• Danielle Dignan (left) of DM Development and Anne Fougeron of Fougeron Architecture are an industry rarity: a woman developer and woman architect who are collaborating on a project—a condo-and-retail development in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley.

    Credit: Noah Kalina

There’s also the question of the glass ceiling that women face in development. Studies by CREW do report increased gender diversification at real-estate companies, including in development roles. The growing number of women graduates from Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) programs is creating an important pipeline: 30 percent of current MRED students at Columbia University, for example, are women.

But women still are having a difficult time moving up the ladder, much like their counterparts at architecture firms. According to a 2010 CREW study, women are well represented in junior level development positions, but become scarcer with each step up the pay scale, representing just 9 percent of C-level employees. Women rarely rise to senior executive positions at large real-estate firms—making it difficult for them to gain the experience necessary to strike out on their own.

Fixing The “Diversity Problem”
If women aren’t becoming decision-makers and equity-holders, they can’t act as influential mentors. If women entrepreneurs struggle to get financing—whether for a business or a building—they’re less likely to strike out on their own as architects or developers, and those who do so could be more vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Some of the giants of commercial real estate, such as Forest City Enterprises, have gone public about trying to fix their “diversity problem” by redoubling their recruiting efforts and promoting networking opportunities and workshops that can help recruits make important connections.

Assuming that the development industry can make progress in retaining and promoting mid-career women—a big if—today’s pipeline of aspiring female developers could grow and gain better access to capital than ever before. That’s good news for women architects. Even if these new developers are largely gender-blind when hiring architects, their arrival would be a wake-up call for design-firm leaders: Retain and promote women designers, or risk losing out to the competition.

People often feel more comfortable working with others who are like them, notes Rena Klein, FAIA, a management consultant to architects. “Part of the business case for gender diversity in [architecture] firms is that we are going to be seeing more diversity among our clients.”

In New Orleans, Angela O’Byrne isn’t waiting for that to happen. Still eager to develop her own projects, she’s trying again—with one difference. She has hired a male developer with 30 years of experience. “We’re going to hatch all sorts of plans,” she says. “I figure he will get the financing more easily than I will. He’ll be the face of the project.”