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By Barbara Pronin

March 8, 2024


It’s been pointed out for decades that, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards in high heels.” Yet despite the wry, if credible, suggestion that females have at least as much talent, flexibility and gumption as their male counterparts, women still lag far behind men in top-tier leadership roles.

Now, in a time when sexual harassment and business scandals have fueled the issue of gender gap, we asked some of real estate’s top female thought leaders how they are handling the inevitable fallout, and their best ideas for boosting female empowerment in our industry.

What’s your take on the industry’s response to last year’s sexual harassment scandals involving NAR and eXp Realty—and where do we need to go from here?

Stephanie Anton: The sexual harassment revelations were no surprise to me. I felt as though they were a long time coming. Our industry has been slow to move in creating true paths for women to hold executive leadership roles. Personally, that is why I joined the board of What Moves Her, a group sponsored by Anywhere, but open to the entire industry, to ensure that we not only provide opportunities for women in our industry to succeed, but that we do so by creating a safe space for women to be celebrated and recognized for their work.

Bess Freedman: I believe any reports of sexual harassment should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. There is no place for sexual harassment nor discrimination in real estate or in any other industry, and it’s time we really shine a light on enforcing policies that promote safe working environments free from such behavior.

Sue Yannaccone: I have been vocal about the need for our trade association to get its house in order, and that sentiment has not changed. Every company in our industry needs to establish and model the behaviors that protect women in real estate, and that starts with good governance. We need leaders of these organizations to represent the people they serve—which, as we know, is an industry that is majority-woman—and hold everyone truly accountable to a renewed set of codes and policies.

How should the industry be responding to the class action lawsuits? How are you guiding your firm through the fallout?

Dionna Hall: These lawsuits and corresponding governmental agency concerns center primarily around transparency in the industry. There are multiple components at play, but the core element is the lack of consumer awareness as to how real estate in our country is transacted. As lawsuits became an increasingly hot topic, we guided our brokers and agents through the turbulent time head-on.

We invited our brokers to hold VIP sessions throughout our 120 miles of coastline—and our leadership was scenario-planning ways to keep our market consumer-centric. This resulted in a local consumer campaign, “Only a REALTOR®,” expanding our communications campaign and developing an educational series identifying key issues.

My COO and I placed hundreds of phone calls to brokers to discuss their concerns and inform them of the tools and resources we had developed to help them and their agents maneuver the landscape.

Our in-house counsel created a buyer-broker agreement for REALTORS® to present to clients that clearly states the ins and outs of compensation, focusing on commissions being 100% negotiable between agents and consumers.

Our communications team developed and maintained a legal update/legal pitfall micro website for brokers including the most current information on all the issues plaguing our industry. We also share information in our weekly podcast series and provide subscribers with a free subscription to RISMedia—which we find takes a balanced news approach.

Sue Yannaccone: We are proud to have led the industry in settling the class action lawsuits. Our main goal has always been to protect our affiliated agents and franchisees in the process, allowing them to focus on serving consumers. Agents should be able to spend their time providing guidance and advocacy to consumers during one of the most profound transactions of their lives—something that is even more valuable in such a complex market.

I often meet with our franchisees and agents and regularly hear the same themes: so many of them are excited and relieved that they can direct their time and mindshare away from the legal world and into their business.

Is the industry improving its track record on raising up more women leaders? What more needs to be done?

Kamini Lane: It is improving, but there is much more to be done. More women have made industry ranking lists than in previous years—indicating that we are starting to strike a better balance of women in executive leadership roles—but it’s still less than half. Women’s leadership groups, such as What Moves Her, as Stephanie mentioned—and other affinity groups—are critical for learning from one another, supporting one another, and removing barriers for women who have earned senior leadership positions.

