Provada 2023 – Women in Real Estate: Leadership & Navigating the Industry

June 29, 2023

Drooms hosted two insightful panel discussions at Provada 2023 in Amsterdam, shedding light on the experiences of women working in the real estate industry and their journeys towards leadership. The first discussion, titled “Women in Real Estate: Navigating the Industry,” featured panellists Sharon Schotte, Commercieel Manager at RPS; Imme van der Leij, Strategic Consultant in Spatial Planning at Arcadis; and Valerie Schumacher, Consultant in Workplace Strategy at Cushman & Wakefield, and was moderated by Dorine van Amerom, Business Development Manager at Drooms.

The second panel, titled “Women in Real Estate: Women in Leadership,” hosted by Marydeana Nolan, VP Marketing Communications & Events at Drooms, featured Dominique Schillings, Head of Asset Management at abrdn, Rogien Averink, Associate Partner at Sustainable Capital Group, Irene Flotman, Managing Director at CBRE, Melanie Grüneke, Head of Country at Real I.S. AG Netherlands, and Jolien de Jongh, Manager ESG Real Estate at Achmea Real Estate.

Both panel discussions provided a safe space for women to share their experiences. They candidly discussed topics including navigating the work environment as women, qualities of effective leadership, silencing self-doubt and overcoming failures.

Personal journeys & passion for real estate

The panellists shared their career paths and what led them to the real estate industry. Their stories varied, ranging from early architectural aspirations to discovering a passion for real estate at a later stage. Dominique looked back on her childhood saying, “I come from a real estate family and always wanted to be an architect. My mother actually collected all my drawings from 1985 to 1995.” Dominque continues to be strongly involved in the development process to this day.

Rogien studied human geography and planning, and did her second masters in finance, which turned out to be the perfect match for real estate finance within a bank. In contrast, some of our panellists never even planned on working in the real estate industry – Melanie candidly shared, “I had no particular talent or specific passions. As a generalist I really enjoy the wide range of aspects that real estate asset management offers. I’m crunching numbers, using knowledge from areas like law and tax, working with people, and creating something tangible. I’m happy to be where I’m at, without having planned anything.”

Imme shared her journey of not wanting to follow the beaten track as a junior and taking the risk of exploring opportunities outside her academic background of International Relations and Art History. “It was a leap and an exciting risk, but I learned a lot,” she said.

The diverse backgrounds of our panellists highlight the industry’s openness to professionals from various disciplines – whilst also acknowledging the need for proactivity and being true to oneself.

The changing work environment for women

The panellists recognised that although significant progress has been made in the real estate industry, there is still work to be done to create an inclusive and equal work environment for women. Most of our leadership panellists observed an increase in the number of women entering the real estate industry but noted that women still face challenges in reaching senior roles. “I have seen more women working in real estate, also within CBRE, but I notice it’s still hard for women to stay in senior roles. It depends on the subculture in a business unit or a team,” said Irene.

Rogien mentioned how Sustainable Capital Group strongly encourages women to take on senior roles, the gender quota now being 50:50. Dominique’s experience is the opposite – she hasn’t seen much change in the work environment for women since she started her career around 2005. “This is also one of the reasons I said ‘yes’ to this panel – I’m actively looking for women to join us,” she explains.

So, what can companies do to support and encourage more women to take on leadership roles? Dominique and Rogien pointed out that women tend to be less proactive in taking high profile opportunities, so it’s important to target women for certain roles. Visible role models can also influence whether women apply for leadership roles – so this is also a matter of impactful marketing, internally and externally. Irene interestingly brought up the point of male role models: “I have had a lot of good, male role models in my life. When we’re talking about inclusivity, we all need each other, so we should not forget about fostering inclusiveness in our male colleagues.”

Melanie in turn asked the audience: “Would it make a difference for you in deciding to apply, if you knew your manager would be a female?” The responses from the audience were interestingly diverse. One woman recalled that some of her worst managerial experiences were with women. Another mentioned that in a couple of years, when she would be ready to start a family, she would feel more comfortable if her manager was a woman because she feels that women tend to be more supportive and understanding. Overall, the consensus was that gender doesn’t necessarily play a big role, but rather the personality, values, and leadership type.

Finding empowering allies

The panellists touched on the role of male allies and supporters. Whilst Sharon’s biggest supporter is her boyfriend, who also works in real estate, Imme commended her male boss for supporting inclusivity (rather than just diversity) and valuing different voices and perspectives within the organisation. Valerie acknowledged the need for more male advocates in management positions to promote diversity and inclusion.

The importance of mentorship was also discussed. Imme expressed the value of having mentors who show interest, treat you as an equal, and encourage personal development. Valerie emphasised the importance of finding mentors or a supportive network within and outside the organisation, where experiences, challenges, and successes can be shared openly.

She pointed out that “There is this statistic that says, ‘you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with’ and considering I spend most of my time at work I believe finding a mentor or a group of people at work that inspire me is very important. I have a mentor group with a small group of women within our organisation in which we discuss our challenges, successes, share ideas and support each other in our careers. When looking for a mentor I would always look at who is someone that could inspire you and that you feel comfortable discussing all sorts of elements of work and life with.”

