It was a brownfield site, an old car dealership in New Orleans’s Warehouse District. Five years ago, Angela O’Byrne, AIA, envisioned something more there: a mixed-use, 10-story, carbon-neutral redevelopment, the first of its kind in the city.
She would develop as well as design the project, she decided. Taking on both roles made sense. After all, O’Byrne, president of Perez, a New Orleans–based architectural and engineering firm, had earned a master’s in real-estate development at Columbia University and, decades earlier, had developed smaller projects. She also had $1 million in cash as collateral.
Her architectural, business, and civic bona fides were clear. A past president of AIA New Orleans and founder of the nonprofit City-Works, she was one of the most successful and recognized architects in the city, a Hispanic woman in a profession with no shortage of white men.
Still, the banks weren’t inclined to lend her $40 million for the project, and so she began wooing more established developers, almost all of whom happened to be men. She hit the golf course with one prospect. With another, who had especially good connections in the banking world, she went on an overnight fishing trip. She was the only woman in the group of five—“I didn’t even know how to fish,” she recalls.
O’Byrne caught the biggest fish (“they were all delighted”), but not the bank loan, despite two years of due diligence. Someone else closed on the property. She is quick to note that her development experience may have been too dated, that she probably hadn’t networked long or hard enough with key players. “I had not spent enough time building that network, and then I walked in and wanted to do a [big] deal,” she says.
Still, she couldn’t help but wonder: Had she lost out because she was a woman?
The Gender Imbalance
Architecture is a man’s game. Only 16 percent of the AIA’s membership is female. Forty-nine percent of architecture students and 39 percent of interns are women, but just 17 percent are firm principals and partners, according to a 2012 AIA survey of 2,805 member firms. For some reason, while they’re ascending the architectural career ladder, thousands of women hit a glass ceiling, leave the profession, or get pushed out.
Real-estate development suffers from a similar gender imbalance, as O’Byrne discovered firsthand. According to the Commercial Real Estate Women network (CREW), just 30 percent of all development professionals are women. In fact, developers account for only about 4 percent of CREW’s 8,000 (mostly female) members around the country and are far outnumbered by lawyers, brokers, and property managers.
Both architecture and development lag behind law, medicine, and accounting in the percentage of women represented in each profession, according to research by Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women in business.