Stephanie Anton: That’s true. What Moves Her really helps define paths for continued success. Also, I am extremely proud that almost two-thirds of the brokerages we’ve selected to partner with under the Corcoran brand since launching our first affiliate in 2020 have female ownership. Corcoran itself has a very long history of strong female leadership, and I am proud to be helping to pave the way for other women in the industry.

Ginger Wilcox: While there has been notable progress in promoting women into leadership roles within the industry, as exemplified by the diverse leadership at Anywhere Real Estate, Inc., and a growing awareness among larger brokerages about the importance of succession planning that includes women, there is still considerable room for improvement.

To further this progress, it is imperative that the industry not only recognizes the value women leaders bring to the table, but also actively works to dismantle the systemic barriers that impede their advancement. This includes implementing more equitable hiring and promotion practices, providing mentorship and sponsorship opportunities specifically for women, and fostering an inclusive culture that values diversity at all levels of leadership.

Amy Lessinger: I think the industry is improving its track record, but I always want to see more women in leadership roles. To excel and advance, it often starts locally, as many women leaders in the industry today started as agents. One of the reasons I am most proud to be with the RE/MAX brand is its longstanding policy of expanding opportunities for women.

From the beginning, RE/MAX co-founders Dave and Gail Liniger invited women to join the RE/MAX network as real estate agents. That was in 1973, when the industry was largely male-dominated. But the Linigers, and specifically Gail, who served as CEO and later vice chair of the RE/MAX Holdings Board of Directors, had a big hand in changing the course of the industry. Following their example, for more than 50 years, RE/MAX has prioritized female leadership. Today, you see that reflected in the fact that 43% of RE/MAX franchise owners and 49% of RE/MAX agents are women. At headquarters, I’m honored to be among the 50% of senior leaders who are women.

The fact is that because of the female dominance at the agent level, the real estate industry is in a unique position to be forward-thinking and to instill positive change. As we have shown, systemic changes that enable and empower women are the right thing to do and make good business sense.

Brokerages must actively promote diversity, mentorship programs and equal opportunities to accelerate improvement. Ongoing education and training, flexible schedules and work environments with transparent promotion criteria can help keep women on the path to success.

Bess Freedman: The real estate industry has made some strides when it comes to women in leadership roles. I am fortunate to count myself among them, and it is only because women like Dottie Herman, Barbara Corcoran, Pam Liebman and Sherry Chris paved the way. But when you look at the real estate industry as a whole, we still have a long way to go.

Today, women make up 67% of all REALTORS® in the United States—a strong majority. By comparison, only a small fraction of executive-level real estate roles are occupied by women. While I believe things are starting to change, real estate brands need to be representative of their populations both within and outside the company—and women make up a huge part of the real estate process on both counts. I have always relied on and valued the mentorship of other women in this industry, and I try to give back in the same way to other women. We must uplift one another and pass along what we’ve learned so that future generations of women have a seat at the head of the table.

Kate Reisinger: There is always room for improvement, but I don’t think we can discount the incredible opportunities that do exist in the industry for women’s leadership and growth. As has been said, these opportunities have come to a great extent from the incredible women who paved the way for others—women who founded companies at a time when there were few women brokers, or worked their way up the ranks to hold positions of leadership.

Because of these visionary women, today we see more and more women at the helm of major organizations. In fact, our own board chair is a remarkable next-generation woman leader, Whitney Finn-LaCosta, CEO of Howard Hanna | Coach REALTORS®.

It’s our job to advance a culture where women can speak up, push back, share ideas and influence their respective companies and the industry as a whole by thinking differently.

This responsibility does not just lie with women. Our President/CEO Paul Boomsma is a great example of a leader who is completely inclusive and has created an environment resulting in many women leaders—and many more who are rising quickly in their careers.

When leadership encourages dialogue, innovation and forward-thinking from diverse voices across the board—not just related to gender—barriers are dissolved, and that’s where growth happens.

