Why are there no women on real estate TV shows?

When the industry is dominated by them?
When the industry is dominated by them?
Image: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
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Today (Feb 6) Bethenny & Fredrik debuts on Bravo as the latest in a franchise of real estate television reality shows that feature beautiful people selling multimillion-dollar properties. This newest iteration pairs Real Housewives star Bethenny Frenkel with Million Dollar Listing mogul Fredrik Eklund.

While the duo may look like the standard Bravo formula, Bethenny & Fredrik is bucking a major TV trend, one that has given us season after season of male power brokers as hosts. With this show, and several others in the works, real estate TV is starting to reflect a reality of the industry: That it is—and has been—powered by women.

When reality TV is out of touch with reality

The residential real estate industry is largely made up of women; most top residential firms are women-led, and the National Association of Realtors reports that over 60% of realtors are female. In New York, a city dense with luxury real estate, women head up most nearly all major brokerages.

But you wouldn’t know this watching real estate television—a robust business of reality shows in the US, but also in the UK, Canada, and Australia, that mostly features male agents. The Million Dollar Listing franchise epitomizes this disconnect: Since Samantha DeBianchi’s eight-episode debut in 2014 in Million Dollar Listing Miami, the entire series and its spinoffs in LA, New York, and San Francisco have featured an all-male cast. A prominent female lead recently went to Douglas Elliman’s Tracy Tutor-Maltas, who is currently part of Season 10 of the show in LA.

“Fur Coat Ladies”

Real estate’s female dominance was born decades ago. In 1970s New York, legendary agent Louise Sunshine set Donald Trump up in some of his first Manhattan offices, and after opening up an eponymous firm in 1986 hired only women for decades. Hotel queen Leona Helmsley is another example: The now departed ‘Queen of Mean’ was one of the industry’s biggest power players in the 80s with her appointment as president of Helmsley hotels, which ran 30 prominent properties across the US.  

Real estate allowed women to break the glass ceiling up through the 1990s because it was viewed as an ‘appropriate’ occupation, one with flexibility and work-life balance—the female agent could work and tend to her home and family, often at the same time. A suburban caricature of this 90s real estate agent is performed by Annette Bening in American Beauty

This appeal is what created an early generation of female brokers, and when the condo boom hit in the mid-1980s, many women began leading their firms or starting their own. CEO of Halstead Property Diana Ramirez recalls that the early agents had a hard time being taken seriously, telling the NY Post “They used to call us the Fur Coat Ladies.”

The female dominance in residential brokerage has trickled into today’s generation of firms:

Real estate’s media farce

Why does real estate reality TV—across the globe—continue to fail when it comes to accurately reflecting the industry?

Elizabeth Ann Stribling-Kivlan, president of leading New York firm Stribling & Associates, names HGTV as a network that has tried for representation, with mother-daughter duos like Karen Laine and Mina Starsiak on Good Bones, as well as husband-wife teams like Chip and Joanna Gaines on Fixer Upper. Stribling-Kivlan—whose mother, Elizabeth, founded her namesake firm in the 80s—penned an essay last year entitled Dear Bravo, where are the women on ‘Million Dollar Listing’? before the channel announced Tutor-Maltas and Frankel’s new roles.

And she remains puzzled by the trend: “Does it have to do with the perception of powerful women on television?,” she mused over the phone, “Or how the American community will take it?” She admits she has no idea.

Dorothy “Dottie” Herman, chief executive of Douglas Elliman, thinks that the television problem isn’t necessarily deliberate: “For TV, it’s a formula that works with men and they kept it that way,” she says, pointing to Million Dollar Listing as one show with a “winning formula.”

“I don’t think it was a conscious decision not to have women,” she says, “the shows were successful as they were. I don’t think it’s a discriminatory thing.”

Herman also points out that New York is an outlier when it comes to female leadership, thanks to the aforementioned housing boom that turned the early pool of female brokers into real estate leaders. She notes that major firms across the US and world, especially in development and commercial sectors, are still lead by men.

But Herman suggests that Tracy Tutor Maltas’s ascent in Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles could be the welcome start of a new wave of real estate television: “She broke the ice!” she exclaims, “Now I don’t think it’ll be flooded with women… But as time goes on you’ll see more women.”

The Bravo Formula

The Bravo “formula” does tend to achieve a level of diversity, but in a way that ultimately mirrors the worldview of those at the very top. Take Bravo’s chief protagonist and former programming executive, Andy Cohen, who was the first openly gay host of an American late-night talk show and now serves as executive producer of the Real Housewives franchise.

Looking at shows like Real Housewives, it’s clear that Cohen and his fellow producers rely heavily on caricatures, and through the unbridled lens of reality TV cook up increasingly cartoonish versions of women and minorities: Take NeNe Leeks, who constantly labeled as ‘sassy’, but who is kept just a step away from the trope of the angry Black woman. This variety of diversity appears on Million Dollar Listing in the form of the peppy, perma-tanned gay man that mirrors Cohen himself. In both cases, these figures are used as a proxy for diversity, and in the former, often as a prop.

This may explain its exclusion of the real estate industry’s true demographics, which is typified by a 53-year-old white woman with a college degree. Maybe she just doesn’t fit into the worldview of those running the show, whose idea of diversity is limited at best, and warped at worst.