From left, Sarah Hinkley, Brooke Armstrong, Sara Terry, Lynn Dowdle, Kimarie Ankenbrand, and Torrey Littlejohn. Shane Kislack

Real Estate

Equal Measure

Commercial real estate brokerage is still homogeneous and male-dominated. But it may not be for long, if these women have anything to say about it.

At a happy hour social in August 2017, Sarah Hinkley looked around. Samuel Lynne Galleries in the Design District was filled with prospective members of The Real Estate Council’s 2018 Associate Leadership Council class. The leadership training course, roughly modeled after Leadership Dallas, accepts about 30 members annually aged 27-37 spanning all disciplines of real estate. Hinkley has been deeply involved in TREC and the ALC since she “graduated” from ALC in 2011.

At the happy hour, she thought: This is so cool. I am so impressed with the caliber of women in this room. And, sure enough, when the official list of ALC members came out weeks later, it was 43 percent women, the highest percentage in the ALC’s 22-year history.

The 2018 ALC class, Hinkley contends, serves as a microcosm for what’s happening in the commercial real estate industry here. Even accounting for marginal gains in diversity in recent years, the vast majority of real estate brokers in North Texas remain homogeneous. “We’re at the brink of all of that changing. It’s not strictly middle-aged white males anymore,” Hinkley says. “I think you’re about to see a huge shift in the number of women in the industry.”

But according to several top male and female brokers, change won’t be fully realized until leadership creates tangible and comprehensive objectives to get—and keep—qualified women in the business.

Brink of Change

In Texas, commercial real estate has a total economic impact of $22.69 billion annually, according to the National Assocation for Industrial and Office Parks. When brokers are earning a percentage of all the leases they negotiate, it makes for a very lucrative, and competitive, industry—one that’s historically attracted a limited number of women. A survey by Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network had its roughly 2,200 respondents estimate the percent of female brokers at their given firms. Respondents to the 2015 survey, the latest available, estimated that 29 percent of their firm’s brokers were women, up from 23 percent the previous year. By comparison, women make up 34.8 percent of lawyers (according to Law360), 26 percent of architects (according to the Department of Labor), and 37 percent of financial analysts (according to the nonprofit Catalyst).

Women have seen gains in many professions, but real estate brokerage in North Texas is uniquely poised for progress for a few reasons. For one thing, diversity and inclusion has gotten the attention of top leaders at the region’s biggest firms, such as CBRE and JLL. But perhaps the biggest catalyst is a wave of female brokers willing to stand up, have tough conversations, and demand change.

Brokers (from left) Hinkley, Armstrong, Terry, Dowdle, Littlejohn, and Ankenbrand appear regularly on D CEO’s Power Brokers list, which recognizes the top 20 percent of producers at a given firm.
Shane Kislack

Hinkley is one such woman. She made a name for herself as a top producer and principal at Peloton, predominantly focusing on office leasing. In late 2017, she left Peloton to found her own firm, Thirty-Four Commercial. Hinkley has a theory as to why the brokerage industry has remained homogeneous over her 15-year career: “I don’t think anyone in their core looks at a woman and thinks they’ll treat her different. It’s human nature to see someone similar to you and to want to help them. Considering that, a senior broker sees a young guy who just got married, maybe he has a pregnant wife or just bought a house—that senior broker wants to help the young guy. Opportunities tend to lend themselves to similar people. Like attracts like.”

In addition, brokerage is a “wild west type of business,” says Kimarie Ankenbrand, senior vice president at JLL focusing in tenant representation. There’s no medical school, no bar exam. There are no barriers to entry or training grounds, and, unlike doctors and lawyers, real estate brokerage is hard to understand for consumers. To become a broker, you basically need a real estate license and a phone. “The only way you learn how to do this is by having someone teach you. Mentoring is 80 percent of this business,” Hinkley says.

White men hold nearly 78 percent of senior executive jobs in commercial real estate, and the majority of mid-level management, professional, and technical jobs as well, according to a diversity report from NAIOP. The report also found that a white male mid-level manager had a one in three chance of advancing to senior executive, while a black female had a one in 12.6 chance.

“We’ve always been a closed industry,” says Brooke Armstrong, an executive vice president at JLL focusing in tenant representation. “Not enough women know or think about brokerage as a career opportunity. That lends itself to a lack of diversity.”