Sue Yannaccone: It would surely be naïve to declare victory. On the whole, there is still clearly a gender imbalance at the executive level across our industry and others. But I can’t help being excited by what I see every day, both in our firm and in our community of brokers and agents. The majority of our executive leadership seats across our brokerage and franchise brands are now held by women—and we continue to see momentum in the What Moves Her campaign.

But elevating women leaders is a long-term mission. For every woman who earns her seat at the table or at the helm of their business, there needs to be recognition of the victory, because she is paving the way for more women to do the same. I’ve seen firsthand how these stories inspire others to find their voice, hone their expertise or take a risk—and I want to celebrate each of them.

What do you see as the most unique challenges or obstacles women face in the effort to rise up the real estate ladder?

Christy Budnick: In my opinion, the biggest challenge women still face is that most mentors and heads of companies are still men. When you don’t see people who look like you in top-ranking positions, it’s difficult for many women to visualize themselves in those roles. It is most definitely getting better, and I am proud to work with a leader and a company that advocates for women in executive management positions.

Amy Lessinger: I agree. In real estate, as in any field, women can and should excel—and when they see women shattering the glass ceiling and climbing the ladder, they have a path forward. They see themselves reflected, and know that they, too, can achieve.

Real estate is a uniquely entrepreneurial field, where all agents get out of it what they put into it. When women have confidence in their abilities and challenge themselves to achieve more, nothing can stop them. You know, at RE/MAX, we say, “Unstoppable starts here.” We believe iron sharpens iron. When real estate agents surround themselves with other top producers who serve homebuyers and sellers with honesty, transparency and world-class skills, the sky’s the limit. It’s about sharing ideas, collaborating, masterminding, being challenged and rising to the occasion for the benefit of consumers and the industry as a whole. Of course, this isn’t exclusive to women, but applies to anyone looking to advance their career.

Stephanie Anton: I deeply believe that one of the biggest challenges for women in this industry is simply not knowing about the opportunities that are possible. Often in this industry, if you are not “in the room,” you have no opportunity to advocate for yourself. So, while it is important for me as a woman to lean into resources like What Moves Her, and others that celebrate and empower women, if leadership is still male-dominated, women need to proactively create relationships, showcase their value, and demonstrate their abilities to those that are “in the room.”

Dionna Hall: I have been fortunate to not only have many great women leaders pave the way, but also many great male leaders who have encouraged me just as much. From making room at the board table to being invited to join elite think tanks, to signing onto exciting technology ventures, the real estate industry has been very accommodating to me as a young female leader.

The largest obstacle I have faced is a personal one. It is balancing being a hands-on mother and an executive. While some leading membership organizations make that balance harder to achieve, it has also made me that much better. The solution is mindset. There really is not an equal balance in life. Sometimes, one side of your life is going to need more than the other. What is important is that neither group feel like they are short-changed, and when you are with them, you are present and engaged.

Kamini Lane: Yes, the division of household labor and caregiving still tends to fall primarily on women. Data show that even when women are the breadwinners in a household, they are still often doing the lion’s share domestically. This isn’t the case in every household, but we shouldn’t ignore the realities of how these roles disproportionately impact women professionals.

Ginger Wilcox: Another of the most significant challenges women face in advancing within the real estate industry is the limited access to high-level networks and connections that are crucial for upward mobility. Despite the critical role of networking, women often encounter obstacles in reaching these predominantly male-dominated circles. Again, initiatives like What Moves Her are pivotal in addressing these challenges by empowering women with the necessary skills and mindset to navigate and excel in their careers.

Bess Freedman: Remember that, traditionally, real estate companies have been started by men and led by men. Many years ago, many women got into the real estate business to supplement income while their children were in school. It was looked at as a way for stay-at-home moms to make some extra money. That has changed. Real estate is a full-time job that offers incredible success to those that invest in their businesses.

