Constance Moore, chief executive officer of apartment owner BRE Properties Inc., remembers it was almost all men in the office when she started with the company after graduating from college in 1977.
For her first job, as an investment analyst, she asked a tailor to make her traditional business suits because when she made presentations to the board, she didn’t want them to view her as simply young and female -- like their granddaughters.
“I didn’t want to be a novelty,” Moore, 57, said in a telephone interview. Now, while there are “certainly a lot more” women working in commercial real estate, it’s “not as many as you’d like after 35 years.”
Moore has little company. After a year in which two women were named to lead U.S. real estate investment trusts, their gender is still under-represented in the top ranks at commercial-property firms, said Ada Healey, who heads the real estate arm of billionaire Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. When one of the two, Marguerite Nader, takes over as CEO of Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc. next month, five of the 157 companies in REIT indexes compiled by Bloomberg will be run by women.
In the five years through 2010, the share of commercial real estate professionals who are women climbed to 43 percent from 36 percent, according to a survey by CREW Network, an advocacy group. Only 9 percent of female respondents said they held the positions of president, chief executive, chief financial officer or chief operating officer, while 22 percent of male respondents had those jobs. Three times as many men reported earning at least $250,000 in 2010.
Among Fortune 500 companies, females held 14 percent of executive officer positions in 2012, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit researcher studying women and business.
“At its core, real estate is a construction business,” Healey, who is based in Seattle, said in an interview. “Construction has traditionally been more male-dominated.”
Historically, real estate was a family enterprise that sons often joined while daughters typically didn’t, according to Rosemary Scanlon, dean of New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
The gender gap is shrinking at the school, suggesting that more women will be in position to enter the field and advance, she said. About 30 percent of the program’s graduate students are women, up from a decade ago when Schack was “struggling to reach 10 percent” female students, Scanlon said.
“This is an industry that’s growing up,” she said. “They feel now they can carve out a good role for themselves in the future.”
Nader will join Wellington Denahan, who in November was named chairman and CEO of New York-based Annaly Capital Management Inc., the largest REIT that buys mortgage debt.
Their ascent is “a very positive thing” for the real estate industry, which “hasn’t always been in the forefront of promoting women in leadership roles,” said Kathleen Carey, an executive vice president at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.
“In that respect, it’s a big deal,” said Carey, a founding member of the group’s women’s leadership initiative. “I wish it weren’t a big deal.”
At Equity Lifestyle, an owner of mobile-home communities and recreational-vehicle parks founded by billionaire Sam Zell, Nader will replace CEO Tom Heneghan when he leaves to join another of Zell’s companies, Equity International. Nader, 44, started at the Chicago-based REIT in 1993 and was chief financial officer before her promotion, which was announced in October.
She’s taking over as the U.S. housing market climbs out of its five-year slump, which hurt sales of the company’s retirement homes, said Paul Adornato, an analyst with BMO Capital Markets in New York. Nader’s 19 years at Equity Lifestyle and knowledge of its portfolio will help her in the new role, he said.
“She will do a fantastic job as the CEO,” Adornato said.
Denahan, 48, succeeded Michael A.J. Farrell, who died in October. The two in 1996 co-founded the firm, which grew into one of the largest buyers of home-loan debt backed by the U.S. and branched out with separate companies that buy non-agency bonds and commercial real estate securities.
“Wellington’s been there since the beginning,” said Michael Widner, a Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analyst in Baltimore. “She is experienced in interest-rate cycles and the challenges they present.”
Shares of Annaly and other REITs that buy home-loan securities dropped in the fourth quarter as the Federal Reserve bought mortgage bonds to push down borrowing costs and help housing recover. That reduced yields on the securities and may have forced the companies to reinvest at lower rates.
“When your largest competitor is the Fed, that makes for a difficult and unpredictable environment,” Widner said.
Denahan and Nader declined to comment for this story.
The two are joining Moore of BRE, Debra Cafaro of Ventas Inc. and Wendy Simpson of LTC Properties Inc. as REIT CEOs.
“There’s a transition and transformation taking place,” Stan Ross, chairman of the University of Southern California Lusk Center for Real Estate in Los Angeles, said in an interview.
“Women clearly have opportunities right now in the real estate sector in finance, in management, property management, asset management,” he said. “The weak area that needs to increase is the development side.”
Moore, CEO of San Francisco-based BRE since 2005, said one of the highest compliments she ever received was from a man who called her “just a regular guy.”
“I never thought of myself as a female executive,” said Moore, who left BRE in 1983 and returned in 2002 as chief operating officer. “I wanted to be a really good executive.”
In the interim, she had executive positions with Security Capital Group and apartment landlord Archstone-Smith Trust.
Simpson, CEO of Westlake Village, California-based LTC since 2007, agreed. A couple of years ago, a male investor observed that she and CFO Pamela Shelley-Kessler were the only female management team at the companies he invested in or followed. That wasn’t something they thought about, Simpson said.
“It’s not uppermost in my mind and certainly not uppermost in my CFO’s mind,” said Simpson, 63, whose company owns 178 health-care properties in 26 states.
Cafaro, CEO of Ventas since 1999, was named to Institutional Investor’s 2011 All-American Executive Team. Shares of the company, the second-biggest U.S. health-care REIT by stock market value, have risen more than 15-fold since the end of that year.
“I have been very fortunate,” said Cafaro, 55, who became chairman of Ventas in 2003 and is also on the board of Weyerhaeuser Co., a timberland and forest products company based in Federal Way, Washington. “In real estate, where we’ve got some great personalities and great leaders, people respect accomplishment.”
Getting more women into leadership roles will happen gradually, according to Collete English-Dixon, a principal at Prudential Real Estate Investors and immediate past president of CREW Network. Promoting college programs may encourage more women to enter the field, and mentoring will help them advance, she said.
CREW Network and brokerage Cassidy Turley started an initiative in 2011 that matches women interested in leadership positions with others who are doing those jobs. The pairs meet for two hours a month and create an executive-development plan.
Growth of the industry will also open up more opportunities, said Ross of the Lusk Center, where about half of the students in his real estate classes are women, up from about one in 25 a decade ago.
While it will take time to knock down barriers, aspiring executives have two more role models in Nader and Denahan, the first female U.S. REIT CEOs in about five years.
“It’s great to see the new women leaders,” Cafaro said. “We all have to prove ourselves every day. I’m confident that they will.”