Survey Results of Women in the Industry

Through the ULI database and a survey of female members of ULI in the United States, the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) has gathered data about the level of leadership women have achieved in their careers in the real estate and land use industry. This section focuses on what WLI has learned about where women work and in what roles, where they stand in their careers, specifics about women who have advanced to C-level and executive roles, and the perceptions women have at different life stages regarding their pace of career advancement. The Assessment of Approaches to Advance Women describes WLI’s findings about the most effective approaches to advance women in their careers, and the Recommendations for Action for Organizations lists the top ways organizations can weave together these distinct approaches to create meaningful change.

Women make up 25 percent of ULI’s membership, but only account for 14 percent of its CEOs.

While progress has been made in advancing women within ULI and the industry overall in the past decades, there is still a long way to go before gender balance is achieved.

Women are much more likely to be at the helm of smaller organizations. Some venture into starting their own businesses because this gives them more freedom to create a workplace that reflects their values. Other women report moving to smaller firms because roadblocks hinder their advancement at larger firms.

In terms of dynamics specific to the industry, ownership of many real estate firms is closely held within families and passes from father to son. Sometimes it takes a daughter or a strong outside female leader to advance to the CEO positions in the field.


Among survey respondents, 93 percent of female CEOs oversee small firms with fewer than 100 employees.

With such a small number of female CEOs in the industry overall, even fewer run larger firms. Of the female CEOs surveyed, only 7 percent lead organizations with more than 100 employees.

The survey results show that 12 percent of those surveyed are in a president, CEO, executive director, or similar role. The infographic illustrates that of that 12 percent, just under one-fourth are solo entrepreneurs, and just over half are leading firms with 2 to 20 employees. Another 15 percent lead firms of 21 to 100 employees, leaving only the 7 percent who are leading organizations with more than 100 employees.

The data indicate that in order to retain and develop talent, it is key that organizations in the real estate and land use industry pay attention to implementing the Recommended Actions for Organizations.


Female CEOs of survey respondents by organization size

Development, architecture, and professional services firms and the government provide the best opportunities for women to move into executive leadership roles.

Women who have reached the CEO and executive levels (C level just below CEO) are most likely to work in professional services (19.2 percent), in development (16.5 percent), in architecture and planning (15.1 percent), or in a government agency (13.7 percent).

It is not surprising to see a large number of women at professional services firms, which collectively have invested significant resources in advancing and retaining women over the past 20 years. In 2015, Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte US, and Lynn Doughtie, CEO of KPMG, became the first women promoted to the top slots for a big-four professional services firm.

“The focus on retention and advancement has led more women in the profession to achieve that top spot,” Doughtie said in a Washington Post interview. “We’re beneficiaries of those efforts.”

In the architecture field, 43 percent of undergraduate degrees and 47 percent of graduate degrees are granted to women, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, so a relatively large number of women are entering the field.

Because government agencies are typically active in recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce, it is also not surprising that they are advancing women to senior levels.

Case studies on EDENS, Forest City Ratner, and Prologis all provide examples of real estate development firms that embrace the strengths women bring to leadership in the field.


CEO and C level distribution by industry sector for survey respondents

Over two-thirds of the women surveyed have aspirations of running an organization; women frequently change jobs or form their own firms to secure greater responsibilities.

Overall, the group surveyed is highly ambitious, with 68.6 percent aspiring to reach C-level positions or own their own business. The group is generally optimistic: over 70 percent view their pace of career advancement as either on track or more rapid than expected.

Workplace flexibility and generous maternal/parental/family leave are least important to baby boomers, most of whom are past the life stage of raising a family. Those who are likely to be in the life stage where they are contemplating or are raising families—those in generations X and Y—value these benefits even more highly than other demographic cohorts.

For those who find their careers lagging expectations, visible and challenging job assignments, an inclusive workplace culture, and networks outside their organizations have been less important thus far than they are to those who describe their careers as either on track or ahead of schedule.

The research conducted by WLI reveals a group of highly ambitious and successful women who have reported what they credit for advancing their careers and what they think organizations should make a priority in the future. The opinions of women leaders in the field regarding the direction organizations should take provide a unique perspective. Learn more about what they had to say in the Assessment of Organizational Approaches to Advance Women and the Recommendations for Actions by Organizations.

The survey also found that women change jobs throughout their career. For example, a significant number of women with fewer than three years with their current employer have a long tenure in the industry.  The survey data showed that 20 percent of women with over 20 years of experience and 32 percent of women with 11 to 20 years’ experience have been with their current organization for less than three years. The fastest way to advance in a career is often to move to a new employer.