I know many female agents within my brokerage who act as the CEOs of their own companies. It’s incredible how much time and effort they spend behind the scenes, working leads and making deals. It is no longer a man’s industry, and that is reflected in the numbers, but I think public perception has yet to catch up to reality. That’s why I’m not a fan of these real estate reality TV shows. They present a completely false picture of what it’s like to be in real estate, especially for women.

What’s your best advice for women who are looking to advance?

Dionna Hall: Do the hard work first and build a solid foundation to advance from. Know the players, get the education and study the environment so you understand not just the obvious path forward, but also the less traveled paths. Push yourself outside your comfort zone, but beware of burnout. My biggest opportunities for advancement have happened in times of crisis.

Finally, establish an optimistic attitude that will carry you through your journey. When you start to look at challenges as opportunities to grow stronger and better, or as a means to get you where you want to be, it creates an outlook of gratitude that others will naturally be attracted to.

Kamini Lane: Find mentors, both men and women, and a company that recognizes and calls out the unconscious bias toward women and the unfair division of labor. To act like these things don’t exist or aren’t relevant is a problem. Ask for what you need to feel supported. A company that values you will provide the resources and flexibility you need to thrive.

Ginger Wilcox: My advice to women is to embody fearlessness, proactivity and assertiveness. These qualities have been instrumental in my own career journey. Ultimately, the responsibility to shape and drive your career lies with you. You need to own your impact.  Embracing uncertainty as an opportunity rather than as a setback can significantly impact your success.

Networking, establishing meaningful relationships, and seeking mentors are also crucial for gaining diverse insights and perspectives. For resources, I recommend engaging with industry-specific leadership programs, joining professional networks and participating in forums like What Moves Her to enhance your skill set and expand your network.

Liz Nunan: Surround yourself with great mentors! I feel as though I owe a lot of my success to the mentors that I’ve had throughout my career. They provide specific insights and guidance based on their experiences that can help ensure success. A great mentor will counsel you on the skills you need to develop to get you on the path you want to be on. Most of my mentors were strong women leaders, and now I look to give back by helping those that are coming up the ranks. I firmly believe that incredible things can happen when women support other women.

Stephanie Anton: Also, get very comfortable fighting for yourself. If you don’t do it, who will? It is important to become your own marketer and not be afraid to tout your success.

The key to mastering the “humble brag” in a classy and non-boastful way is being mindful and strategic about the messaging you put out and the mediums you use. Additionally, ask for the opportunity, even if you aren’t totally sure you can successfully complete it. You’ll never know if you don’t try, and our industry has a very short memory. You may learn more from trying and not succeeding than from never trying at all.

Christy Budnick: Men have always demonstrated more comfort advocating for themselves to achieve higher pay and promotions. Women, from my perspective, often take a position that, “If I do a good job, my work will be recognized and I will be promoted and earn more money.”  I think it is incumbent on every woman in a leadership position to advocate for other women. But I also believe that women need to become more vocal. Ask for the opportunity to shine on a project and then, when you achieve excellent results, be sure your leadership team knows it. That’s not bragging. It’s doing what men have done for years.

Amy Lessinger: I advocate leveraging the strength of fellow women in the industry and seeking mentorship. I count myself fortunate to be surrounded by a robust network of inspiring female colleagues who provide that.

Ultimately, though, real estate practitioners are often the “CEOs” of their own businesses, shaping their own vision of success. They can pursue a solo venture, assemble a team, open their own brokerages, be however involved as they want in associations and community groups—and pursue leadership roles if they want. The journey varies for everyone. I emphasize the importance of identifying what you want as the first step toward progress.

Kate Reisinger: Be laser-focused on the objective, and work hard to achieve it. Be yourself, and don’t be afraid to challenge conventional thinking. And if you find yourself in a place where your voice is not heard, seek a new opportunity where you can make your mark.

Bess Freedman: Believe in yourself. Find a mentor and stay teachable. Above all, get back up when you get knocked down—and we all get knocked down. Learning to stand back up is how true growth happens.