PERE CFO: How to overcome industry biases against women

To tackle underrepresentation of female professionals, the private equity real estate industry needs to first address certain misconceptions, speakers said.

When it comes to female representation in private equity real estate, the numbers do not present an overall positive picture.

Asked during an audience poll if women were adequately represented in their respective organizations, 62 percent of delegates at this week’s PERE CFO/COO Forum in New York said yes. In terms of non-administrative roles, 48 percent believed that women were adequately represented.

For those that believed that women were underrepresented at their organizations, 30 percent of respondents said they were cultivating and developing current staff members, while 13 percent were recruiting candidates outside and another 13 percent were creating long-term change to elevate more women into leadership positions. However, a full 43 percent answered that they had no such efforts underway.

One speaker on the “Elevating the role of women in the industry” panel on Wednesday noted that she was the first and only female partner among six partners at her firm. However, the organization had zero women in asset management or on the deal side in the US. Interestingly, the firm had significantly higher female representation within their Brazil team, with 32 women in asset management or investments.

The speaker said her firm was making more efforts to interview more female candidates for positions. However, because men are often making the hiring decisions at the organization, “we need to invite more men into the conversation,” she said. “People tend to look for people similar to them, people they can see themselves traveling with. It’s a perception that people aren’t aware of.” Having other women present at interviews also is helpful, she added.

Meanwhile, she was encouraging younger women to increase their visibility and strengthen their ties within the firm. “Younger women are not as comfortable networking internally or speaking up at meetings,” she said. “That’s something managers should be encouraging. There are people I know who are super smart who don’t understand the utility of forming better relationships within the organization.”

Another panelist said there needed to be a shift in corporate culture, where employees, both male and female, currently have to apologize for taking time off to attend school events or meetings or take care of elderly parents. “You don’t need to say sorry,” she said. “It should be, ‘Let’s just figure out what we need to do to get things done.’”

But not everyone in the audience correctly understood the concept of a flexible work schedule. One delegate, for example, asked the panel how it was feasible for someone to work three days a week in acquisitions.

“Most people asking for flexibility, they’re not asking to work three days a week,” one panelist responded. In fact, “some people who have a family are among the most productive and the most responsive on my team. They may not be at their desks all the time, but they’re emailing me at all times of the day.” Greater work flexibility to accommodate family needs was particularly important for the firm’s younger employees, regardless of gender, she added.

Another speaker added: “I never went part-time. I just worked some of it at home so I got to eat dinner with my kids.”

The “Elevating the role of women in the industry” featured Amy Boyle, chief financial officer and chief operating officer at GTIS Partners; Karen Holdridge, regional general counsel at Boston Properties; and Sam Chandan, academic dean at the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate. Yesenia Scheker, partner at KPMG, moderated the session.