The affordable housing space is a pretty female-dominated one — at least from a resident standpoint. An estimated three in four households receiving federal rental assistance are women-led, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In the background, though, the numbers paint a different picture. While there isn’t data for affordable housing in particular, those in the sector say representation lags behind that of men. And in the commercial real estate industry as a whole, only about 37% of professionals are women.
“In affordable housing, the clients and communities we serve are among the most diverse in the commercial real estate industry,” says Alyssa Dangler, partner with Williams Mullen and global president of the Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network. “Reflecting that same diversity of thought and representation of gender, ethnicity, background, and experience is critical in creating an environment that sparks innovation, solves problems, and improves communities and lives.”
Experts say strides are being made toward those goals—but a lot of work remains.
Richelle Patton, founder and president of Collaborative Housing Solutions, has been in the affordable housing space for nearly three decades. When she started in the sector, women’s representation was notably low.
“This industry is very male dominated still, but there's been a lot of progress,” Patton says. “Since I started in the mid ‘90s, there are certainly far more women involved now.”
Patton says she’s seen a particular uptick in women holding leadership positions at state and local housing agencies, as well as more female executives in nonprofit development.
That doesn’t mean a large share of executives are women, though. It’s just a visible improvement from a few decades ago. In fact, according to CREW’s data, only 9% of CRE C-suite positions are currently held by women.
Fortunately, more women aspire to these positions than in recent years. About 32% of women in CRE say they eventually want a C-suite position—a 4% uptick from 2015.
“I really hope for the future that there will be more women who own their own companies,” Patton says. “First, because we bring a unique perspective—you need both men and women to really create great projects, but also in terms of trying to bridge some of the wealth gap between men and women.”
And a bridge is desperately needed. In CRE, the gender pay gap is a whopping 10.2%. If you look at commissions and bonuses, men earn a staggering 56% more than women.
“Little has changed in terms of representation in the industry, leadership roles, and pay parity since the first CREW study in 2005,” Dangler says. “While I have seen some progress for women since I started in this industry in 2006, it has not been enough—or come quickly enough.”
So what can be done to improve gender representation in affordable housing and CRE as a whole? Creating more women-focused networking opportunities is one place to start—something both Dangler and Patton are actively focused on.
In 2007, Patton co-founded the Women’s Affordable Housing Network (WAHN) in Atlanta. What started as a small luncheon has now expanded to dozens of chapters across at least 10 states—with more on the way.
WAHN chapters provide a slew of benefits for members, including monthly networking events, educational opportunities and diversity, equity, and inclusion programming. They’ve even begun college outreach to get more young women interested in the industry.
“We are just starting a program where we're going into colleges and universities in the hopes of raising up people who have never heard of affordable housing before, which many of us in college never had,” Patton says.
Dangler’s CREW Network also helps on the networking front, offering regular events, professional development, leadership training, and more.
Still, more is needed to truly “move the needle,” as Dangler says.
“Industry leaders must address the disparities and treat them as business imperatives,” she says. “Company leaders who implement more progressive, flexible policies for their employees will have an advantage in hiring and retaining women. They must also remain vigilant in conducting equal pay assessments and increase professional development support and funding for women.”
Leaders looking to improve workforce disparities can partner with CREW to support leadership development, networking opportunities, industry research, and more. The network has 12,000 members and boasts dozens of partners across the industry, including Cushman & Wakefield, First American, Camden, and Berkadia.
“The industry is finally starting to recognize the business benefits of bringing women and all forms of diverse talent to the industry,” Dangler says. “It’s no longer just ‘the right thing to do.’ As more companies prioritize recruiting, retaining, and advancing women, the needle will move, and we will see faster progress.”