Increasing Women Leaders in Companies and Associations

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As members of an industry largely populated by male professionals, we see firsthand the need for more diversity. As Katie Culp, president of KSM Location Advisors, noted in a recent blog, diversity leads to better business decisions.

Through our membership in the Urban Land Institute, and as co-chairs of the Indiana district council’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, we’ve also witnessed multiple strategies that both companies and professional associations can use to increase the number of women leaders.

Within Companies

WLI’s goals center around promoting the advancement of women and increasing the number and visibility of women leaders in the real estate industry and in ULI. At the national level, WLI recently conducted a comprehensive research study, Women in Leadership in the Real Estate and Land Use Industry to analyze how women are faring in the industry and what approaches organizations can take to achieve a higher level of inclusivity in their leadership. While the survey is focused on real estate and development professionals, its takeaways apply to all companies as they look to increase inclusivity and empowerment. Here are just some of the highlights from the study:

  • Challenging work assignments, an inclusive culture, and managers who coach matter more to aspiring female leaders than do formal women’s programs and training.
  • Creating an inclusive culture where women thrive includes development of strong internal and external networks and enactment of objective hiring and promotion policies.
  • Female CEOs cite developing external networks as key to their career success and say it should be a top priority going forward.

Within Associations

Through our careers - and reinforced by some of these research findings - we’ve found that professional organizations play an integral role in supporting the growth and development of women, as they help us find mentors, build our external networks, and develop skills that translate to leadership positions in companies. Yet within the professional organizations themselves, there’s room to grow as it relates to advancing women leaders.

Locally, ULI's WLI group is making a concerted effort to promote women in real estate and land use by setting action plans to meet the WLI mission. If you volunteer for a professional association, consider these strategies to support the growth of women leaders.

  • Keep diversity top-of-mind with presenters and panelists. We’ve come a long way, but in many industries, there are still programs and events with few women taking the stage. As meeting and conference planners, it’s important to keep diversity of speakers and leaders top-of-mind. For example, to provide a resource to support more inclusive presentation opportunities, ULI Indiana’s WLI steering committee has put together a speaker directory that lists professional women in the local real estate and development industry and their subject matter expertise.
  • Encourage women to lead. In addition to keeping an eye on potential speakers at events, volunteers in professional organizations should always be looking for future committee and board members. In many cases, potential leaders simply need to be asked or encouraged to take on a role. Be proactive and empower candidates to pursue leadership positions in your association.
  • Create opportunities for small networking groups. As Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has said, "I feel really grateful to the people who encouraged me and helped me develop. Nobody can succeed on their own." Networking is a critical benefit associations provide to members, and female leaders have identified external networks as key to their success. While networking opportunities that commonly bookend association meetings and programs are enjoyable and useful, smaller gatherings lend themselves more to in-depth discussions that build strong relationships and allow women to serve as sounding boards for one another. Think about how you can foster smaller gatherings of members to enable those connections.
  • Encourage mentoring opportunities. Company mentorship programs can be effective. However, finding a mentor outside of the office can provide more objective, alternative perspectives and allow for a level of vulnerability that might not be possible within the company. And while formal mentorship programs are helpful, smaller networking meetings can help members find mentors more organically.

Multiple local organizations - like Indy CREW, NAWBO and other associations within and outside of the real estate industry - provide effective and economical environments for the education and development employees are looking for outside of the office. When combined with advancement opportunities within the company, association involvement can even help retain leaders by positioning them for future career growth.

Both inside and outside of your company, changing mindsets, changing the narrative and vocabulary, and creating a sense of inclusiveness are key landmarks on the paths to greater diversity. Through investing in initiatives that empower everyone to grow and succeed, companies, associations, and their industries can reap the rewards that come from a diverse, inclusive environment.

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