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CRE is a female-friendly career option: Madeleine Nicholls

Madeleine Nicholls has been in the commercial real estate business for more than 20 years and the...

Madeleine Nicholls, managing director for Colliers International in Vancouver. (Courtesy Colliers)

Madeleine Nicholls, managing director for Colliers International in Vancouver. (Courtesy Colliers)

Madeleine Nicholls has been in the commercial real estate business for more than 20 years and the Vancouver managing director for Colliers International is surprised more women aren’t picking up on the female-friendly aspects of the job.

A commission sales job may not have the stability of a 9-to-5 salaried position, but it has its advantages for young women who are thinking of starting families and who are looking for a high-paying profession that offers them options. And yet, the industry is still very much male-dominated, particularly in the senior positions, she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two special profiles of successful women in CRE in recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8. Watch for our second feature to be published on Tuesday.

Nicholls had joined Colliers as managing director for the Greater Toronto Area in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, before moving to Vancouver last July. Prior to Colliers, she worked at Toronto’s Dream Unlimited, leading the national retail division, responsible for a portfolio of retail, commercial and mixed-use projects.

“Young women come into commercial real estate and they will start thinking about the future and thoughts maybe go to starting a family, and they think it will be difficult to be in commission sales, working as hard as they are with the demands of the job.

“So they start opting not to do certain things in their career — whereas I very much like the ‘lean-in’ mentality, which is the future will take care of itself, but for the moment lean into whatever opportunity comes your way. Don’t say ‘no’ to anything.

“We have very successful female brokers that have done exactly that and they have families and it all works. If you stick in commercial real estate and you can get your career to a point where maybe after five, seven or even 10 years, you have a team, all of a sudden this truly is what many would imagine to be the best of all worlds.

“You are leading a team and it’s not all on your shoulders.”

Nicholls mentoring other women in CRE

That autonomy and flexibility isn’t offered in a 9-to-5 job environment, said Nicholls, which is why more women should consider CRE opportunities.

Because brokers are able to incorporate as personal real estate corporations, they truly are running their own businesses.

Colliers has made a concerted effort to create a more diverse, inclusive workplace, according to Nicholls, and she is happy to act as industry ambassador, mentoring other businesswomen and speaking to female undergraduate students.

She and Colliers president of brokerage services Scott Addison hold career-coaching sessions for female brokers every two weeks.

Last year, the company formed a North American-wide Women’s Network Employee Resource Group; Nicholls is co-chair of the Canadian division.

The goal is to bring female employees together to discuss negotiation skills, the collaborative process and anything else career-related. Reports on gender imbalances have shown mentorship is key for women advancing in the industry.

However, the majority of her career had not been spent in a progressive, inclusionary work environment, said Nicholls. Industry wide, there is plenty of room for improvement.

The work of CREW

The Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network is the international professional association for women in the industry.

The most recent CREW Network benchmark study report on gender and diversity in commercial real estate, from 2020, indicated that in Canada women represent 35.9 per cent of the industry — similar to the U.S. and the U.K.

However, the income gap is wider in Canada. Women north of the border make 18 per cent less in base salary than men and 69 per cent less in commissions and bonuses. In the U.S., women make nine per cent less in salary and 55 per cent less in commissions and bonuses.

Women who worked in the multiresidential sector had the highest incomes and compensation.

Nicholls estimated women at Colliers hold about one-third of her company’s senior leadership positions in Canada and across North America. Women are well-represented in residential sales; she’d like to see them move further into the commercial sector.

“We can understand easily why, if people have families, traditionally it’s been the male who’s able to do something like a commission sales role, but that is changing now.

“What doesn’t make sense is there are far more women in residential real estate and that’s also 100 per cent commission. I think the story of commercial real estate is a really good one for anyone who wants to have a lucrative career and the ultimate flexibility.

“There’s a stick-to-it-ness that has to happen in the early days, but if you are willing to put the work in and stick with it, it could end up being an incredibly lucrative, rewarding and flexible career for decades.”

Pandemic accelerates workplace trends

That flexibility has particularly come to light during the pandemic, which she said has been an accelerator for every aspect of the workplace, including emerging possibilities for women and minority groups.

“The other thing it’s really shone a light on is the imbalances for sure, and how do we change that?” she said.

“The pandemic has really offered a bit of a more level playing field, where some of the barriers within a workplace are being eroded, because hybrid work environments or working from home can be very successful for more people.

“In the past, typically it’s women that the family caregiving falls to, so it’s that portion of the population that all of a sudden has this hybrid work situation, or working from home, that has opened up doors to get back in or to stay in the workplace — whereas perhaps before they might have thought they needed time off for parental leave or whatever the situation might be.

“There are a lot of the layers of the onion and the inner layers of the onion are getting minority groups into positions they might not otherwise have been in, and women too. Overall, more diversity is what it’s about, across the board.”

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