Though the commercial real estate industry has been historically male-dominated, Maryanne Gilmartin— one of New York’s highest-ranking developers—still thinks that women can break the glass ceiling. 

“I never got the memo that said that if you’re a woman and you’re at the table, you should feel intimidated,” said Gilmartin, who served as moderator at an April 25 panel discussion organized by the Fordham Real Estate Institute. The event was part of the institute’s new breakfast series, called She Builds, which focuses on women in real estate.

A former CEO of Forest City Ratner companies, Gilmartin, FCRH ’86, GSAS ’90, spearheaded the development of several high-profile projects in New York City, including the Barclays Center, the New York Times Building, and the New York by Gehry residential tower. She was honored with the Real Estate Board of New York’s Bernard H. Mendik Lifetime Leadership Real Estate Award last year.

“My rule is to always be over-prepared and know your place—meaning if you’re at the table, [you should]make a contribution … that was a life rule that I practiced.”

The discussion featured four other iconic women in New York real estate: Kathy Donovan, managing director of the Real Estate Finance Group at UBS; Nikki Field, senior global advisor of the Field Team of Sotheby’s International Realty; Joan Sapinsley, former senior vice president of Resource Capital Corp. and Resource Real Estate; and Christina Smyth, owner and founder of Smyth Law PC.

“There are women exceling everywhere,” said Gilmartin. “It’s a question of the recognition.”

Rising to the Challenge

Panelists spoke about the challenges they’d faced in their high-power careers, where they often managed multimillion-dollar, if not multibillion-dollar, deals.

Donovan, a member of the executive advisory council at the Fordham Real Estate Institute and co-chair of its industry outreach committee, spoke about her experience working in commercial mortgage backed securities (CMBS) on the global scale, particularly in Europe.

“CMBS in Europe existed, but [it was]quite different than what I was aware of than back [in the states], so there were an enormous amount of challenges,” she said, explaining that the position found her traveling to the Netherlands, Spain, and several other European countries throughout her stint. “It was like I was literally going to 12 to 14 different jobs.”

The expansion was necessary to help the company evolve, she said.

“At the time, we did a billion dollars and a half of loans, which frankly today, is not actually that much, but it was enormous back then, and I was pounding the pavement and originating, which I had never done before.”

Gilmartin said one of the toughest things she ever had to do in her own career was take over for real estate pioneer Bruce Ratner when he stepped down as chief executive officer of Forest City Ratner Companies in 2013.

“I spent two years planning for my ascension and I project managed that ascension as I did any other project in my career,” said Gilmartin.

Field, who has accomplished more than $2 billion in sales at Sotheby’s, has been part of the No. 1 New York City sales team at Sotheby’s International Realty for the past 10 years. But her rise to the top in the luxury residential real estate market began with her excelling at a challenge to sell a medical office that none of the other realtors of her firm wanted to take on.

“One specialization led to another,” she said, sharing that since 2008, she has added emerging markets in Asia to Sotheby’s growing global business.

Breaking Away

Some of the women have made advancements in their careers by being their own boss.

Gilmartin, a special advisor to Fordham’s Real Estate Institute, co-founded the development firm L&L MAG. And Smyth, who has worked in luxury high-end sales and real estate management, is the founder of the full-service real estate law firm Smyth Law PC.

“It’s really allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom,” said Smyth.

Still, Sapinsley, a founding member of the advisory committee to the Women’s Initiative of the CRE Finance Council (CREFC), said getting more women into positions of leadership in commercial real estate should be at the top of every business’ agenda.

“I think if we can get more corporations feeling a sense of responsibility, it will start to snowball out,” she said.

Advocating for Women

In addition to seeking out mentors and offering support to other women in real estate, the panel said women must not shy away from the spotlight.

“We as women have to really be our own advocates,” said Smyth. “If you think you’re worthy of a raise, you need to speak up.”

Toward the end of the event, a male attendee asked what could be done to get more women in commercial real estate.

Gilmartin emphasized that men in the C-suite can level the playing field in real estate by recognizing the success of women and working with them to create more diversity in the boardroom.

“The fact is that I believe that women are very good at this Rubik’s cube called real estate development, which has a lot of disparate parts and a lot of complications and deep problem solving, which we can do,” she said. “I think it begins with women getting in places where they can impact the outcome, and men like yourself, asking that question.”

(L-R) Joan Sapinsley, former head of capital markets and portfolio manager, CMBS, Resource Real Estate Funding; Kathy Donovan, managing director, UBS; Christina A. Smyth, Esq., owner, Smyth Law P.C. and president of RESA; and Nikki Field, senior global advisor, The Field Team, Sotheby’s International Realty. Photo by Michael Dames