The 30 Threshold

“You cannot change or heal what you do not acknowledge,” Dowdle Real Estate President Lynn Dowdle says. “If you think you’re giving women equal opportunity, but you still have only men at the top, that’s the clue you need to change or heal the situation.”

“For your people to succeed, you first have to create an environment where they can. If you keep giving your people the tools they need to succeed, they will use them.”

Sarah Hinkley

In an effort to retain more women and build a pipeline of qualified leaders, some firms and individuals have identified a time when women most frequently leave the industry: the 30 threshold.

Many firms divide their workforces into three age groups: beginning, mid-level, and senior brokers. That mid-level, when brokers are aged roughly 30-45, is when many women exit. JLL calls these brokers the “mighty middle.” CBRE calls it the “mid-tier marathon.” While there have been improvements in getting more young female brokers into entry-level positions, many firms are seeing a substantial washout a decade later, leaving fewer women in mid-level positions, and, therefore, even fewer at the senior level.

Stats from CBRE back that up. In Dallas, 18 percent of CBRE brokers are women. Bifurcated by experience, CBRE has half the number of female brokers with 15 or more years of experience (10 percent) than it does women with zero to five years (19 percent), and five to 15 years (20 percent).

As in many industries, this mid-career point is pivotal. It’s when brokers refine their skills, become engaged in professional organizations and the community, set aspirations for later years, and get comfortable with commission-only pay (thereby making their firms more profitable).

“This is a very difficult business for anyone to enter into with the compensation structure,” CBRE senior vice president Karla Smith says. “For women, if they don’t have a supporting income … are middle-aged and have two kids, it’s hard to have financial security.”

Starting a career in a commission-only environment requires risk for both men and women, though the CREW study found that men were far more likely to hold a commission-only position. That risk leads to a lot of fear surrounding child-bearing years, Hinkley says, which can cause women to leave the industry for a more secure paycheck. “The question has to be asked: What happens if you can’t make money for a couple years?”

Outside the office, Sara Terry, senior vice president at Stream Realty Partners, says women have more demands on their time during this stage. As a woman in the middle of her career, “your time is being pulled in a lot of directions. … We have to step out of our careers to take care of our children or parents, and we miss out on opportunities to pursue business.”

“When you can do this job, make this money, and have this success, it’s required of you to look back and help the next person along. … It’s my responsibility.”

Torrey Littlejohn

Revisiting the compensation model could spur drastic improvements for women, Ankenbrand says. And she’d know. “When I was pregnant with my second son … I was scheduled to roll off our analyst [compensation] program the month before I was due. Jeff Staubach, our lead at the time, came to me and said, ‘We’re going to keep you on that through maternity leave and for an additional three months after.’ That was huge.” If JLL could extend that policy to new parents or for new talent coming into the industry, Ankenbrand says, it would yield success. (She’s a good example; in the years since, she’s become one of the firm’s top producers locally.)

Navigating family leave in a commission-only environment isn’t a new hurdle. But this generation has a unique opportunity to become the next generation of leaders earlier than their predecessors. That’s because the industry has an age gap, regardless of gender, between brokers roughly aged 40 to 50. The dot-com boom attracted many potential brokers into the tech industry in the 1990s, and the Great Recession caused a big washout of many real estate professionals who got into a different career amidst economic uncertainty. The CREW study found that respondents younger than 40 and with less than five years of experience decreased 10 percent from 2010 to 2015.

“The next generation of leaders in this business are in their mid- to late-30s” Hinkley says. “If you want women to keep working during childbearing years, and they need to leave at 3 p.m., but they get the deal done—let them. If a man has to leave early for a kid thing and you can’t make a decision while he’s gone, it’s the same thing.”

Creating an Environment

“For your people to succeed, you first have to create an environment where they can,” Hinkley says. “If you keep giving your people the tools they need to succeed, they will use them.”

In recognizing inconsistencies in the barriers women and men face in the middle of their careers, leadership has an opportunity to level the playing field. “Women need a space to be taken seriously. If they’re not made to feel worthy of a position within commercial real estate—through mentoring, support, whatever—then, in my mind, that’s the top’s fault,” Dowdle says. “Males and females both need to feed young girls the idea that they can do this, and then give them the tools they need to succeed.”

