Top women real estate leaders spell out sexual harassment

Publish Date: August 07, 2023

Written by Dani Vanderboegh

- Originally published at Inman News - Dani Vanderboegh

Inman Senior Editor Dani Vanderboegh has attended women-driven real estate events like Awesome Females in Real Estate for years to bring this dispatch.

Four men cornered one young female broker at an industry event, with two of them using their physicality to block onlookers’ view as they intimidated her and told her she was worthless.

Another’s male boss waited until the elevator doors closed and it was just the two of them to ask, “Your room or mine?” while attempting to touch her in appropriately.

And yet another received six bottles of wine in her hotel room at her first company event from six different male bosses who each sent two wine glasses and an invite.

These and other sordid stories are shared on women’s stages across the country, like last month during a closed-door, off-the-record conference in Arizona hosted by Awesome Females in Real Estate, a 17-year-old group founded by Inman contributor and trainer Bernice Ross. She and others said that a wave of recent sexual harassment allegations this year has forced female real estate professionals to once again reckon with the industry’s failure to address men behaving badly.

“This is a male-designed, female-dominated industry,” said Debra Trappen, WomanUP! co-founder and member of Awesome Females, who attended the conference last month. “For far too long, women have been forced to accept behavior that’s never been acceptable. What may have been tolerated in the past will no longer be tolerated, and it’s so important right now because we have recent examples of why we need to change.”

Spurred on by recent headlines and open to women alone, the conference couldn’t have come at a more critical time, and the gathering inside the We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort resulted in a call to action for the industry’s female professionals, of which more than 1 million now count themselves as members of the National Association of Realtors.

In June, a former employee from that 1.6 million-member trade group alleged in a now-withdrawn lawsuit that its current president, Kenny Parcell, harassed her and others. Another case involving a former eXp Realty agent accused of drugging and assaulting female professionals at industry events along with another colleague is now coursing through the courts.

“Attention is rising because this is the national organization where more than 1.6 million Realtors are members and pay dues,” said Christine Jacobson, an industry entrepreneur and consultant who attended the conference. “NAR is the umbrella organization leading our ethical standards, with leadership that should embody the characteristics, values and professionalism that represents every member and staff serving our clients and industry.”

Held July 12-14, this year’s conference drew about 45 women to a panel titled, “Where do we go from here?” where they tackled the topic of sexual harassment in what most describe as a “safe space.”

First-hand accounts of harassment, discrimination, assault and rape. These are the stories women have shared this past year on stages at WomanUP! and Awesome Females in Real Estate, a group that extends beyond the conference to a Facebook group that comprises all 223 past attendees and includes some of the industry’s top female leaders.

Ross, a 35-year veteran with hundreds of conferences under her belt, made a last-minute change to this year’s agenda to allow for more conversation, and as the event unfolded, the group of women attending the panel chose to focus on solutions, an idea that culminated with a first-of-its-kind list that outlines many of the ways bad behavior manifests itself in real estate, and what should no longer be tolerated in the industry.

The group’s hope is that it’s a living document that will change over time as more contribute their ideas, fears, frustrations and solutions.

“Women are angry,” Ross said. “Enough is enough! The question is, what steps can we take to begin changing this culture and these behaviors now?” 

“Any leaders, or behaviors making it unsafe for women, or any employees, volunteers, and members, regardless of gender preferences or backgrounds, need to rise to the surface so we can make changes and stop it from happening,” Ross added. “We can only do so when individuals who have experienced, or witnessed this come forward so we can collectively support, and stand together in integrity, honesty, openness and love.”

“We don’t want the embers to burn out,” Trappen added. “Now is the time to plant the seeds.”

Read a summary of their list below, and read the full document here. If you’d like to contribute to the list, please respond to the form at the bottom.

The list they want your input on

Following the conference, the conversation continued in the Awesome Females Facebook group, where the list, “What’s not acceptable in real estate” was composed by the group to protect members’ anonymity. Comprised of three sections, the list isn’t the result of a single discussion nor is it the only behind-closed-doors forum in which women are having this conversation. They want to open the conversation to the entire industry.

Section 1: ‘These behaviors are no longer tolerated’

Sexual harassment isn’t just male-female, and that’s why the emphasis was put on bad behavior in all scenarios rather than gender-specific scenarios.

