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A recent study on women in the commercial real estate industry has revealed a significant gender imbalance in the sector, in fields from investment to construction. The 2019 study, conducted by the U.S.-based Commercial Real Estate Women Network (CREW), shows that 15 per cent of the top management positions were held by women.

To mark International Women’s Day next Monday, March 8, we spoke to five Canadian women in the industry about their challenges, successes and what they dream of for the future.

Ouri Scott, Principal, Urban Arts Architecture Inc., Vancouver

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Her background: Ouri Scott works with Indigenous communities across British Columbia, designing community buildings, health centres, cultural buildings, higher-education spaces and multifamily housing. Ms. Scott is Tlicho Dene and grew up in the Dehcho region and in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. She earned a master of architecture at the University of British Columbia and worked at architecture firms in Vancouver.

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An internship at UNESCO, researching traditional knowledge, contributed to her focus working on designs that made sense for Indigenous communities and culture, such as houses with storage space for gear for going out on the land or processing food, or meeting spaces for traditional celebrations or ceremonies.

Challenges for women: After graduating, Ms. Scott worked at a large architecture firm run predominantly by white men. Despite the desire to support women, in reality young white men were given more opportunities there, she says. As a result, Ms. Scott almost ran out of time to get the hours she needed to be registered as an architect.

Many women leave the industry when they have children, Ms. Scott notes. While on maternity leave, she tried to stay connected to the office so as not to fall behind. She also made an effort in workplaces not to be seen as a mother, as she had seen that women who were identified as mothers have less opportunities.

Advice for other women: Accept that you can’t do it all and do not feel guilty about that, Ms. Scott suggests. Lean on friends and families for support.

A dream for the future: “We say we value children and work-life balance, but we don’t model it as an industry,” she says. “Making that be real, we would all be healthier and happier.”

Karen Walker, Senior Director, Tenant Experience, Hullmark Developments Ltd., Toronto

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Her background: Karen Walker started out as an executive assistant at a real estate development company in Mississauga more than a decade ago. When the company was looking for someone to manage a property, she figured, “Let me try this out.” That experience gave her the skills to work for a company that managed properties for Hullmark. Eventually, the company asked Ms. Walker to start an internal department, which now manages about 30 properties with about 115 tenants.

Challenges for women: “In property management, things have come a long way for women,” she says. There are still times, however, when people in trades or construction do not expect her to have solid knowledge of building components, or they gloss over important details.

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When it comes to executive roles, cultural diversity is even more of an issue in commercial real estate, she says. “It is a very white, male-dominated industry,” though the past several months has moved diversity, equity and inclusion efforts (DEI) further ahead, she adds.

Advice for other women: “Your network is everything. Every job I have ever gotten has been by being introduced,” she says. Put yourself outside of your comfort zone, she adds, and volunteer to do jobs outside of your description. “Expand your duties and gain as much knowledge and experience as you can.”

A dream for the future: Ms. Walker would like to see more DEI in the industry, so eventually “it doesn’t matter whether you are Black, white, male, female, or whatever culture you are from.”

Anna Murray, Managing director, global head of ESG, BentallGreenOak, Toronto

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Her background: Originally from British Columbia, Anna Murray moved to Alberta, working in environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) in the oil and gas and mining sectors.

She had spent time at the United Nations Global Compact – an initiative to encourage businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies – and has a master of business administration and a law degree.

Because buildings contribute so much to global greenhouse gas emissions, Ms. Murray brought her focus on ESG to real estate firm BentallGreenOak in Toronto five years ago. She works with global investment management teams, asset managers, real estate services teams and property teams, assessing such ESG issues as the environmental and social impact of investments.

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Challenges for women: It can be hard for women to know whether a company is serious about diversity in leadership, Ms. Murray says. “Women and minorities have to navigate firms past what their mission statement says to fully understanding what practices are in play.”

The other challenge for women is work-life balance, she adds. Ms. Murray at one point was raising three girls, working full-time and finishing a law degree, as well as founding a not-for-profit.

Advice for other women: “Look up to look far” is one of Ms. Murray’s suggestions, meaning that women should research a potential employer’s diversity of leadership, or efforts to diversify.

“Carry as you climb” is another, meaning draw strength from collective, not just individual, successes.

A dream for the future: One of Ms. Murray’s dreams is that ESG becomes a required component in all investment criteria on a global scale, creating a more sustainable future for all.

Another is for equal representation and pay and that women should be equally supported in upper ranks as are men.

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Lara Murphy, Co-founder, Ryan Murphy Construction Inc., Calgary

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Her background: Growing up in Saint John, Lara Murphy “became the neighbourhood kid who did odd jobs.”

She always had her own business, she says, knocking on doors and doing maintenance, then running construction businesses throughout her undergraduate schooling.

She came to Calgary in 2005 and started her own firm. During a commercial project she met Karen Ryan and in 2008 they founded Ryan Murphy Construction. Two weeks after that, the financial markets collapsed.

The company did what was necessary to survive, doing maintenance contracts, tiling washrooms and the like, and built up a successful commercial construction company.

The firm, with revenue just under $10-million, is 70 per cent female and 33 per cent LGBTQ, and is working on other aspects of diversity.

Challenges for women: Ms. Murphy and Ms. Ryan still sometimes feel like outsiders to the network of established players who often win the bids. “It is unusual for a commercial real estate construction firm to be run by women,” she says.

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Advice for other women: Find people who will elevate you, she suggests, adding that it is important to be willing to fail, push your comfort level and try new things.

A dream for the future: Ms. Murphy looks forward to a day when “we wouldn’t have to have an article focused on women doing what we are doing. I want it to be just the norm.”

Joanne Chua, Investment Manager, Grosvenor Americas, Vancouver

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Her background: Joanne Chua joined Grosvenor Americas, a subsidiary of Grosvenor Group, as an executive assistant to the company’s chief investment officer and a senior vice-president of investment in Vancouver in 2012.

“I was brand new to commercial real estate,” she says, but the property investment and development company encouraged her to follow her interests. So, she tried her hand at asset management.

She learned on the job and became an investment manager, growing her portfolio.

Challenges for women: “As an industry overall, there are still some areas where men dominate,” she says, adding she was lucky to be insulated from that where she works.

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Ms. Chua currently sits on the board of Commercial Real Estate Women Vancouver as director of education and outreach, working to build the pipeline of women entering the industry.

Advice for other women: “Get out there and really build your connections,” she says, adding that a strong support network helps women learn the industry and get exposure to the opportunities available to them.

A dream for the future: “I really hope our industry globally can reflect the communities we serve,” she says. “I hope all builders take the approach … to make sure cities are reflective of the people there and are able to support those people.”

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