estate for Fengate . (Fengate)
 Jaime McKenna, managing director, group head of real estate for Fengate . (Fengate)

McKenna added that humour can go a long way in communicating gender issues. She jokes with male colleagues that they can’t discuss deals in the bathroom because she can’t "do the bathroom with the guys."

“That’s my disadvantage,” she said.

Strategies for empowering women

Sweet highlighted several experiences that demonstrated how women can be supported, or "championed", in taking on more responsibility.

One example she provided was a male colleague intentionally seating her in front of a group at a company presentation, rather than in the audience, more consistent with her role.  

When Fischer returned to work after her second maternity leave, her male boss engaged her in a plan for her participation in the growth of CBRE’s business, an initiative that has been successful in growing the CBRE team to 10 employees today.  

“It was so interesting to me that they had more faith in me than I had in me, in a certain way. And it was a lovely thing. And I think he was glad that I was female, like he wanted to empower more women in the organization,” Fischer said.  

“Showing people that you have faith in them, gender aside, is massively important.”

McKenna mentioned she had two champions in her career, although she didn’t elaborate.

Other strategies raised by the panelists were making introductions for younger women via LinkedIn connections, taking women to executive-level business meetings, advancing women into new positions prior to them being experienced – if they are qualified – and being intentional about championing and sponsoring women in their careers.

Women need to speak up

“I look at where we were five or six years ago. . . . I don’t think we are still having the same debates” Sweet said. “Discussions in the past were about whether it was important to have diversity. Now we know it is happening.

"We’re making progress. We’re making progress too slowly, in my opinion, but I think we are getting there.”

For male allies, Sweet suggested women provide positive feedback and offer suggestions for how to empower women.

Fischer advised “Nobody's a mind reader, right? Your friends, your colleagues, your partners, people don't know what you need or want, unless you tell them.”

She added that “it may be something where you think you shouldn't have to ask, or whatever, but get over it.”  

In a similar vein, McKenna said oversights are often not intentional and women need to speak up. "We don’t advocate enough." 

Native Women’s Resource Centre donation

To close the inaugural Empowering Women in CRE Real Estate Forums luncheon, Roelie van Dijk, executive director of the Toronto Real Estate Forums provided a $20,000 donation to the Native Women’s Resource Centre in Toronto.

Funds for the donation came from registration fees to Informa’s real estate events across Canada.

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