At first blush, commercial real estate would appear to be a homogeneous universe of white guys in monogrammed shirts, driving around in their late-model Mercedes and attending alumni reunions at USC.

OK, so that’s a big part of it. But not entirely. While men are still firmly in the majority, there are women in key positions, and they seem to be gaining in visibility.

“I do see a lot more women in senior positions making decisions,” said Patricia Gilbert, who recently became a project manager at Houston-based real estate developer Hines after 10 years at Cushman Realty Corp. “I have women call me all the time asking, ‘Should I get into commercial real estate?’ It’s a situation where you have to be tough and strong. It’s a competitive business.”

Progress, however, is generally slow. While the male-dominated industry started to become more integrated in the ’70s, women do not appear to be making the kind of professional strides in commercial real estate that they have in other industries. In fact, since no one keeps statistics on the subject, it’s even unclear whether there are more women in the business today than a decade ago.

The dozens of women and men interviewed for this report give widely varying perspectives on the amount of progress being made.

“There are more women I’m dealing with and they seem to be in higher positions than when I started,” said Clare De Briere, who has been in real estate eight years and is a vice president at the Ratkovich Co., a development firm.

Nancy Stark, a first vice president at CB Richard Ellis, said she has noticed that many more of her clients are female, compared with 15 years ago.

But others look around and actually see fewer women in the field.

“People have been reluctant to get into it. They tend to look at it as a boy’s club,” said Amy Raine, a senior broker who does retail and office deals at Cushman. She added that women may be more averse to working strictly on commission and handling the ups and downs of a real estate cycle especially as other industries have opened up and given them more choices.

The recession of the early- to mid-’90s also served to weed out a lot of people, men and women.

“A lot of women got out of brokerage or went in-house or did something else,” said Kathy Schloessman, who was a downtown broker at CB Richard Ellis (then CB Commercial) for a decade and then went into management before becoming president of the L.A. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Those women who have made a career out of commercial real estate are spread across all sectors. They lease space to blue-chip law firms and major entertainment companies, oversee development at small, entrepreneurial operations and national powerhouses, manage portfolios for fund advisors and play key roles in acquisitions and leasing for real estate investment trusts.

Women like Darla Longo at CB Richard Ellis and Lynn Williams at Cushman have brokered numerous large industrial and office deals, respectively, and are among the most high-profile commercial brokers in the region.

There are also women who may not be as widely known outside their specialties, but have excelled just the same. Vilma Chau at Lee & Associates, for one, has been liquidating a huge portion of the Ralphs grocery store portfolio. And Marva Smith Battle-Bey has developed a retail center and apartments in the inner city.

Several women got into commercial real estate via banking, including Ellen Bellandi, now a partner at Real Estate Capital Group, and M’Liz Callender, a senior project manager for Hines’ Western region.

Despite these individual success stories, there are no sizable brokerage firms, investment companies, property management agencies or developers in Los Angeles that are headed by a woman. A handful of women have managed to hit the more senior ranks of management, but virtually all have male bosses.

“It’s still a small, select group (of women in commercial real estate), unfortunately,” said Howard Sadowsky, senior regional manager for brokerage Julien J. Studley. “We seek them out, but it’s hard to find them, and hard when we do find them, for them to click.”

Why is that?

“It’s an enigma. There’s no question this is a tough business,” Sadowsky said. “In the past, I recall incidents where certain people didn’t believe that women are as tough in negotiations. They can be as tough as men. There’s no question they can do the job and can do it as effectively as men. (But) they have to work harder to prove themselves.”

On that last point, nearly everyone agrees. Women who have made it to the upper ranks say they must work harder than their male counterparts to get respect. They say they are often judged more harshly on their effectiveness and it can be harder to get promoted to the top rungs.

The biggest challenge is overcoming the stereotypes men tend to place on them. Because there traditionally have been so few women in positions of power, men often fail to take them seriously, or to assume they are lower-level employees.

“Generally, the most challenging part is to have people realize I’m not a secretary, I’m an officer of the company,” said DeBriere said. “It’s not so much lately. But that was the biggest problem most people assumed that because you’re a woman, you’re an administrative assistant.”

Women brokers complain that when they’re on a negotiating team with a man, the men on the other side automatically think he is the real power player and direct most of their conversation toward him. Indeed, they say male brokers will sometimes bring an attractive woman into a meeting simply as window dressing making it all the harder for other women to be taken seriously.

Several women said they have learned to deal with such situations, to speak up volubly and demand attention. And they’ve learned to play the game, dress the part, speak the language and even bring a male counterpart if they sense there will be resistance.

Some sectors of commercial real estate appear to be more accepting of women than others. Property management has a higher proportion of female executives than other areas such as brokerage or development.

In fact, some women executives complain that their male bosses often try to shuffle them into the property management field, because it is seen as more of a “female” role.

One area that remains a male stronghold perhaps more than any other is industrial brokerage. “It’s not a good business for women. It is a chauvinistic world,” said one male industrial broker. “Men tend to want to deal with people they can speak to more easily.”

Although strides by women have been slow to happen, many agree that things will continue to get better. Even now, women have been much more accepted. Real estate has become less clubby and more professional, with what you know taking precedence over whom you know, said Jerry Porter, president of Brentwood-based Cresa Partners.

“As we get away from entrepreneurial real estate to more corporate decision making, it has to do with having financial skills and negotiating skills,” Porter said.

And brokerage firms have begun to realize that it’s often to their advantage to have women on leasing teams, as more clients have women as well.

“When you have a female on the team, you distinguish yourself, it’s not all guys, all suits,” said David Thurman, a partner with Concorde Real Estate Partners.

Callender, who was the only woman project manager when she joined Hines in 1992, is now one of five in the region for the company.

“I’m frequently the only woman in a room, but I don’t feel people are surprised anymore to have women in a position of responsibility. The advantage is, when you speak up, people listen,” Callender said.

Eventually, as women climb the ranks at all types of established real estate firms, it follows that more and more will form their own companies. A handful of boutique agencies led by women already exist, such as Van Nuys-based Kirnan Commercial, which represents a number of major retail landlords in the San Fernando Valley area.

Meanwhile, others are waiting for their chance to branch out on their own.

De Briere, who is handling the development of a 70,000-square-foot building in the Mid-Wilshire area and the Terminal Annex downtown for Ratkovich, says eventually she wants to start her own boutique.

“That’s my ultimate goal,” she said. “I love development. It’s fun. I love the entrepreneurial nature of it.”

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