Claire Bond Potter, professor of history, The New School Claire Bond Potter, professor of history, The New School

NEW YORK CITY—Because real estate works very heavily through networks, Claire Bond Potter, professor of history at The New School, says the #MeToo movement has particular relevance in this industry. Potter received a great deal of recent national attention for her opinion piece published in The New York Times, “Men Invented ‘Likability.’ Guess Who Benefits?” She then discussed the issues of sexism and gender bias on MSNBC and on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC. As an expert on gender and sexuality in history, Potter applies her insights to the real estate industry for

“There are a number of really top development and commercial real estate firms and they tend to operate very much as family businesses. That’s a kind of networking that women can often find very difficult to break into,” says Potter. “One of the things to think about with gender discrimination is when it is reaffirmed by other forms of exclusion.”

She points out in CRE family businesses often the top positions are held by family members, so there are a limited number of competitive positions. Plus, now there are more women in the workforce than ever before. “In the Trump economy women’s employment has gone way up. White male employment has flatlined. More jobs are being taken by women. That being said, it’s still harder for women to advance,” says Potter. A Census Bureau Report published in September 2018 notes women make 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

CREW Network’s 2015 Benchmark Study reported a gender income gap of 23.3% in the real estate sector. The industry median annual compensation for women was $115,000 compared to $150,000 for men. The gap widened to nearly 30% at the C-suite level.

Potter advises women to push for transparency in compensation. When no one knows what anyone makes it’s easier to maintain inequalities in pay.

The professor highlights another point. “We have a lot of really high achieving women in all professions and real estate is one of them. But having one woman who is chair of the board or three women at the top of a corporation does not mean things are better for all women,” she says. “Frequently, they can be seen as exceptions to the rule.”

She praised Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg noting she is an enormously accomplished businesswoman. However, with Sandberg’s best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Potter took exception to its unstated message. The book is basically saying, “If you’re not making it, you’re not doing the right things. You’re not competing the way you should. You’re not tooting your own horn the way you should,” comments Potter.

There are realities with work environments apart from a woman’s individual behavior that define a meritocracy. Similar to in politics, she asserts gender biases affect perceptions of meritocracies. As a case in point Potter states, “We don’t give advice like that to men. There are not books written for men saying, ‘Stop sexually harassing women at the office.’”

Potter recommends that people in the workplace take actions against incidents of gender discrimination or sexual harassment. One step would be going to the Human Resources office because treating women fairly is the law.

Second, Potter states people in the office should practice aggressive self-defense. If employees, both men and women, see sexual harassment, they should directly confront perpetrators about their behavior. “I don’t think whispering networks are very helpful,” she says. That’s when everyone knows someone is engaging in inappropriate behavior and talks about it behind closed doors. Yet there’s a reluctance to take action to stop it.

Finally, Potter says when people experience discrimination at the workplace, they often are so shocked that they just freeze. Later, at night they go home and think of 10 things they should have said. She advises people to think ahead and ask themselves, “OK, if this happens to me, what will I do? What will I say?” As people prepare with fire drills or active shooter drills, they should be prepared for sexual harassment and discrimination. They can write down scripts and make a list of what they’ll say so they can be prepared to professionally and effectively respond to and confront gender discrimination or sexual harassment.

Look for additional insights on the #MeToo movement in commercial real estate in our upcoming July/August 2019 issue of Real Estate Forum.

➤➤ Join the Women of Influence 2019 conference July 10th and 11th in Broomfield, CO, which celebrates the women who drive the commercial real estate industry forward. The event will address the critical role of women in the CRE business. Click here to register and view the agenda.