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The ‘harrowing’ truth of being a woman in real estate 

Scandals at NAR and beyond have shed new light on a familiar and distinctly female challenge: Having to work harder and protect yourself because of your gender.

January 20, 2024
7 minutes

Editor's note: This story explores a challenging topic with explicit language that some may find offensive. However, we believe it is a vital part of sharing the reality of what it can be like to be a woman in real estate. 

Where to begin?

How about with the man who walked into Patricia Barr's open house and started masturbating in front of her? She responded by telling him he had to leave because she was shutting the event down and locking up early.

Or maybe with the man who told Barr that sure, she could write up an offer for him — but first, how about she perform oral sex on him? She laughed it off.

"Real estate is a harrowing business that middle-class women pursued because they didn't want to be a schoolteacher or take shorthand," said Barr, who first got her real estate license in 1984 and is now the owner of Vega Barr & Associates in Los Angeles.

"It was a good career, and you put up with a lot of crap to get paid, and I got paid," she said. "I learned over time and can run like hell in a pair of Manolos."

Wait. She's had to run

"Yes. Yes. Yup," Barr said. She didn't want to elaborate. "That's enough," she said.

And yet there's more: It's not just clients who can create a poisonous environment. It's colleagues. It's leaders. A New York Times investigation last August detailed allegations of sexual harassment involving Kenny Parcell, then president of the National Association of Realtors. The story described systemic issues with the nation's largest trade association, setting off a cascade of leadership changes and pledges for change.

The Parcell scandal, and claims made against eXp and some of its former agents, have shed new light on old news for women in real estate: The job isn't just selling homes. It is protecting yourself while working that much harder simply because of your gender.

But now, with more women moving into positions of power and more men acting as allies, systemic change seems possible, if not yet fully in reach.

The commonplace harassment most men don't experience

Female agents put themselves at risk in ways male agents never need to consider: They drive alone with clients who may comment on their clothes, the color of their lipstick or their bra size. 

In all sorts of interactions — with clients or colleagues — they have to be prepared to respond to crude comments or worse.

They sit in open houses alone with a sign out front urging not just buyers, but anyone to come on in.

"I'm sorry, you meet a strange person in an empty house? We didn't think about that then," Barr said.

Professional events can be loaded with their own potential minefields. One female agent recalled arriving at an industry convention and finding six bottles of wine from colleagues wanting to take her to dinner — alone.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a woman who hasn't been sexually harassed," said Leslie Appleton-Young, who recently retired as the longtime chief economist with the California Association of Realtors. She said she was "part of the first wave" of women in real estate in the 1970s and '80s.

Many men who volunteered to be part of association leadership came from very small companies where there wasn't a human resources department to keep creeps in check.

"No one ever called these men out on their behavior," she said. And women often had no one to turn to. Appleton-Young, however, said things were different at CAR. She spent 37 years there, and for most of that time, Joel Singer was the CEO. "He protected us," she said. An ally.

When Appleton-Young heard the news about NAR, she wasn't surprised. She managed to escape serious harm during her career, but that doesn't mean sexual harassment "didn't ever happen," she said. "I just never felt like I couldn't handle the few times when somebody tried to step over the line."

The challenges women face can be subtle behaviors that sneak in and "bring an organization to its knees," said Austin-based agent Jill Leberknight. "Those are the ones we don't initially recognize and the actions we can't put into words."

Behaviors like diminishing women "having any problem," Leberknight said. The men who say, "'You're having a hard time with this, you want me to take over?' It's the gaslighting that feels more pervasive in the boardroom," she continued. 

"The language is masked in subversive, subconscious control."

Welcome to the 'enough is enough' era 

Consider: Nearly two-thirds of Realtors are female, yet men still hold a majority of leadership roles in the industry, according to Amanda Stinton, chief executive officer of the Women's Council of Realtors.

"The most important factor in reversing this type of behavior is the promotion of women in a variety of leadership positions," she said. "And that can't be done overnight."

The time since the allegations around Parcell broke has been spent sharing and assessing the damage that has been done — and moving to end it, by elevating women to top roles at NAR, associations and elsewhere in the industry.

"These stories are not going to live in the shadows anymore, and that's what starts the accountability process," said Sue Yannaccone, president and CEO of Anywhere Brands and Anywhere Advisors and the founder of What Moves Her, an advocacy organization aimed at helping women in real estate develop leadership skills and realize professional goals.

Yannaccone has teamed up with industry leaders Sherry Chris and Lisa Listanski to launch a campaign called "Balance Blueprint."

Their plan is to educate Anywhere network executives about the challenges female professionals face, and develop a "playbook" for real estate businesses to implement best practices and policies to support women (and underrepresented professionals) in real estate.

"For me, it's about saying enough is enough," Yannaccone said. "There are enough policies and codes that people don't adhere to, and until we as a collective begin demanding accountability, we don't move forward."

And that "we" includes everyone.

"You don't have to be a woman to support women. It's paramount that men in the industry take part," she said. "Allyship across all spectrums requires you to educate yourself and stand up and be part of the solution."

Which is what New York agent Jason Haber did after being "stunned by the silence in the industry" over the Parcell allegations. Haber — a graduate of  the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York — founded the NAR Accountability Project. About 1,000 agents have already joined, with some sharing stories of rape and sexual harrassment with Haber.

One agent was pinned against a wall and forcibly kissed by a vendor. When she complained, she was told by a senior agent that they would take care of it. Nothing happened. "They make it go away and there are no ramifications," Haber said.

Once Parcell resigned, "I assumed we got rid of the disease," Haber said. But then the calls started coming. "We didn't get rid of the disease. We got rid of the symptoms of the disease. There were more women, and more stories out there."

Wearing 'different glasses,' seeing hopeful signs

These stories are driving change — in the world, and in women themselves as they talk to each other, sharing experiences and asking questions. "Women are in a different headspace," Leberknight said. "We have different glasses on right now."

Thankfully, Appleton-Young said, "The rules have changed. The level of tolerance has changed. I do think it's getting better."

Women's Council of Realtors CEO Amanda Stinton is seeing it too. "Through this work, I've learned how important it is to listen, and to create an environment of trust and support where women feel safe and supported when they share their experience."

Stinton has worked in the industry for more than 15 years as association staff, always in member-facing roles and programs. Her hope is that the NAR scandal provides "an opportunity to support and empower the incredible, motivated women of real estate to lead in industry roles."

"When you look at the engagement Women's Council leaders have within the industry and at NAR, it's motivating. And it's evident that women are a critical component to the real estate community."

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