There is also a trend toward women increasingly starting their own businesses in the field—consistent with a 2013 American Express study. The number of woman-owned businesses in the United States rose by 68 percent between 1997 and 2014—double the growth rate for businesses started by men. That trend is accelerating: the same study indicates women are starting an estimated 1,288 companies every day, up from 602 in 2011–2012.


Top chart: Career aspirations of survey respondents Bottom chart: Satisfaction with pace of career

Younger women at the start of their careers feel like they are advancing faster than expected, whereas midcareer women are more likely to feel stalled.

Millennial women are slightly more likely than women in other generations to experience their careers as advancing more rapidly than expected. Those in generation X are most likely to be frustrated with the pace of their careers, with 32.2 percent seeing it as lagging expectations.

Following a period of early-career growth with promotions achieved through success in challenging work assignments, some women have a sense that that their momentum is stalling midcareer. It pays at this stage for employers to step up career mentoring while also supporting connections to external networks through trade groups and local/regional business networks. Women find that involvement with others outside their organization often spurs innovation and continued learning.

Millennials may benefit from recent findings showing that young women entering the workforce today are at near pay parity with men. A Pew Research Center survey found that young women under age 32 now make 93 percent of what their male counterparts earn, up from 67 percent in 1980. The Pew research found that despite starting off their careers in a more equitable work environment than their predecessors, millennial women are almost as likely as their more experienced colleagues to perceive challenges in terms of being treated equally by society and their employers. Hence, it is essential for organizations to create a culture that is inclusive that results in women being treated the same as men in the workplace.


Respondent Involvement in Community

The majority of women at the level of chief executive officer or executive (the C level just below CEO) serve or have served on boards or in leadership positions for nonprofit or religious groups (62.8 percent) or for industry groups (59.2 percent). While just 20 percent of these executive women serve on corporate boards, they are much more likely to fill these senior roles than are women who are at an earlier stage in their careers.

A high level of community involvement extends below the CEO level: nearly half of all women surveyed (48.3 percent) serve on community nonprofit boards. Aspiring sole proprietors rate involvement in networks outside their organization as more important to their success than does any other group, both in the past and going forward, presumably for reasons of business development.

Involvement in these external roles plays a key role in development of leadership skills. Many women leverage these external leadership experiences, which often make them better prepared for leadership roles within their own organization. Support for employee involvement in external organizations demonstrates the active role firms are taking in their communities. Some of the exemplar companies in this report support women taking on board roles with nonprofit groups in their communities.


Geographic Diversity

The WLI survey garnered 1,234 responses from a diverse audience mirroring the ULI membership and the real estate and land use industry as a whole.

The geographic mix of those surveyed reflects ULI’s membership by region. The findings in this report about the best ways to advance women and WLI’s recommendations for action are based on the opinions of this nationwide audience.


Who Responded to the Survey

Diversity of Industries

Survey respondents work in a wide variety of organization types within the real estate and land use industry. The largest sectors represented are professional services firms (17 percent), development companies (15 percent), architecture and planning firms (13 percent), and government or agencies (12 percent).


Diversity of Roles

Survey respondents represent a wide variety of professional roles within these varied industries. The roles constituting the largest share are developer (12.1 percent) and project manager (9.9 percent).


Size of Organizations

The majority of survey respondents (57 percent) work for firms with 100 or fewer employees. Because of this large proportion of smaller firms, WLI is very interested in learning more about the development approaches not requiring significant resources that these organizations can take to advance more women. Most published research draws from the experience of very large firms, such as those in the S&P 500. The WLI research draws from the experience of women who work in firms of all sizes, with strong representation from smaller firms. Just 15 percent of respondents work in organizations with more than 5,000 employees.


Tenure in Industry

This survey gathered information from women with a range of perspectives in terms of tenure and generations. The priorities for actions for organizations given in this report are informed by the opinions of the leaders of today and tomorrow.

Over 50 percent of those surveyed bring more 11 years of experience to the table; there also is strong representation among those who are beginning their careers, with more than 20 percent having fewer than five years of experience. This report’s recommendations touch on what is most important to women in the industry at different career and life stages.


Generation of Survey Respondents

With the number of baby boomers in the industry expected to decrease each year as many retire, it is important to take note of the ever-growing gen-Y demographic, which will continue to add people to the industry after its members graduate and enter the workforce. It is important that organizations pay particular attention to approaches like workplace flexibility, which are particularly important to this age group.