Smoked-filled rooms and closed-door dealings with smarmy handshakes and a smug boys’ club mentality are an archaic relic primarily regulated to the past in today’s real estate development industry.
Women have earned seats at the table as powerful players with executive titles to match among some of the premier names in the development world of Greater Lansing. Yet although they have played crucial roles in helping to shape the future of the region, at times there are still lingering remnants in corners of the industry clinging to the outdated stigma that the work of development and construction are a “man’s job.”
“What I have learned over time is that there are at least two types of sex-based prejudice against women in the field, and two types of discrimination that present,” said Terri Fitzpatrick, chief operating officer and vice president of development for Boji Group. “The first is obvious discrimination: men who just think they know more about something because they are men. But the second is more insidious: those that don’t even realize they are being sexist.”
One relatively recent experience came after Fitzpatrick delivered an energetic speech that drew an enthusiastic response from the audience. Afterward, she was approached by a gentleman who inquired if a particular male colleague had written the address. At other times, people have assumed that Fitzpatrick reports to a male subordinate.
“What I have learned in the business and in life, it really is a small world,” Fitzpatrick said. “Long after the deal is done and details become a fading memory, people will remember how you made them feel. So how you treat everybody is important, no matter what your connection is today, because I can change on a dime or in 10 years.”
For Rachel Michaud, vice president at Gillespie Group, responding to uncomfortable scenarios with a high level of professionalism and decency is a cornerstone of good leadership. Knowing how to disagree with someone is important, and strength can be found in the constructive challenge of opinions, she said.
“I find it far more empowering to embrace what I ‘am capable’ to do rather than to put much energy into what others may think about what I am or am not able to do,” Michaud said. “I believe in the power of a team and the unique abilities and perspectives that each of those team members brings to the table. In fact, I believe one of my ‘uniques’ is that of my perspective, both as a professional and as a woman. I take pride in embracing both.”
At the start of her career, Gina Pons-Schultz, vice president of operations at T.A. Forsberg Inc., said there were frustrations at not being taken seriously; however, she added that she had great leadership in her corner working to erode such antiquated presumptions. The most important thing, she said, is to let your work and reputation do the talking for you.
“You cannot change mindsets, but you can let people get to know you and your work ethic and see what you bring to the table,” Pons-Schultz said. “Knowing that people have that presumption is what has driven me throughout my career to constantly work on being more knowledgeable in my field, because you always have this feeling that you have to be the best at what you do.”
And attitudes are changing. More women are earning spots in the board rooms as well as up and down the ranks in the field. Amy Baumer, vice president of the Christman Co., said she’s noticed a general shift toward a greater understanding of the benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion. That shift may be happening slowly, but it’s happening.
“Thankfully, throughout my career I have had a strong voice and a seat at the table. That being said, I am frequently one of the few women at the table,” Baumer said. “Only 9% of the current construction workforce is female, and it’s not commonly on the shortlist of dream jobs for young women. Organizations like Women in Skilled Trades are doing great work to break down barriers through efforts like their Apprenticeship Readiness Program. With activities like this underway, I expect we will see increasing numbers of women joining the construction arena in the future.”
The benefits and the milestone celebrations are incalculable, she added, noting that construction and real estate development is one of the rare fields where the fruits of your labor stand the test of time and benefit entire communities.
“There’s nothing better than seeing a new structure rise up out of the ground or an iconic building restored to its former glory and knowing that it will change the way children learn, patients heal and companies thrive,” Baumer said. “The work is demanding. It requires strong teams, active communication and often has inflexible deadlines, but seeing tangible evidence that you’ve contributed to something that matters and will last for years to come is incredibly rewarding.”