For a woman who never worked a day of her life selling commercial real estate, Gail Ayers has had a decidedly outsized influence on women who have made it a career.
For more than a decade, Ayers led CREW Network — CREW is shorthand for Commercial Real Estate Women — the nation’s largest organization dedicated to promoting women in an industry still dominated by men.
Although women are increasingly landing middle-management positions in the commercial real estate industry, there’s still a gender gap in senior management at commercial real estate firms, according to a study released in July by CommercialCafe, which tracks industry trends.
“Though the situation has improved drastically over the last couple of decades, when it comes to the commercial side of the real estate business, it seems the upper tier of leadership is still dominated by men,” the study found.
Only 14 percent of top-tier jobs in commercial real estate are held by women, while male employees occupy 86 percent of upper management positions, according to the study.
“Our research indicates an apparent exception at the middle management level, where 67 percent of positions are currently occupied by women, and just 33 percent by men,” according to CommercialCafe. “Yet going up the ladder to the executive level, female representation drops dramatically.”
Mostly, women have had to endure antiquated notions in the commercial real estate industry, including that men have a better chance at winning over clients and closing major deals, while “women tend to be perceived as more emotional and likely to cave under the pressure that comes with the job,” according to the study.
Ayers, through her work in CREW Network, sought to change such outdated perceptions about women.
“We grew exponentially in the past 10 years,” Laurie Baker, the senior vice president of fund and asset management for Houston-based Camden Property Trust and the network’s immediate past president, said of Ayers, who took CREW’s helm in 2005 and now lives in Galveston.
“Gail in that time was a leading voice in promoting the benefits of diversity and gender equality, which ultimately leads to better decision-making and overall success for organizations and the industry.”
Lawrence, Kan.-based CREW Network was founded in 1989 with the goal “to bring together women involved in the many aspects of commercial real estate to exchange information, develop business contacts and help each other professionally.”
“It’s rare to find women networking like men,” Ayers said. “Men might go out for a drink together after work. Most women go home after work. That’s why organizations like CREW Network are so important. They allow women to share ideas.”
Ayers began her career as a mental health professional after earning a bachelor’s degree in social work at East Tennessee State University, near the birthplace of Alamo hero Davy Crockett and close to where she grew up on a dairy farm in the state’s southeast.
“I was going to change the world, make a difference for people,” she said. “While I might not have changed the world, I do know I helped people. I was a good therapist.”
Ayers furthered her education at the University of Maryland, where she earned a doctorate in human development, and then worked as a corporate mediator before joining CREW Network as its CEO.
“I learned how to make changes,” she said of her experience. “I learned that progress comes when people pull together.”
A reluctance to deal with confrontation is not gender specific, Ayers said. Women, however, perhaps because of their relatively recent inclusion in corporate life, have tended to shy from directly addressing it.
Ayers’ expertise has helped them overcome that reluctance.
“I’ve often met women who recognize something is wrong but are afraid to say anything about it,” Ayers said. “A year and a half ago for instance, I worked with a woman who was a senior partner at a Chicago accounting firm. A male senior partner there was abusive toward her, and she was going to leave rather than confront him.
“This is a woman who’s brilliant, absolutely at the top of her game, and she was scared to death to confront him.
“She and I talked every night for a week. I said to her, ‘You’re a senior partner. From a dollars-and-cents point of view, you cannot afford to ignore him.’ And she did address the matter.
“It wasn’t that she confronted him, saying ‘You’re wrong.’ She instead found a way to put her finger on the one thing the male partner might pay attention to — the bottom line.”
Call it the Ayers approach.
“Gail is very calm and she’s great at reading social cues and picking up on whatever the situation requires,” Baker said.
That extends to Ayers’ leadership.
“What’s wonderful about Gail is that everything is collaborative,” Baker said. “It was never the Gail Show. She always said it was her job to listen to the various constituents of our membership.
“Gail knows how to conceive big ideas and put them into actionable initiatives. She pushed us to think big.”
Thanks to that leadership — Ayers retired from CREW Network in February after leading the organization for 11 years — membership during her tenure doubled to nearly 11,000 women, CREW spokeswoman Laura Lewis said.
“Following Gail, our new CEO didn’t have to come in and fix anything,” Baker said. “She just has to keep it going.”