For an industry with no training ground, those tools can fill in the gaps. More so than other industries, brokers, regardless of gender, rely on relationships to build their business. Mentorship can bridge training gaps and bring people into the industry with less conventional backgrounds, which is what happened for JLL senior vice president Torrey Littlejohn. With a background in corporate finance, Littlejohn had no intention, or awareness, to get into brokerage. But a serendipitous mentorship with a successful female broker, Susan Pausky, changed her career path. Littlejohn hasn’t lost sight of that impact on her career, and now she’s determined to do the same: “When you can do this job, make this money, and have this success, it’s required of you to look back and help the next person along. … It’s my responsibility.”

Hinkley, Armstrong, and Dowdle expressed similar sentiments. All regularly participate in formal mentorship programs through professional organizations, as well as informal mentorship for both women and men.

Many women within the industry have created environments for themselves through small, scalable clubs. Hinkley co-founded WIRED, which stands for Women Influencing Real Estate Dallas, by hand-picking a dozen female executives spanning many disciplines. The women get together monthly and have a lively group chat where they share articles, discuss business challenges, share contacts, and, most importantly, help each other do their respective jobs better. “We want to do business with each other, we want to serve as a support system for each other, and when we refer business, we want to refer it to each other,” Hinkley says.

“We can all tell story after story of inequality… and I’ve been part of those, but I’m trying to get people to stick to the facts and statistics. The numbers don’t lie.”

Kimarie Ankenbrand

Smith, who was the first female broker at UCR before it merged with CBRE, founded the women’s networking group Deals in Heels. The group has about 40 women in various facets of retail real estate. Smith brings in speakers and presenters at monthly meetings. She formed the group to “educate other women with like-minded professional ideas, to share knowledge, and to do business with each other.” Part of WIRED and Deals in Heels’ success, Hinkley and Smith agree, is keeping the groups small and manageable, fostering one-on-one connections.

Larger firms have created internal networks to champion diversity. CBRE founded the Women’s Network in 2000. The organization, which has about 3,500 members nationally, hosts symposia and works to advance various gender-related initiatives. Founded by Chicago broker Lisa Konieczka, the network established a paid maternity leave for all CBRE employees, including commission-only women.

Stream Realty Partners, the eighth largest brokerage firm in North Texas, is in the early stages of launching programs aimed at “creating an environment that fosters inclusion and diversity,” Terry says.

JLL is starting to see the fruits of its diversity and inclusion (DNI) initiatives, in which Ankenbrand has been deeply involved. The initiatives start by gathering data about the firm’s talent pool, analyzing where it can be improved, and presenting a strategy to leadership. “We had leadership within JLL that said, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.’ We can all tell story after story of inequality … and I’ve been part of those. But I’m trying to get people to stick to the facts and statistics,” Ankenbrand says. “The numbers don’t lie.”

At JLL, 14 percent of JLL’s U.S. brokers are women (and 6 percent are top producers), with half of that total female broker population coming from six of its 49 offices with brokerage services.

Thanks in part to the Women’s Network and DNI, CBRE and JLL, which are the two largest brokerage firms in DFW and in the U.S., have become industry leaders in equality in brokerage.

To keep a woman in the industry, however, she has to get hired in the first place. “It can be difficult for the 65-year-old white guy to know a lot of diverse talent,” Littlejohn says. For so long, Littlejohn says, brokerage opportunities were identified by referrals, which lead to little diversity in the candidate pool. “But things are changing,” she says. More firms are exploring ways to recruit talent from other rich sales backgrounds, such as pharmaceutical sales, and attending job fairs at more diverse colleges.

Creating a workplace where all employees have equal opportunities to succeed often comes with valuing talent over all other qualifications. “Opportunities should evolve because someone is the best person for the job—it should be rewarded based on talent and ability,” Hinkley says. But palpable tools, such as maternity leave policies or revisiting the traditional compensation model, can’t exist without a foundation of equality. And that foundation, these women declare, is laid by the top. 

A Message to the Top

Michael Caffey, CBRE president of Texas, Oklahoma, and Latin America, has a message to his fellow brokerage leaders: Diversity doesn’t happen unless leadership is intentional about solving for it. “You must focus on all pools of talent and have a plan for each segment. If we, as an industry, commit to doing this and being intentional, we’ll change the industry.”

