CRE N Illinois

"Women in Building" forum looks for cracks in CRE's glass ceiling

From left to right: Randy Fifield of Fifield Realty Corp., Patty McHugh of McHugh Construction, Elissa Morgante of Morgante Wilson Architects and moderator Judy Frydland, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Buildings.

Today, the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago hosted a forum, “Women in Building” at Chase Tower in downtown Chicago. The first annual event aimed to dissect what it takes for women to succeed in commercial real estate.

The discussion was moderated by Judy Frydland, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Buildings. Joining her were panelists Randy Fifield, chairwoman of Fifield Realty Corp.; Patty McHugh, Chairman of McHugh Construction and Elissa Morgante, principal at Morgante Wilson Architects.

The speakers addressed myriad topics, including the evolution of women in real estate and how women—and the industry—have adapted to change. The panelists also talked about the impact of technological change, how women can advocate for themselves and their projects and how successful women can act as a mentor to others.

The first question posed to the panel was how to deconstruct the glass ceiling. “I myself have never had an experience that was negative because I’m a woman in this industry,” McHugh said. But in preparation of this forum, she spoke with some of the women in her office and got a different perspective.

“I was surprised to hear that one of the smartest people I know, one of the absolute best contractors I know who happens to be a woman that works at McHugh, took me aside and said that her experience is every single time she goes out on a new project, without fail, the initial reaction of the men in the group is, ‘Ugh, a woman. I have to work with a female,’” McHugh said. “And I was completely shocked by that.”

Fifield recounted a similar experience. “As a woman, I‘ve had a great run in this business. And I think that that’s why I have chosen to mentor, love and covet other women in my journey,” she said. “Maybe I’ve been a trailblazer, I’m not sure about that. But for those coming up, I do want to clear the way and make sure that it’s a safe place.”

Frydland asked the panel about the changes in the industry since they first started. Responses ran the gamut from better virtual tools when a project is just getting started to top-down technology when it comes to actual construction. But the end users and customers of real estate have changed too.

“The clients have become far more savvy,” Morgante said. “So we’re having to respond really fluidly to the requests and inspirations that our clients bring to us. That’s changed a lot for us.”

Frydland acknowledged the #MeToo movement that started in Hollywood and has since shaken up other industries as society faces the sexual harassment that is often ingrained in many workplaces. In preparing for this forum, she said, they had discussed the movement and whether it was appropriate to discuss. “But hey, we’re women in construction, in a man’s business,” Frydland said. “It would be weird if we didn’t talk about it.”

All three panelists were happy to report that they had never had a “#MeToo moment” while working in real estate. “I think this is a fantastic industry for not having #MeToo,” McHugh said. “And I think that’s ironic, because I think people expect this to be one that has it, but it doesn’t.”

“I wonder if, perhaps, being women in the construction industry, as we approach a job site or a meeting, that there’s a certain amount of Chutzpah that we’ve brought to the table to begin with,” Morgante said.