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CREW SF THE VIEW: Diversity in CRE

Diversity in Commercial Real Estate: A perspective from ELAINE ANDERSSON
By: Morgan Ward, Director, RETS Associates

When she joined CREW in the early 2000s, Elaine Andersson saw the organization as a useful way to become involved in San Francisco’s real estate market and to network with professional women like herself, using CREW as a tool to invest in herself and her professional career. What she did not realize was that her membership would lead to lifelong friendships, rewarding mentorship opportunities, and invaluable leadership skills. It would also strengthen her interest in gender and race inequality in the industry, issues which she would later research and publish findings on.

Currently of counsel at Lubin Olson’s Real Estate Practice Group, Elaine has a long tenure in commercial real estate law. Her background includes in-house counsel positions at Boston Properties and at Cornerstone Properties, and she has been a professor of law at the Golden Gate University School of Law and Hastings College of the Law for over a decade. In addition, she was named one of the top 100 Most Influential Women in Business by the San Francisco Business Times, was honored by Thompson Reuters as a Northern California “Super Lawyer,” and served as president of CREW San Francisco in 2008.

While known for her accomplishments in commercial real estate law, Elaine has also created buzz, stemming from her deep-seated interest in diversity in the industry, with a focus on women and minorities. For a long time, she felt a need to dig deeper into why the commercial real estate industry has been so male dominated. She set out to use data and hard facts to present the issues in a way that her peers would respect and understand. “The real estate industry believes in numbers,” she explained. “So one of the most effective ways of talking about issues is by having the actual numbers to show what is happening now, and being able to measure change in the future.”

For the past 12 years, she has led multiple programs focused on the elimination of bias, and in 2013 she decided to put her research in writing. Her “Diversity Report” came out in three installments: the first focusing on employment in the commercial real estate industry, the second on law firms, and the third on real estate investment trusts (REITs). The reports showed that men of every ethnicity are more likely to be advanced in the industry than women of the same ethnicity. Among commercial real estate senior executives, white men held 77.6% of the 13,773 jobs.

Elaine recognized that the first step to leveling the playing field was for women to obtain the same qualifications as men. “Beginning in the late 1960s, women in law schools went from almost none to approximately half the class by the early 1980s,” she said. “That solved two problems: there was now a sizeable pool of women, and we had the same qualifications—law degrees from Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale—as our male peers. But another barrier to entry was actually getting the interview, and much research showed that, based on names alone, women and minorities were less likely to get interviews and were more likely to be offered lower salaries.” Looking back, she recognizes that a major positive change occurred when law schools assigned on campus interview slots on a lottery system, allowing women and minorities a higher chance of getting an interview.

Elaine’s research, however, showed that there are still challenges in regard to women and minorities advancing in the industry. She emphasizes that the more women continue to improve their qualifications, the closer commercial real estate will get to true equality.

“With men dominating the majority of careers in commercial real estate, one of the most important things women can do for their careers is to continually invest in their own professional skill sets,” Elaine explained. “Knowledge and skills are the foundation of success. If your employer doesn’t give you a budget for continuing education, you should budget for it yourself.” Women must strive to continually grow, and Elaine hopes that one day there will be an equal ratio of women to men in the industry and that 50% of CEOs and boards will be women.

Until then, Elaine would like to continue publishing the diversity reports, shedding light on gender and equality issues through research and data. For example, her findings have yet to touch on the LGBT community in commercial real estate, an extremely important topic she feels needs to be addressed.

While there’s still work to be done to achieve equality in the work force, Elaine has noticed a significant change since she entered the field. “It has improved so much,” she says. “Now we’re talking about how you bring in the next deal, get the next promotion, and negotiate salary. The kind of things we used to deal with were different. A woman in the business was an anomaly. I’m so glad we’re not talking to each other about being chased around desks anymore.”

(Starts on Pg. 9)