Plus, it’s just good business. Across all industries, companies with diverse upper management see higher returns than more homogenous companies, and companies with a female CEO or chairperson saw on average a 25 percent return, nearly twice the world average, according to a 2017 study by Nordea Bank AB. A 2015 McKinsey report analyzed more than 350 public companies and found that those with more gender, ethnic, and racial diversity outperformed their peers by up to 35 percent. But, those results haven’t translated into real change in Texas: a March 2018 report from the National Diversity Council found that Texas’ 101 largest businesses by revenue were still “largely homogenous” and “predominantly white.”

“If you think you’re giving women equal opportunity, but you still have only men at the top, that’s the clue you need to change or heal the situation.”

Lynn Dowdle

The case for shareholder returns isn’t the only compelling one. “CBRE has three types of constituents: We serve our clients, our investors, and our employees,” Caffey says. “Having a diverse workforce makes better outcomes for all three of those constituencies.” Caffey hones in on the first: clients. “We’re going more into corporate America and dealing with institutional capital partners. When you’re engaged with those types of companies, they reflect the way the world looks. One of the things CBRE is aspirational to do is to put forth a sales force that looks the way the rest of the world looks. And I use that word ‘aspirational’ because it’s not an easy thing.”

Brokers are seeing more of their clients expect, and even prefer, diversity. Hinkley did a deal with one female decision-maker who told her she was selected partially because the client enjoyed working with a woman. “She said, ‘Everyone else I worked with looked at my male counterpart’—who happened to be her subordinate—‘and didn’t look me in the eye,’” Hinkley says. Ankenbrand is seeing the same. A female CFO recently told her, “I’ll take a call from you all day long over your male counterpart.”

To address gender inequality, the industry must first become aware of unintentional bias, Dowdle says. “How in the world are we going to change if we’re not conscious of all this bias?” she says. “In order to change, we have to acknowledge that it’s real.” That consciousness is growing, Terry says. “I think this has long been on the minds of some senior leaders, particularly at the larger firms,” she says. “Now, I’m seeing more of an awareness that there needs to be more inclusiveness” across the board.

JLL’s Ankenbrand knows that, in addition to her efforts, progress only comes when those working towards equality partner with male leaders: “I’m not going to get this done with just me and my two female colleagues.” JLL’s brokerage business, which accounts for about $1.3 billion annually, is headed by men at all of its North American offices. “If you keep that landscape at the top and try to do diversity at the bottom, I don’t know that it will work,” Ankenbrand says.

And it’s not just the publicly traded companies. As more and more independent and boutique firms pop up in North Texas—like Hinkley’s Thirty-Four and Dowdle Real Estate—those leaders have a chance to set the tone at their companies.

“Any of these independent shops reflect their leader,” says Mike Geisler, who founded Venture Commercial with Ken Reimer in 2000. “It’s about being open to the conversation that we serve all demographics and our company should look like that. When you open your mind to it, it’s a magnet and it happens.” Of Venture’s 37 brokers, six are women, which, at 16.2 percent, puts it in line with CBRE and JLL. Though, Geisler points out that many of the firm’s top producers are female.

Using production as a metric to determine success in diversity is a good measure of real, and not superficial, progress, Hinkley says: “You may have 20 women brokers, but are they producing the same as the men?” D CEO’s Power Brokers, an annual survey that recognizes the top 20 percent of brokers by production in a given firm, honored nearly 400 brokers in 2018, of which fewer than 11 percent were women. That percentage has been stagnating, ranging between about 10 and 12 percent over the last several years.

For Randy Cooper, a top producer and vice chairman at Cushman & Wakefield, it’s as simple as thinking about his own daughters. “I had some of those years in the ’80s where females weren’t taken seriously, and I don’t want that for my daughters,” he says. “I don’t want them to fill a niche in diversity. I want my kids to be higher in their companies because they’re great at what they do.”

And, for a highly competitive industry where firms are constantly looking to stand out, having a more diverse workforce can be a point of difference. “This is going to keep a company relevant,” Akendbrand says. “Limping along with little bumps in diversity every couple years when the gap is still so large, that forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror.”

Despite all the work to be done, Hinkley is encouraged by signs of progress like the 2018 ALC class. ALC is “helping put women in leadership positions,” she says. “It’s the generation behind me that’s going to make the change.”

Though, from another perspective, it sure looks like Sarah Hinkley, Kimarie Ankenbrand, Lynn Dowdle, Torrey Littlejohn, Sara Terry, Brooke Armstrong, Karla Smith, and many other capable women are the ones laying the groundwork.


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