Around a virtual table at The Howard Hughes Corporation, women leaders reflected on their jobs in commercial real estate, the challenges they face, and what they tell other women who want to break into the industry.

Tonja Potter, senior manager of Design and Construction Management, feels fortunate to have worked where her professional growth was supported.

Potter said it was a challenge to gain the experience and confidence to excel.

Tonja Potter (left), Carol Dooney and Karen Cherry. Photo by Stephen Cherry.

“I would feel like my work was not good enough and dwell on my mistakes and decisions,” she said. “II learned to be prepared, ask questions, admit what I didn’t know, pursue the answers and treat others and myself with respect.”

Commercial real estate, which previously had the reputation of being a “boy’s club,” has increasingly become a sector of choice for women.

By 2019, women held 43 percent of commercial real estate jobs worldwide, though there are still significant gender gaps in executive positions and salaries.

Organizations for women in the industry, like CREW Network, hold an important role in helping the next generation of women become future leaders in commercial real estate, particularly in architecture and construction.

“Breaking through in the architecture and engineering side was the traditional path for women who were interested in the industry. Women being leaders on the construction side has only recently started to move forward,” said Carol Dooney, director of Design and Construction Management. “Even still it harkens to a very ‘patriarchal’ system.”

Karen Cherry, vice president of Office Leasing, refers to Potter and Dooney as “rock stars.”

When Cherry entered the commercial real estate brokerage world more than 20 years ago, there were not a lot of women in the industry.

“I had to navigate this new business without a lot of female mentors who I could look up to,” she said. “However, I was fortunate to have found some really great mentors and partners – both male and female – along the way.”

She now believes it’s all in how you look at the challenges.

“Being one of the few women in the business immediately set me apart from the majority of other commercial real estate brokers,” she said.

It’s still not an equal work world by any means, added Dooney, naming the challenges she still faces every day including “being a voice in the room. Being compensated at the same levels as men in the equivalent position.”

Cherry chimed in that inequalities are immediately apparent.

“Once I began working for a commercial real estate developer, I realized that it’s not just a problem in the brokerage community. There is still room for improvement when it comes to diversity and equal representation at the highest levels of the commercial real estate industry,” she said.

All three serve as mentors for other women in the industry, a role they see as vital for the future.

Potter advises young women to get involved with a related organization that interests them.

“The industry seems to be more unstable now, and the more people you know the easier it is to find opportunities, plus it’s a great way to learn,” she said.

Dooney advises planning, journaling and setting short- and long-term goals.

“Think on paper,” she said. “The desire to do everything electronically doesn’t support those moments of ‘think time’ in goal setting.”

She suggests writing two, five, ten and even 20-year goals. “It’s even more challenging today for young women who will work their whole lives,” she said. “Many women working today will never be full-time homemakers at any point in their lives.”

All three women at Howard Hughes said women need to support each other as they grow their careers.

“As senior women in the commercial real estate field, we also must understand the challenges faced by the next generation of women so that we can support their development into the future leaders of our industry,” said Dooney.

Cherry, who clearly loves her job, said she’s still learning every day.

“My advice would be to always be open to learning from your experiences no matter how junior or senior you might be in your position,” she said. “And don’t take yourself too seriously – life is fun, and your career should be enjoyable, too!

Susan Kim | Staff Writer | The Business Monthly | July 2020 Issue