Willard Says...

October 3, 2022

The ABCs of DEI in CRE

By Amanda Friedlander

In the business world, there are a few buzzwords that regularly make their rounds in corporate conversation. Words like “synergy.” “Circling back.” “Putting a pin in it.” “Tabling it.” “Seamlessness.” “Frictionless.” “Collaboration.” And for the most part, these words hold little water. They’re just filler that’s meant to make you sound smart. But there are other words, too — words like diversity, equity, inclusiveness, accessibility. Those are thrown around with relative weightlessness, but they’re some of the heaviest and densest topics of conversation that a business can have. Most of us like to believe that we’re self-aware and in tune with the controversial goings-on in the communities around us, but the truth is that even the most empathetic, pure-hearted person can often miss what’s right in front of them. When the conversations do happen, they’re often limited to hypotheticals and theoretical discussions — we should  be doing this, we plan on doing that. And in fairness, we can’t solve inequality overnight. Frankly I’m not sure if we can ever solve something like that. Even now, I’m certain that this episode will miss much of the nuance involved in tackling racial, social, and physical inequality, despite my best efforts to be inclusive. So I hope you’ll take the following with a hearty grain of salt and understand that I’m coming from a place of my own privilege, and that sometimes there are no easy answers.

DEI stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. You’ll see it a lot in think pieces from real estate firms, many of which have created presentations and workshops for executives to take stock of their implicit biases and work to enact meaningful change. A lot of us would like to believe that DEI is at the forefront of our minds, but let’s be honest — when we sit down at our desks with our mugs of coffee and about a hundred unread emails, the last thing we’re contemplating is the socioeconomic complications stemming from centuries of oppression and violence. That’s because DEI is really, really complicated. It’s incredibly overwhelming even if your entire job is to promote inclusion and accessibility. Jessica Edgerton from Leading Real Estate Companies of the World said it best when she described DEI as not a sprint nor a marathon, rather, a constant journey forward with no specific finish line. And although Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu preceded Jessica by over a thousand years, he too laid the foundation for change in real estate when he said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. With that in mind, let’s take the first step.

One of the most important things we can do for DEI as commercial real estate professionals is to actually get people in the room who can provide insight on issues surrounding inclusivity. There really is no such thing as colorblindness — it’s undeniable that our modern society is at the mercy of centuries of systemic oppression for non-white folks — but some proactive change can come from blind review practices. One example is using a  software system that hides candidates names and emails from their application to ensure that recruiters aren’t being affected by unconscious bias when reviewing applicants. Studies show that candidates with Anglo-Saxon, Americanized names tend to receive nearly 50% more callbacks than those with, quote, “black-sounding” names. Some companies even use voice-altering software and AI to mask candidates’ gender and racial presentation, which can help ensure that opportunities are being presented to the best possible candidates, regardless of how they look or sound. Perhaps there’s room to extend this to RFPs, so that minority-owned businesses are given unbiased consideration for leasing a space as their white counterparts. Commercial real state is predominantly white and male, with fewer than 1% of executive jobs going to women of color. Men of color fare only marginally better at 1.3%. Only 0.7% of real estate investment firms are owned by women, and only 2% are minority-owned. To help combat this disparity, CRE firms and training institutes should be going out of their way to recruit at historically black colleges and universities, getting in front of networking groups for non-white professionals, even designing scholarships and mentorship programs specifically for non-white students interested in CRE to shadow experienced peers in the industry. Furthermore, training courses should reconsider the language used in their materials — how many property law hypotheticals about married couples include the traditional structure of a man and woman? It may not mean anything to some of the people in the room, but LGBTQIA+ students will benefit from seeing themselves represented, even if it’s just a few questions on the broker exam.  We should be seeking out alternate perspectives from people not currently in the boardroom, not just waiting until there’s controversy or an unfavorable audit. 

Next, let’s talk accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities Act states that retail businesses must provide access for people with disabilities when constructing new facilities. When we hear that, we tend to conjure images of wheelchair ramps and handrails for staircases, but it goes so much deeper than that. Smaller tenants with fewer resources will not always have the budget to make their spaces compliant. When presenting a space to a prospect, accessibility should be top of mind, not an afterthought. How high are the counters in the space? Will people with mobility limitations be able to navigate the current buildout? Can the bathrooms accommodate not only wheelchairs, but people with joint or balance issues? What about the conference room? And what about the lighting? People with sensory sensitivities may struggle with overly bright lights or floors that creak with every step. When we show offices, are we giving any consideration to designating space for nursing mothers, or assuming they’ll just have to nurse in a public bathroom or storage closet? And when was the last time you evaluated your marketing and business materials? Certain fonts and colors can be difficult to see for people with visual impairments, and sometimes screen-readers can’t interpret the words on the page. In your promotional videos, use closed captioning and provide a transcript whenever possible. Websites should be designed with modulation and functionality in mind, meaning pop-ups, flashing content, and drop-down menus should be easily navigated and hidden when needed. Web developers should ensure that pages can be accessed via the tab button rather than needing a mouse click.  Photos and videos of spaces should be brightly lit with color contrast, and size dimensions should be included whenever possible. You don’t want to wait until your client shows up for a tour to discover that they physically can’t fit their assistive equipment through the front door. You don’t have to advertise the fact that you care about accessibility — in a perfect world, that will shine through and be apparent without having to draw additional attention to it. 

Two or three steps into a thousand-mile journey may not seem significant, but if it makes a difference to even one person, then it matters. There are no downsides to making people feel heard and represented. There are no downsides to allocating funds towards uplifting underrepresented individuals with in and outside of your firm. Identifying disparities in the way you conduct business can be intimidating and even embarrassing, but it’s absolutely essential for creating a more equitable environment and attracting top talent to your firms, and high-quality businesses to your offices and retail spaces. Businesses which contribute to the beautiful, diverse, ever-changing, ever-evolving, ever-resilient landscape of this city.

In addition to the minority-focused commercial real estate nonprofits we’ve listed below, we wanted to give another important cause the spotlight this month. The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago needs our help to support their mission of the 3Rs for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona: that’s Rescue, Relief, and Rebuild. Additionally, the Red Cross of Chicago is mobilizing its volunteer groups to send relief efforts to Florida, where Hurricane Ian has caused record-breaking devastation to tens of thousands of people. These deadly storms are only going to continue as climate change ravages the world, so we ask that you also consider donating to the Chicago Community Climate Partnership, which aims to tackle climate crises through community partnerships and educational workshops. We all have a responsibility to look out for each other and to step up in times of desperation. We know money might be tight right now , so each of these orgs have volunteer opportunities that cost nothing and mean everything. 

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