Swimming Upstream

October 14, 2019
Written by: Peter Kupfer
Kim Pipkin, principal of Pipkin Marsh Advisors

Shortly after Wendy Dugan, the president of R. Dugan Construction in Mira Loma, transitioned from male to female, one of her subcontractors angrily walked off the job. “You’re a freak!” he shouted. “I wished we had never worked with you.”

Dugan, who was married to a woman for 23 years before transitioning and has three children, was disappointed but not shocked by the outburst, which she attributed more to ignorance than malice. “There’s a lot of roughnecks in the heavy construction industry,” she said. “You learn to brush yourself off and just keep building bridges.”

Whether it’s in the trenches of a building site or the executive suite of a development company, women have long found the real estate business a challenging environment to work in. For women of color, lesbians and other non-mainstream women, that challenge is often compounded. Although few of the women interviewed for this article have encountered the in-your-face insults Dugan described, they have all experienced less blatant bigotry or unconscious bias because of their ethnicity or sexuality. 

Jen Chan, the founder and president of White Tiger Condo Conversion, a San Francisco-based real estate development company specializing in converting multi-unit residential properties into condominiums, says she sometimes feels an “undertow” of bias and suspects she is being stereotyped because of her Asian ethnicity and androgynous appearance. “This is a super-conservative industry,” she noted. “The executives are mostly white males, and the few female executives are almost all white. Women who are not in the mainstream are in the shadows.”

The bias Chan has experienced over the course of her professional life has varied depending on where she is working (she grew up and spent her early career in Florida), her age, and the evolution of her personal identity, but it has often taken the form of condescending comments, nonverbal gestures, and other “microaggressions.” At industry events, for example, men will sometimes pat her on the back in a patronizing fashion or “loom” over her in an effort to physically intimidate her. At other times men will grab a paper or pen out of her hand or leave their dirty coffee cups or food wrappers lying around with the expectation that, because she is a woman, she will clean up after them. 

“It makes me angry that some men still think they can get away with that kind of behavior, that they need to play those weird power games to make women feel less than them,” Chan remarked. Nevertheless, she makes a point of never losing her cool and always acting professionally. “I make them aware that what they’re doing is not OK without making a scene.” 

Another behavior Chan often encounters is “mansplaining” — when a man explains or re-explains something to a woman in a condescending manner. She recalled one occasion when a male associate tried to explain her own company’s manual to her. “He was telling me about a product I had spent years developing,” she recalled. “It was demeaning and insulting and almost comical because he didn’t think I noticed.”

Charmaine Curtis, the African American founder and principal of San Francisco-based Curtis Development, which has overseen or participated in the development of thousands of housing units in the Bay Area, has no doubt that the color of her skin has hindered her career. “Like pretty much everything in this world, commercial real estate is largely about who you know,” she said. “And if you weren’t born into money or didn’t develop those connections in college or graduate school, it’s much more difficult to succeed.”

Indeed, money is perhaps the biggest obstacle that non-mainstream women face in the industry. “This is a capital-intensive business,” Curtis noted. “You need access to capital, but banks won’t lend to you unless you already have a strong balance sheet. It’s really a catch-22.”

Kim Pipkin, an African American principal of Pipkin Marsh Advisors, a communications firm specializing in commercial real estate, has not experienced overt racism in her two-decade-plus career, but she has suffered her share of unconscious bias. She recalls the time a male co-worker at an architecture firm asked her, “How did you get to be who you are?” But Pipkin has never allowed such slights to deter her. “No is not part of my lexicon,” she asserts. “I’m a smart, sophisticated woman. Any setbacks that I’ve experienced have been fuel to be my best self.”

Pipkin, who has served on the Planning Board of her predominantly white hometown of San Anselmo and aspires to become mayor one day, says one form of discrimination she has experienced is getting paid less than a male colleague for doing the same job. When she has learned of such a disparity, she is not afraid to demand her due. “I’m a revenue generator,” she declared. “Other people might think I don’t know my value, but I do.”

It takes a lot of what Chan calls “verbal aikido” for women to stand up for themselves and raise the consciousness of their male colleagues without alienating them. “I try to mirror back what they are doing so they understand what it’s likes to be on the receiving end of that kind of behavior,” she said. “Or I’ll just work around it. I’m not into fighting. It takes more work and thought to produce a positive outcome, but I like to go with positive energy.” 

Chan believes women bear some of the responsibility for their “less than” status in the industry. “Too many women in this business play the victim,” she observed. “You have to stand up for yourself. You need to behave and communicate in ways that earn respect, not lose respect.”

Ironically, several of the women reported that men have been more supportive of their careers than other women. “Women at times can be very competitive with one another and less supportive,” Chan said, adding that members of CREW and other progressive organizations do not fit that stereotype and are generally very supportive of each other. And while men have been supportive, that support sometimes has limits, she pointed out. “When you rise to be their equal, they pivot back. They try to push you down under that invisible line.” 

Chan says the industry has made strides in recent years in being more accepting of LGBTQ people, but it has a long way to go. “A lot of companies say they are diverse, inclusive and equitable on their websites and on paper, but the actual culture in the workplace is not representative of that. Or they hide behind being ‘gay-friendly,’ but they don’t identify as being gay themselves. I don’t know of a single out, openly gay-owned real estate development company. That’s why I put my neck on the line and started my own company to break through that glass ceiling.”

All the women interviewed pride themselves on being trailblazers and role models for other non-mainstream women. One of Pipkin’s favorite expressions is, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” In other words, if a young woman doesn’t see someone like herself in a particular job, she might not think it’s possible for her to do it either. “Seeing a role not traditionally filled by a woman or a black person gives me extra incentive,” she said.

Curtis believes the adversity minority women face in the industry is a reflection of a larger issue. “The fundamental problem is deep in our history and in our culture,” she said. “There’s not a lot of overt racism, especially here in the Bay Area, but it is much more difficult to be taken seriously as a developer if you’re black, and that’s compounded if you’re a woman. My career has been about moving the needle by proving that a black woman can succeed in the industry and by calling out unconscious bias when I see it.

“Real change happens slowly, It doesn’t happen in leaps and bounds,” said Chan. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Dugan is also optimistic about the future. A few years after the subcontractor mentioned above walked off the job, she ran into the same man at another job site. “He came up to me and said, ‘Are we good?’ I think that was his way of apologizing. That’s progress.”

Peter Kupfer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and editor. His articles  on business and technology, arts and culture, and other topics have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Observer, and San Francisco magazine, among many other publications.