Looking Through the Glass Ceiling

Is there a glass ceiling barring women from top positions in the real estate industry?

December 1, 1996

In November, Today's REALTOR® published a discussion with Mary Chatton Brown, Julie Davis, and Joan Deal--three national leaders in the industry--on their struggles to rise in what was once a male-dominated industry. In this issue, our panelists examine how women have surpassed men in the number of salespeople and brokers and closed the gap in management and ownership. Next stop, say the panelists, is leadership of local, state, and national organizations. These comments were culled from a discussion held at a NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® meeting earlier this year.

Look Who's Talking . . .

Mary Chatton Brown, GRI Broker-owner of Mary Chatton Brown & Associates Inc., Orinda, Calif., and past president of the Contra Costa (Calif.) Association of REALTORS®.

Julie Davis, CRB, GRI President of Julie Davis Inc. and Selective Properties Services Inc., both in Springfield, Ill., and past president of the Real Estate Brokerage Managers Council.

Joan Deal, CRS®, LTG 1996 president of the Women's Council of REALTORS® and broker at Keller Williams Real Estate, Hurst, Texas. Owns Joan Deal Systems Inc., a training and consulting firm in Hurst.

In this first part of a two-part presentation, the three panelists examine how women are perceived in the industry, why they are perceived that way, and how perceptions have changed.

Deal: I believe the only ceiling that exists is in my own mind, but I'm enough of a realist to know that sometimes you find yourself in arenas that may not have quite the same thinking that you do.

Brown: I believe that sometimes women create the glass ceiling, and it could be the way we're raised. We're just different from men and, I think, raised differently as far as what we believe our capabilities are and what we should eventually be in our life. But there is a glass ceiling out there. It's not about income--because women do make a great deal of money in the real estate industry. But if you talk about positions in the industry, then we start slimming down as far as the numbers go.

Davis: The glass ceiling that we experienced in the early '70s and before was a lot thicker glass than it is now. We've seen a lot of advances from women in our industry over time. I think there are very few glass ceilings left. I think there are certain positions, certain companies, and certain places where it might exist. I also agree that we, to a certain extent, set our own glass ceilings.

What were the barriers like back then, and how did they get there?

Davis: Over the last 25 years, the professionalism of real estate has improved significantly.

Back in the late '60s, early '70s, people went into real estate after they had had a successful career doing something else. Many people started part-time, selling nights and weekends. I started in the business when I was 22 years old. The average age of a salesman was 45. The average age of an owner was 55. It was primarily a male-dominated industry.

I had trouble getting hired, to be perfectly honest, not so much because I was a woman but because of my age. They just didn't believe that somebody in her early 20s could sell real estate. But when you're in a performance-based industry, and if you do well, opportunities have to come your way. I think where the barriers started to come in was in the areas that weren't so performance based--the opportunity to move into management or the opportunity to move into leadership within the real estate organization.

Deal: I spent 10 years with AT&T in a management position that included training of new employees. The male employees I hired and trained started at $3,000 a year more than what I was making. So I left. That situation was not a reflection on AT&T--it was a reflection of the '60s and '70s. Women then were not in the workforce in the numbers they are today, so I think part of what we're dealing with is that our society--the thought processes, the mind-sets, the perceptions--has changed. It's a process; it does not occur overnight.

In real estate sales the only limit on my income was my own. I was paid for what I did--not because I was a female versus a male. And I found it allowed me to have financial freedom and, more important, good self-esteem. It was very difficult to go to work every day and know you were being paid less because of your gender. That's a very negative thing to live with.

What got things moving after you established yourself in a performance-based industry?

Brown: Well, you have to have a mentor, or someone who encourages you in whatever you do. I once worked for a broker who had been in the business since 1949, so he certainly was of an older generation, but he encouraged me to get my broker's license. That shocked me--this was in the '70s. He said get your broker's license--you never know, you may want to hang out your shingle some day. He moved me forward in that direction. Probably because of my mind-set, I wouldn't have done it, because I didn't think I wanted it. You need that kind of encouragement from others.

Davis: Today I think mentors are extremely helpful. Back in the '70s, mentors were essential. A woman could not get into management or into leadership in the association system without a mentor. Today it's helpful but not essential.

Deal: It can be done without that extra boost is what you're saying, and I agree.

Brown: My next mentor was a woman broker I worked for who had been the first woman president of my local association. She said to me in 1981, ''You really should run for president.'' I had not thought about it until that moment. I said, ''What do you mean?'' ''You should; you'd be very good,'' she said. I don't know whether you call that a mentor, but she certainly put the idea in my mind.

Deal: Well, she caused you to believe a little more in yourself, and that's very important in accomplishing goals.

Did the mind-set, the perception, the limitations you grew up with, prevent you from seeing or even thinking of the possibilities?

Deal: My mom never worked until the children were grown and out of the house. When I grew up, my role was to be a wife and mother and to take care of the children first--a career was something that happened to me out of necessity because of the events in my life. And had I not had the mentors I had who said, ''You not only can do this, you have a right to do this,'' to encourage my thinking, I don't know what I would have done.

Davis: People mentor you because it's to their advantage to mentor you. There was a man who was owner-manager of the company I was with who made me believe in myself as a young person. I didn't see the talent or the leadership ability that he saw, and he encouraged me for the broker's license, encouraged me to start teaching and training, and encouraged me to be a branch manager. But there was a reason for that. One of the reasons was that I was a high producer who had a teaching degree and some ability. He saw the package he could put together for the betterment of the company.

Do women have the competitive drive to break the glass ceiling?

Brown: Are any two men equal? No. They fight with each other. They argue with each other. They beat each other up to compete tremendously. I just don't know that we do that. There is this joke: A young man is being interviewed for a job by the president of a company. The president asks, ''And what job would you like?'' And the young man answers, ''Yours!'' Do women think that way? We should. Men want that job. That's the one we should want.

Davis: About 15 years ago, when opportunities started opening up for women, women weren't really put in a very collaborative mode, because if there was only one spot for a woman, you found a woman trying to catch the eye of the man who was going to put her in that spot. Women didn't really want to help one another, because there was only one spot open for a woman, so women were competing viciously for that one spot. Later, a lot of gals got together initially to network. Then what kept them together was they found out it was fun to get together with other women and talk business and politics and economics and all of those subjects that were not considered women's subjects. They found out that women could make up a ''good old gals system'' just like the ''good old boys.'' I mean, it's fun. I think we've learned to like one another, which has helped open doors, too, and break down barriers.

What kind of support can women expect when they start to move upward? Will there be support from other women?

Brown: There's the perception that women don't support one another. And we don't. Because either we're jealous of one another or there's only one spot. That's not going to go away, as I see it.

Deal: I agree it hasn't completely gone away, but I do think it's improving. And one of the benefits we're learning is that we can support one another and still do our own thing, and assist other people up the ladder as well. In a perfect world, we'd all be able to recognize that men in businesses behave in a certain way, and some of the things they do are very good and very beneficial. But women, too, network in their own way and do things that are very beneficial. We can learn from one another and bring the strengths to the table that each has. To me that would be the ideal.

Brown: Why are we talking about the differences? Isn't that interesting? We should really be talking about the sameness of the people on the job, in the workplace, in the club, in the group, in the association, in the office.

Deal: That's perhaps because the barriers aren't completely down in the REALTOR® organization. Maybe that's the next level that we need to break through.

Davis: And that's the next generation.

PART II: In the December issue, the panelists address the problems women encounter in taking on management and leadership roles in their companies and in the real estate organization.

Lucien Salvant is a former managing editor for REALTOR ® Magazine.

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