Imposter syndrome & mental health

The panellists discussed the concept of “imposter syndrome”, which is the feeling of being undeserving of one’s success. Research has shown that women have a stronger tendency to experience imposter syndrome compared to men. In fact, the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report from 2020 has shown that 75% of executive women report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career.

Jolien explained how “when I started working, it felt like everybody knew more than me. But at a certain point you realise that they’re feeling the same way about you.” Melanie agreed, saying feeling insecure is natural, but with experience you recognise your competence.

The panel advised young female professionals to step over their fears and learn from mistakes, because they’re inevitable. Emphasising believing in oneself, authenticity, and not being afraid to be true to oneself were highlighted as effective strategies to combat imposter syndrome.

Another highly relevant mental health topic was how to avoid burnout. “Everyone experiences stress differently and uses different coping mechanisms. My advice would be to consciously think about what gives you energy versus what depletes it, and then prioritising your time accordingly,”, said Valerie. Candid conversations with managers regarding your workload are also necessary.

Jolien shared her personal experience with it. “I had a burnout. It was a combination of my private life and work. Making the decision to actively focus on my recovery instead of feeling responsible for the team and the company was a tough decision, but ultimately necessary. You’re responsible for yourself first,” she said. Sharon agrees, saying “Setting boundaries is really important – don’t say yes to everything.”

Toughest decisions, mistakes, and failures

The panellists shared personal mistakes and failures they encountered throughout their careers, all the while stressing the value of embracing them as lessons. Additionally, they discussed the significance of putting friendship first in personal conflicts and learning from those experiences.

Irene remembered a time where she became involved in the firing process of one of her best friends: “I will never again let private life interfere with business. In case of a personal conflict, I will put friendship first.”

Another tough decision that many women in the corporate world face was brought up by Dominique: “I had to face the decision of either focusing my time and energy into being a good mother or being a good manager. I wanted to be both, so I made the tough decision to reduce my number of responsibilities at my job.”

The panellists emphasised the importance of accepting when a role doesn’t fit your interests or strengths. Rogien recalled a time she now views as a mistake, where she “stayed in a job for too long, because I wanted to see it through and succeed in that role.”

No matter if it’s a difficult decision or a failure, we often forget to show ourselves the same level of empathy we offer our team. “I have learned to forgive myself. I will make mistakes – hopefully not the same ones – but my plan is to stop the overthinking, forgive myself and move forward,” said Melanie. 

Qualities of a good leader

“First and foremost, I think it’s important to empower others. Giving them freedom and space to grow, but also to be there for them when they need help and guidance,” said Rogien.

Irene added that it’s important to “forget your own ego for the benefit of the team. I strongly believe in servant leadership and giving your team members the recognition and spotlight when they’ve deserved it.” She also mentioned the importance of being decisive: “It’s better to make a wrong decision than making none at all.” Our panellists agreed that involving their team within the decision-making process empowers and motivates everyone individually. The same goes for mistakes – instead of blaming and shaming, the mistake is made as a team.

Clear and open communication was another quality highlighted by our panellists. Not only is communication important for explaining your vision and setting clear goals – it also means open discussions and authentic collaboration, ultimately enabling team spirit. No matter whether its positive or negative, creating a safe space for the team helps with all aspects in the workplace, as it allows team members to feel heard, motivated, and valued.

Challenges & rewards of leading a team

Leading any team comes with unique challenges and rewards. The panellists acknowledged the importance of building relationships and spending time getting to know team members to build trust. Balancing priorities, managing agendas, and stakeholder expectations were noted as the toughest parts of leading a team. As Melanie mentioned, “Sometimes you have to make decisions that are not beneficial for the individual, which means you cannot always keep everyone satisfied. It’s hard, but it’s important to not take it personally.” On our second panel, Sharon brought up the same point: “Don’t take things too personally. I’ve been called many names at work (mostly by men), and of course I could be angry about it, but I’ve learned to only listen if its constructive feedback.”

Witnessing team members grow, having fun together, and creating a family-like atmosphere are the most rewarding aspects our leaders reflected on. “Having fun and trusting that we all want to accomplish our best is definitely the easiest part of leadership,” says Melanie.

“Leading does not necessarily mean having a vision and achieving it as quickly as possible. People work at different paces and have different levels of understanding, so it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page, even if it means getting to the end result slower,” said Jolien.

Advice for the next generation

When asked about the biggest factor that contributed to her professional success, Imme emphasised the importance of listening to one’s intuition and seeking spaces where personal development can thrive. Imme’s advice to young women in the industry is to “trust and use your gut feeling as a steering wheel when being overwhelmed by choices and possibilities. Your gut is the best compass you’ll have.”

Valerie highlighted the significance of putting oneself out there and asking questions. Often, we feel as though we don’t want to ‘ask a stupid question’ – but its these questions that not only give you knowledge, but also build connections with your colleagues. At the start of her career, Valerie’s personal strategy was to “reach out for women in the industry with senior positions, asking about their experiences in the workplace over a coffee. This type of networking was invaluable – not only was it fun to connect, but it also allowed me to reflect on what I want for my own career.”

Conclusion

Throughout the panels, several key topics and questions emerged that resonated with women in the audience. We thank the panellists for their valuable perspectives and are looking forward to hosting more “Women in Real Estate” events very soon.

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