  • Unwanted touching or physical contact 
  • Making derogatory or offensive comments, jokes or gestures of a sexual nature 
  • Making unwelcome sexual advances or propositions 
  • Displaying or sharing sexually explicit materials, including images, videos or text
  • Engaging in unwanted or inappropriate conversations of a sexual nature
  • Making comments about someone’s appearance or body in a sexual manner or derogatory way
  • Sending unsolicited sexual messages or emails 
  • Making inappropriate comments or jokes related to someone’s gender, sexual orientation, appearance, weight, age or personal life 
  • Using sexually explicit or demeaning language toward someone
  • Overlooking statements such as, “Relax, you know it’s all in fun,” or “What happens at [event name] stays at [event name].”
  • Being asked about dating life, marriage, “How’s that working out for you?”
  • Pressuring someone to have another drink after they’ve already declined

Section 2: How to tell if your behavior is making someone uncomfortable

A great deal of this conversation centers around the fact that a lot of the bad behaviors exhibited are very subtle. Several women reported “subtle” harassment — that close hug during a photo. That joke that was serious — if the woman seemed receptive. That sloppy drunkenness that blurs lines. 

Many of the women we spoke to agree that offenders might not even realize they’re crossing the lines. Lines are changing as new generations enter the workforce, and sometimes men are completely unaware of the power dynamic. 

As such, here is a list of how someone might look or act if you’re making them uncomfortable:

  • Nervous laughing
  • Crossing their arms
  • Backing away and creating a space between you
  • Grimacing or flinching facial expressions
  • Abrupt subject changes
  • Taking deep breaths or a shift to fast-paced breathing (they are trying to regulate their nervous system)
  • Looking around or over your shoulder
  • Avoiding eye contact (demanding eye contact is invasive, and it’s time to walk away when you feel the need to)
  • Their legs, hands or feet suddenly start shaking, tapping or stomping
  • Their body is facing away from you or their feet are turned toward the door. That’s a good sign they’re trying to be polite but want to escape the conversation

Section 3: What to do when you see/experience something

If it’s happening to you …

This list hopes to empower those who are experiencing behavior that makes them uncomfortable.

  • Speak up assertively: Calmly and firmly communicate to the person engaging in harassment that their behavior is unwelcome and making you uncomfortable. Clearly state boundaries and ask them to stop.
  • Inform trusted individuals: Share what happened with someone you trust, like a friend, family member or colleague. They can provide emotional support and potentially act as witnesses if needed. Document whom you talked to and when.
  • Document the incidents: Keep a record of dates, times, locations and detailed descriptions of each incident. Include any witnesses (include names and contact information) or evidence, such as emails, text messages or photographs. 
  • Report the harassment: Report the harassment to the appropriate authority figure or organization. This could be an office admin or supervisor or event contact. Provide them with copies of your documented evidence. Include the names of people you’ve talked to and include their contact information.
  • Seek legal advice: If the harassment continues and affects your safety or well-being, consider talking to an attorney who specializes in harassment or discrimination laws. They can suggest potential legal actions to take. 
  • Explore support resources: Reach out to organizations or helplines specializing in supporting individuals experiencing harassment. They can offer guidance, resources and emotional support throughout the process. 

If you see something …

Sometimes, you’re just as uncomfortable with what you’re seeing. Here are a few ideas on how to handle it when it’s not happening to you:

  • Red light the behavior: If the incident does not involve you, but you see it happening to someone else, step in to stop the incident.
  • Say “Your behavior is not acceptable — stop it!”: If you see it happening to someone else and they seem uncomfortable, step in and ask the person if they are being made to feel uncomfortable. If they say yes, you need to step in and tell the offender that their behavior is not acceptable and that they need to stop immediately.
  • Introduce yourself: If the event is a conference or networking opportunity, it is perfectly OK to go up and introduce yourself and offer your hand for a handshake to either party you think may be in an uncomfortable or outright harassing situation. That way, you will get the person’s name and create an opportunity for the other individual to step away from the situation if they are feeling uncomfortable. 


  • Create safety protocols: With your core group, create safety protocols, including using tools like Find My Friends and sharing locations. Especially at events, it’s imperative to look out for one another and have check-in points.
  • Take measures to protect yourself or those involved: If necessary, take steps to enhance your personal security. This might include changing your routines, when or what you post on social media, securing your home or workplace, or your hotel room, if traveling. Have someone with you whom you trust at all times. Don’t walk alone or attend events alone. Every situation is unique; what you do depends on the situation. 

Have more to add to this list? The hope of this group is that this list will grow and be added to with feedback from all in the industry. 

Connect with Dani Vanderboegh via email or Instagram.

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