The discussion about glass ceilings that prevent the professional success of women seems to have completely ignored the realities of the real estate industry. While there is evidence of a male-dominated upper tier in some sectors of the market, others have clearly achieved something that looks like gender neutrality. Looking at the status and history of those successful sectors can point out a road map for other industries that want to emulate this praise-worthy success.
Residential Real Estate
Women have a dominant position in residential real estate, according to the National Association of Realtors. Their profile of the typical residential real estate agent is a female who is 53 years old. She has attended college and owns the house she lives in. Real estate was probably not her first career choice – only 4% of realtors went straight into real estate – but once in the sector she has become successful.
This path is in keeping with the definition of success outlined by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook in her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.. Sandberg describes success as climbing a jungle gym, not a ladder. She writes that “There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers or re-entering the workplace after taking time off.”
Women have certainly found the path to higher incomes in residential real estate. The median income for a member of the National Association of Realtors was $111,400 in 2016. This is significantly better than the national average of $59,124 per year for workers with a Bachelors degree, and just under 3 times the average of $38,376 for those with some college but no degree. Clearly, women in residential real estate sales have accomplished a remarkable financial success.
This may help explain why 63% of all members of the National Association of Realtors are women, and why 74% said that real estate is their only profession. It is important to remember that the National Association of Realtors focuses on residential real estate, where the buying decision is often made, or at least strongly influenced by, the wife of a couple. The situation is still an “old boys club” in other real estate sectors.
The success of women in the residential real estate market goes back decades to a time when a woman working in, much less owning, a business was virtually unheard of. In 1924, the California Real Estate Association, a member of the predecessor of the National Association of Realtors, formed a Women’s Council. This action reflected the already growing role of women in the industry.
That led to the creation of a national Women’s Council in 1938. This was at a time when 75% of professional women were schoolteachers or nurses, and less than 25% of women even worked outside the home. This groundbreaking association of women not only allowed for more effective networking and mentoring, but it also provided a fundamental recognition that women had already earned a place in residential real estate.
It would take until 1992 that the National Association of Realtors would elect their first woman president, and she has been followed by only 4 others in holding that annual office. Women also are slightly behind men as owners of real estate firms, heading only 44% of firms nationwide as of 2012. Still, when it comes to “taking it to the bank”, women in residential real estate don’t seem to have any barriers holding them back.