When it comes to women in commercial real estate, the industry is not evolving equally.

While some disciplines, such as real estate attorneys or lenders, do appear to have made significant strides in adding women to their ranks, others remain alarmingly bereft of such diversity. Developers, leasing brokerage and engineering are among the fields that continue to be dominated by men, for example.

“We’re still very unrepresented,” acknowledged Kathleen C. Doyle, who co-founded her own commercial real estate services firm with partner Catherine H. Thompson 12 years ago. Although she said there appears to be no clear reason for that absence, Doyle said it may be a combination of old attitudes and the uncertain future a career in brokerage holds for anyone pondering the industry’s potential.

“Particularly in the early years, it requires a long investment of time and perhaps not a lot of returns,” she said. “Some women have a really hard time seeing the forest for the trees, and they may not be willing to take the risk.”

Unfortunately, Doyle said there also appears to be some overhang of Jurassic thinking in the real estate industry. A recent candidate for a position at Thompson Doyle said she had been discouraged from entering the business because she is a woman. That is unfortunate, she said, insisting there is no reason a man would be more predisposed for brokerage than a woman.

“Women can be just as successful if not more successful than their male counterparts,” she said. “If you’re willing to work hard at it, you can do very well.”

Real estate veteran George J. Fantini Jr. agreed that some fields are more advanced in including women than others. One possible explanation, he said, is the lack of a clear career path into leasing, investment sales or development versus the structured system that exists for becoming a real estate attorney or lender.

“You really can’t go to school to be a developer, so there’s simply no natural migration of women into either the commercial leasing or development business,” he said. And in assessing a prospective hire, Fantini said he believes a company is generally more concerned about whether the prospect can cut it as a broker than it is trying to balance the scales of gender justice.

“There’s just no formal training, and when one of the commercial firms thinks of hiring a broker, I bet they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it being a woman as opposed to a man,” he said.

But while they may represent a minority, a number of women have risen to prominent positions locally in real estate sales and brokerage. Among the top stars in William F. McCall Jr.’s mind are Thompson and Doyle, as well as brokers Polly Bryson and Tamie Thompson at Spaulding & Slye Colliers. Former Spaulding & Slye broker Karyn McFarland has also emerged in that arena, said McCall, having founded her own firm and now serving as president of the Downtown North Association, a business group for Boston’s North Station district.

A founder of the McCall & Almy real estate firm, McCall also praised his partner, Mary Lenz, as a leading player in real estate brokerage. “She has continued to do very well over a long period of time,” he said, citing Lenz’s successes with Winthrop Financial and in helping to lease up the International Place office complex in Boston.

Female developers remain the exception to the rule as well. “There’s a long way to go before women have an appropriate [representation] in that business,” Fantini said. Industry icons in that regard include H.N. Gorin President Rosalind Gorin and Ranne P. Warner, who helped found the New England Women in Real Estate 20 years ago. Patricia Simboli has taken a lead role in her father’s firm, Chelsea-based ACS Development, while Fantini added that Oaktree Development partner Gwendolen Noyes has also established herself, with her firm’s most recent venture being the 311-unit CambridgePark Place Apartments, a $62 million project now being completed in Cambridge’s Alewife neighborhood.

On the legal end, Goulston & Storrs real estate attorney David M. Abromowitz said he is seeing a continued trend of women becoming prominent players in structuring complex real estate agreements and overseeing other facets of lending and development. Real estate law has embraced women to a significant degree, he said, pointing out leading attorneys in his own firm as Karen J. Kepler, Deborah S. Horwitz and Carole M. Schuman. And while they may not fully be where it should be by now, Abromowitz said women are increasingly bolstering the ranks of the development and lending arenas.

“It’s not unusual anymore to go to a closing and have the room be equal men and women and just not notice,” he said. On the legal end, Abromowitz said he believes the rise of prominent female real estate attorneys can be traced back to the early 1980s when law school admissions began to level out genderwise. Graduates of that era are now reaching the stage in their careers where the assignments are more notable, he said.

Besides the legal profession, Fantini said finance and commercial real estate lending has also done well in bringing women into the fold. Fleet New England Senior Vice President Susan Wolkoff is serving as 2002 president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board’s Real Estate Finance Association, for example, while Insignia/ESG investment specialist Lisa J. Campoli was GBREB president in 2000. KeyBank Corp., a Cleveland-based institution making a foray into New England, has a number of women in their New England commercial lending division, Fantini added, including former Shawmut Bank officer Susan Leff.

Eye on the Prize

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min