Networking group provides opportunities for women in male-dominated CRE industry

Before forming the West Michigan chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Women Network (CREW), its founding members realized that most of their business leads came from networking with other women. 

“We had mostly great experiences (working in commercial real estate), but we were still shut out of the conversation,” said Alison Dekok, CREW West Michigan’s board president and global accounts manager at Haworth Inc. “Commercial real estate is very much a male dominated industry.”

Alison Dekok and Doris Drain

Women occupy just 36.7 percent of the commercial real estate industry, a percentage that has “not changed much over the last 15 years,” according to a 2020 benchmarking study from the CREW Network, which surveyed nearly 3,000 industry professionals. 

The fixed salary gap between women and men in 2020 remained sizable at 10.2 percent, with a commission and bonus gap of 55.9 percent, according to the study. 

Dekok said building a network is key for women working in commercial real estate.

“You must draw from the expertise from this collective body of women and learn from their experiences and find opportunities for mentorship,” she said. 

Having a network of other women in a range of positions in the industry has been a beneficial tool for CREW Network members to advance their careers and to get advice, especially during the pandemic, Dekok said. In her position at Haworth, Dekok works with various global accounts and navigates complex real estate strategies and purchasing contracts. 

“CREW has really opened up this network to me globally,” Dekok said. “A couple years ago, I used one of my connections through CREW and I was brought in to a large opportunity that would not have existed otherwise.”

The West Michigan CREW chapter includes 44 members and marked its three-year anniversary in November 2021. The chapter is part of a global organization that focuses on bringing together women in different professions across the commercial real estate industry. The global organization was founded in 1989 and has about 12,000 members across all of its chapters. 

West Michigan CREW Board Vice President Doris Drain has had people reach out to her based on her involvement in the organization. Drain is the vice president of commercial loans at Grand Rapids Township-based United Bank of Michigan, where she has worked for 33 years. 

“Even for a seasoned veteran like me, this has still been a great opportunity to meet new people and learn about different roles in the industry,” Drain said. “It’s been fun to be on the ground level and to help grow the organization.”

The CREW Network also has a foundation that grants 30 college scholarships annually to women pursuing careers in the commercial real estate industry. Locally, organization officials have done educational outreach through local colleges and universities, Dekok said. 

“We’re trying to break down barriers for women,” Drain said. “Part of that is bringing awareness to how these are terrific careers that women can pursue. More women are being encouraged to pursue STEM careers now, and that’s what our foundation arm aims to do, too: Let young women who are working on their degrees know they have support and that it’s a viable career.”

Throughout the pandemic, CREW leadership has worked to help members adjust to different ways of conducting business through educational virtual events, Drain said.

“The pandemic has definitely had an impact on the group, and we all had challenges in different ways,” Dekok said. “We saw lots of colleagues lose their jobs, but a lot of them were able to connect and find new opportunities through the group.”

DEI focus

In addition to being dominated by men, the commercial real estate industry is also overwhelmingly white. Of 2,930 industry professionals surveyed by CREW’s global network in early 2020, just 13 percent of respondents identified as Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC). In the study, only 16 percent reported that at least 25 percent of the employees at their workplace are BIPOC. 

The average fixed base salary in commercial real estate in 2020 was $112,290 for men and $100,802 for women, according to the CREW 2020 benchmark study. That 10.2-percent salary gap widens for Black, Asian and Hispanic/Latinx women: White women made 90 cents for every dollar that men earn, Black women made 85 cents, Asian women made 86 cents, and Hispanic/Latinx women made 80 cents.

The CREW Network has made a “huge push” to embrace members from diverse backgrounds and industries across commercial real estate, Drain said.

“We need each other, we learn from each other, and we all need to be a part of that,” Drain said. 

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