Women In Commercial Real Estate Battle In Boys’ Club

By Corilyn Shropshire

Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  Great Q&A with Lisa Davidson, one of the top women in business in Chicago. Davidson has made her career in the commercial real estate industry in which many of the top brass, mostly men, have been “apprenticed” by those who came before them. Davidson has a great perspective on what it takes for a woman to make it to the top and stay there. Doing things her OWN way!


After 30 years helping companies find and develop their perfect workspaces, Lisa Davidson is still an anomaly. As a tenant representative for commercial real estate firm Savills Studley, Davidson is one of a few women in a mostly boys club.

As executive managing director in the firm’s Chicago office, Davidson has facilitated office deals for the likes of ADM, Morton Salt, Integrys and the Chicago Stock Exchange.

In an industry in which many of the top brass, mostly men, have been “apprenticed” by those who came before them, Davidson, 52, credits hard work and perseverance for propelling her to the top of her industry. She recently returned from a trip to Rome where Savills Studley gathered its top 100 performers, only a handful of whom were women.

Davidson’s working-class background, she was the first in her family to attend college, has always been a source of pride and motivation for her. She’d never heard of Northwestern University when a local restaurant owner, Maury Andes, suggested she apply and she didn’t know much about commercial real estate when she took her first job in 1985. “I only knew I needed to make money and help pay my parents’ rent,” she said.

Davidson spoke to the Chicago Tribune about thriving in an industry where the women are few and far between and how she’s making small but obvious steps to change that. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What exactly is a tenant rep?

A: It’s definitely a job I’d never heard of before I got into it. (Laughs.) We represent the interests of companies, corporations, law firms, tech companies, any company that leases office space. We advise clients: Whether it’s renewing their existing office space, or growing, shrinking, relocating or opening a new office, we come in as an adviser … and quarterback the entire process.

Q: How did you get into this business?

A: When I graduated from college, from Northwestern, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I grew up in a working-class family. I lived in a little apartment with my parents. I knew that the only way I could get out of there and get my own place was if I had enough money. I remember at Northwestern, when the heads of companies spoke (to students), many of them said they started out in sales. I just thought “I’m going to start out in sales.” I didn’t care about the industry.

Q: Why are there so few women in your field?

A: I wonder that myself, because I haven’t seen it change in 30 years. Partially, it’s (an) old boys network. And partially I think it’s because it’s somewhat of an apprentice-type job and someone takes you onto their team and people tend to hire those that look and feel like themselves. The one change I have seen though, the women who do what I do are more apt to connect and collaborate. When I was younger, the women wanted nothing to do with each other. It was almost like … it felt more competitive because you were just one of a few women. Today, I think that’s really different.

Q: What are the challenges to being in a professional environment where there are so few women?

A: I think it’s challenging within a company having that kind of culture, where the men collaborate with each other. For example, the young men at my company may get together with other men from other offices to go on a ski trip and get to know each other, and refer business. I can’t do that. I’m not going on a ski trip with the other men in my company. And there’s not enough women to make a trip of your own. So it’s hard from a social, networking or collaboration standpoint. I think particularly … if your demeanor is softer … you’re at an even bigger disadvantage because they have certain stereotypes about that. Initially at least, (they) may not take you as seriously.

Q: Do you think people perceive you that way?

A: I think so. Because when people get to know me I have often heard “Oh wow” if somebody had met me and maybe didn’t know things I’ve accomplished. I think they are making some judgments. I’ve been underestimated.

Q: How do you get around that?

A: I’m sure a lot of people feel underestimated. And first of all, you can’t always get around it. Some people are just gonna view you in a certain way. Be patient. You have to give an opportunity to get to know you and prove yourself, and yeah, sometimes you have to prove yourself more than the guy next to you, which can be really frustrating. Stay optimistic. And don’t be afraid to talk about your achievements and things you have overcome.

Q: I’m sure a lot of women out there struggling to move up in their careers would like to know how you managed to get ahead despite not being a member of the old boys network?

A: Not getting mired down in bitterness, which is easy to do. Keeping your head down and finding a different way. Instead of trying to push your way into being a part of their group, you just find a different way.

Q: What different way?

A: When they were busy networking, I was doubling up on cold calling. When they were busy having cocktails together, I was doing research on what were the right companies to call so I wouldn’t waste my time. So you have to work a little harder and smarter. And that’s not fair, but we all know there’s unfair in everyone’s life.

Q: What are you doing to push women forward in your industry?

A: We have something that I think is sort of unique. And that is we’re not completely an all-female team, but we are a mostly female team. Which is an oddity in my industry. It happened by me doing what all the men in my industry do, and that is hiring people who look like me. I began with a partner, hiring Tiffany Winne and I mentored her. She’s now opened another office for the company in Phoenix.

It’s a real pattern interrupt when we walk into a client’s office and we’re trying to get a piece of business and they see this all-female team. It’s something that they aren’t seeing from the other companies they are talking to.

Q: What trends will we see in the Chicago commercial real estate market?

A: Fortunately or unfortunately, I think maybe rents have peaked. And so there’s going to be a more tenant-favorable market. There’s also a real focus on health and well-being. Companies worrying much more about, “How do I get a healthy workplace?” And we are already seeing it.

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