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Sarah Erickson: Breaking Into the Boys Club

I'm often asked by younger women in real estate how I've managed to be successful in a male-dominated business. Here's the advice I share with them.
Sarah Erickson

When I first got into commercial real estate, I received all sorts of advice. I was told to talk more like a man (with a low, deep voice), wear only pantsuits, take up golf lessons, and cut my hair short and add some gray highlights. All of this advice was intended to help me appear older and more mature. Well, after a week of trying all of these things, I had a hoarse voice, did not like my work clothes, couldn’t break 120 on the links, and … thank goodness I kept my long, brown hair!

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a female who talks with a deeper voice, wears pant suits, plays golf, or has short hair. There are plenty of successful females in the business world that fit this profile.  The point is, though, that I thought I needed to act contrary to my nature in order to be successful in this industry.

Those who know me know I’m more of a “girlie girl.”  I like to wear skirts, carry a pink handbag, get my nails done, and go shopping on the weekends. None of this is in line with the advice I received early in my career. But so far, being true to myself has helped me succeed. I think that’s largely because I’m confident about who I am as a professional, which is portrayed in the way that I execute business. Rather than trying to be someone I am not, I can invest that time and energy into developing my knowledge about the industry.

I’m often asked by younger women in real estate how I’ve managed to be successful in a male-dominated industry. Here’s the advice I share with them:

No. 1—Be yourself. You do not have to act like a man to be successful in this business. As long as it’s appropriate, you should dress and talk however you’d like. People naturally attract people who are like themselves. So be true to yourself, your interests, and your hobbies, and you will be amazed at how you attract business opportunities from people with similar interests.

No. 2—Be professional. Although you need to be true to yourself, you are in the business world, so be professional at all times. Stay up to speed on current events by reading major publications. Also, conservatively dress for the job that you want—not the job that you have. Perception is reality. By dressing for the job you want, people will envision you in that role.  By dressing conservatively, your colleagues will think of you as a professional and respect your results at work.

No. 3—Be prepared. Often, young females walk into meetings with two strikes—being young and female. So do your research and be the most prepared person in the room. When a difficult, industry-specific question comes up, be the one to impress everyone with your knowledge and preparedness. By demonstrating your expertise, you can quickly create a level playing field.

No. 4—Be factual. Nothing is worse in a business setting than an emotional female. Professionals want to do business with other professionals, so stick to the facts. Feelings in a business setting do not matter—facts do. You will have a better chance of rising within your industry and organization by being the female who never cries (at least not in public), does not get emotional about business, and sticks to the facts.

Sarah (Payne) Erickson is senior vice president and co-manager at Stream Realty Partners. Contact her at [email protected].