There’s a lot of progress when it comes to female representation in residential design, construction, and development.
Women accounted for nearly 11 percent of the entire US construction sector last year — a record high, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There is gender parity in the pipeline of students entering the architecture and design sector, according to an American Institute of Architecture annual survey. Even firms in commercial real estate and finance, long seen as old boys’ club networks, have made major pushes to shed the image of yesteryear and promote more gender and racial diversity and inclusivity.
But it’s no time to celebrate, either.
The same AIA survey that indicated gender parity also noted that the equal representation falls off the closer one gets to the executive level.
“We actually have parity in schools. In fact, we have schools that have more women than men,” said Rebecca L. Berry, a principal at Finegold Alexander Architects. “Where we drop is midcareer. Where we drop is licensure, so that’s really the focus now of the profession. We have the pipeline, and what we have increasingly more of as a tool is flexibility.”
Much of the career drop-off across a variety of professions stems from family needs like child care and the inability to juggle full-time, in-person work with a busy home schedule. A 2021 report from CREW, a networking group for women in commercial real estate (which includes condo and apartment buildings), said that 29 percent of women voluntarily left their company because of the pandemic and that 95 percent of them haven’t returned to work.
Unfortunately, even today, it primarily falls on women to step up and take on the child-care role.
“I am of that generation where a lot of women left the profession when they started their families, or the 2008 recession happened and a lot of people left,” said Clara Wineberg, a principal at design firm SCB. “When I was at that stage of my career, sadly, there weren’t many women who had families and were still practicing at a large commercial scale. You’d have to make a decision. When I joined SCB, there was a principal who said: ‘You know what, she needs a little flexibility. She’s got the talent.’ That single decision launched my career.”
Some argue the pandemic, and the flexible work arrangements that resulted, may have shown more women than ever that the many branches of real estate — from building and development to financing and design — can offer an ideal career path. The work-from-home era and even hybrid setups make it much easier to retain women in the profession and show young hopefuls there is a place for them at the table. The flexibility extended to Wineberg prepandemic now increasingly spans to more people beyond her own firm.
“I knew a handful of great designers who dropped because they wanted to have a family, and they were at firms that weren’t flexible,” said Ellen K. Anselone, another principal at Finegold Alexander Architects. “That’s always changing, which is helping us.”
Flexibility isn’t the standalone secret to achieving gender parity across the home-building, design, and development landscape, of course. Financial support to address the soaring cost of child care and other work policies like paid family leave are important factors weighing on one’s decision to stay or leave the workforce.
“How we address these things as a profession will keep more people from having to make that decision and having to leave,” Berry said.
But if all these things can help with career advancement, that means a greater likelihood of stronger female representation at the leadership level — something that also brings in more women to the workplace.
“As a woman, it’s so important to be able to see yourself in role models, and it doesn’t even need to be in grand gestures or only leadership positions,” said Lizbeth Bello, a senior vice president at capital development firm Redgate. “It needs to be in the day-to-day in all roles.”
Bello said her father’s engineering background gave her the technical know-how and interest to study architecture at the University of Puerto Rico, but it was a female principal from Redgate who spoke to her class for Boston University’s master of city planning program that led Bello to where she is today.
“The more as a female you surround yourself with other females in the industry, the more you get empowered in a way to embrace a different experience,” Bello said. “Real estate is a highly male-dominated industry, and sometimes it can be difficult to relate. Sometimes you can feel like your experience is not as valid because it’s not the dominant experience.”
It’s not just corporate initiatives and individual mentors driving the change for more gender diversity, either. The Massachusetts Port Authority’s “Massport Model” puts equal weight on a comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion program as a factor in deciding winning bids for development parcels in the Seaport.
There could soon be more.
“There’s been so much support with things like the Massport Model from both the city and state. That was a really big confidence boost for going out and starting my own thing, just to know that there were programs out there that incentivize working with women and minority-owned businesses,” said Kaitlin McCarthy, founder of Ionic Development Co.
After working at firms like Turner Construction, Boston Consulting Group, and HYM Investment Group, McCarthy decided to start her own company last year. Her firm is part of a consortium of a larger development bid for an affordable housing project at Parcel D-4 in the Seaport, as well as the Cronin Development and Street2Ivy push to build 1.9 million square feet of mixed-use development near the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.
“I was driven by looking around and not seeing women-owned developers at networking events, panels, etc.,” McCarthy said. “There are so many great women that are executives at companies and in senior leadership, but when it came to the women-owned part, that’s something that I saw was missing in the market.
“Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.”
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