Miles to Go on the Road to True Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Rya Hazelwood

Miles to Go on the Road to True Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

By John Salustri

There’s good news and bad news to be had in the subject of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). First, the bad news. The commercial real estate industry still has a long way to go. The good news is that years of progress have all-but vanquished the Good Old Boys Network.

“We’ve made great strides,” says Marcus Rose, senior real estate manager for NFI in Camden, NJ. “We can see efforts across all the disciplines, as well as in leadership. Of course, there’s always room for improvement.”

Indeed. But real estate isn’t alone. Looking at the broader marketplace, JLL reported recently that 85% of Fortune 500 CEOs were men. In Asia, that number soars to 96%. It also underscores the difference between diversity and equity. For every $10 a man earns, a woman pulls in $8.


Strides, of course, are being made, blows landed against bias. In a recent SIOR webinar, president-elect David Lockwood pointed to industry initiatives to augment commissions with a stipend to ease the burden of starting brokers, including women and people from lower-income backgrounds. 

Those strides are also being reflected in industry leadership. Cushman & Wakefield recently appointed its first female CEO, joining an impressive roster of previously underrepresented types in its Americas leadership roster. (Want a litmus test for inclusion? Go to a company’s website and scan its leadership page, suggests Eric Zahniser, a managing principal of Cresa in Conshohocken, PA.) And of course, on the association side, both IAMC and SIOR can boast of females at the helm. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done,” says SIOR president Patricia Loveall. “But there’s been a diligent commitment and focused effort to make a meaningful DEI impact. We’re not just talking about it.”

The numbers remain problematic, however. A late-2022 survey of global real estate firms–sponsored by seven industry associations–revealed the following: In descending order, the white population was 39.1% male, 25.5% female; Asian: 5.9% for both genders; Hispanics/Latinos came in at 5.2% and 4.4%; Black or African Americans: 3.1 and 3.7%; Multiracials: 1.5% and 1.1%; Aboriginal/ Indigenous/Native Americans: 0.1% and 0.2%; and Pacific Islanders: 0.1% for both genders.


So, what more should we be doing to correct the shortfalls in representation and equity? “The companies we work with want us to look like them,” says Zahniser plainly.

Add to this the added pressure of ratings agencies looking for companies to increase their scorecard in environmental, social and governance (ESG) protocols, and that being applied by potential job candidates who increasingly want to work for companies with a strong ethical mindset. 

“DEI is important not only for the well-being and cohesiveness of your workplace environment, but also because the growth of your company depends upon its ability to attract and retain new employees and customers,” says Rose. “DEI brings value because everyone has a different perspective. And at the end of the day, that brings value to your customers.”

A Joint Effort

So, what needs to be done to achieve true diversity, equity and inclusion? “It’s not enough to verbally commit,” says Loveall, who is also an EVP at CBRE in Seattle. “Actions have to back up words.” And those actions must start with a program of measurable metrics. “We need to define what success looks like.”

Rose agrees: “You’ve got to define what diversity and inclusion means and why it’s valuable to your company. If you don’t understand those two pieces, there won’t be a foundation to build on.”

All of which means that a truly ingrained DEI protocol must start at the top. “Leadership should commit to diversity at all levels of the organization,” says Zahniser, and it has to filter everywhere, throughout the organization.

And while DEI’s marching orders come from the C-Suite, it finds its voice at the front door. “There’s too much emphasis on hiring people from the country club for some business benefit,” he says. Instead, he suggests spreading job opportunities to more diverse schools, including community colleges, and posting them in different socio-economic areas. 

Rose also advocates for spreading the word of careers in commercial real estate at an earlier age. “We have to improve the general awareness of commercial real estate as a career,” he says, which is achievable, at least in part, by promoting the field in public high schools, and in private and charter school environments. “I never knew commercial real estate was a career. Promoting it to earlier ages will expose a more diverse audience,” including people of color, women and the LGBTQ community and “grow your potential workforce.”

But Loveall says that individuals themselves looking to move up the chain need to find their voice. Yes, on one hand, management needs to “lean in, commit and set people up for success.” But those people need to take an active part in that success. 

“It’s a risk issue on the part of the individual,” she says, “a resistance to taking on the risk, and that’s what stops them from getting noticed. If I were going for an opportunity against a man, I want people to know I’m remarkable, so they’ll say, ‘I like the way Patricia thinks.’ It’s an opportunity for me as a woman to find those things that say, ‘This is why I’m different.’ In short, she says, “people need to face the risks and trust their own voices.

Leadership has to embrace rather than run from those voices. “It’s on leadership to use workforce surveys to gauge if they’re really walking the walk,” says Zahniser. “A company website might proclaim that DEI is their Number One priority. But an anonymous survey might reveal that people in the LGBTQ community are feeling marginalized.” 

The problems with such surveys are twofold: First, despite anonymity, people might fear for their jobs. Second, according to Gallup data, “only 8% of employees strongly agree that their organization takes action on surveys.” Talk about walking the walk.


“Again,” says Zahniser, “it’s on leadership to use the survey process to see if what everyone is saying matches their public message. And if not, there needs to be corrective action.”

Three truths abide: 

1) DEI is a joint initiative. Everyone, including those in underrepresented groups, needs to advance the dialog. 

2) It has to filter through the ranks, but it starts with an aware and committed leadership.

3) DEI isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. 

“It’s impossible to argue that bias doesn’t exist,” says Loveall. “We all have to take a strong voice against bias and stereotyping, to lean in and be that champion. We need to be responsible for creating our future.”

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