Professional Women in Construction — Lenore Janis
Professional Women in Construction is currently headed by Lenore Janis, who serves as president and executive director. She stated that while statistics show that the number of women in the industry is still relatively small, she sees the reality of women in the industry in a very practical way.
“We are probably the only industry women’s organization that runs a golf outing every year, and we’ve been doing it since 1992,” she said. “I can tell you that in 1992, 60 men showed up and six women. What does that tell you? Today, 30 to 35 percent of the players are women, and that is a tremendous increase in the number of women, and we’re talking about a packed house — around 120 players. So I think there, we have seen significant growth, and the women are looking to do the type of things that the men have done in order to create customers, to get close to people and so on. But from 10 percent of the crew to up to 35 percent, I think that’s huge. I’m very pleased with it.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women construction managers increased from 5.9 percent in 2003 to 7.3 percent in 2013.
“While the statistics may make you think it’s not that significant, it is very important. We’re seeing it in other ways,” said Janis.
She noted that she got her start in the family construction business.
“My dad owned an iron and steel fabricating and erection company, and everyone laughed when I went to work for the company,” she said. “They’re not laughing anymore.”
She explained that around 1979, people started to hear that the U.S. government was going to assist women to get into an industry from which they were completely blocked.
“A man owned a company, and when he died, he left it to his wife,” she said. “Within three weeks, the wife was out of business because the banks pulled their loans, and the suppliers pulled their credit line. So there was something going on which forbade women from entering this industry. As it turned out, I became aware that the government was going to assist the women. We started hearing Jimmy Carter talking around 1978 to 79, and the deed was done in 1980, which was when we formed Professional Women in Construction. We had quite a group of women — some of them did own companies, and they were struggling. Some were trying to get ahead in the fields of architecture and engineering.
“By the way, women were not allowed to walk on a job site, which made it very difficult for those who were in the professional management industry — the architects and the engineers. They were sort of shoved into the back room of an office. So it was a very tough situation. When we started, the men looked at us askance. However, one man, and he was governor of New York State at the time — the father of the current governor — his name was Mario Cuomo — came to a meeting that we held and when the men in the industry found out that he was coming they all showed up to our event, and he said to them, ’You men. You see these women over here? Well, you’d better start bringing them on your jobs or you will not get a state contract. And that’s when the magic started. He literally put us on the map.”
She noted that PWC started to move in a big way at that time, because the men started showing up and wanting to see the “whites of their eyes” to determine if they knew anything since they had to hire them.
Her own experience in the early 1980s was with a women-owned steel erection firm that she had started.
“I remember getting a job with a Connecticut company,” she said. “They were building a garage, and the guy said to me, ’I’m giving you a hundred foot of pipe rail, and I said why only a hundred foot — there’s thousands of feet that you need. He says, ’I just want to say that I hired a woman-owned business.’ The point was that at that time, they had not set goals. It wasn’t as if you should give a women-owned business 5 percent of a contract. There were no goals, but there were people who said well, I just want to tell everyone that I hired a woman-owned company. And they were getting away with it. So, as the years passed, then the goal became essential, and if you were being brought on and you were going to get 5 percent of a huge project, you were really doing very well.”
Janis recalled going to the union — Local 40 in New York City and telling them that she was running this company, and she needed good workers. They told her that she didn’t have to worry about anything — just bring them the contracts and they would give her the guys.
“And I got to tell you, they gave me the best guys,” she said. “They were wonderful. So they helped to make my business succeed. I think I was the only certified woman-owned business in the steel erection business, and it worked very well, and I got tremendous amounts of publicity. But I think I was a little upset when a photographer came from a newspaper and he wanted me to pose near some project that we had, and he asked me if I would wear high heels and stand on the high steel. And I said no. They were still playing games with us.”
Since 1995, Lenore has been the full-time president and executive director of PWC. The organization has grown since its inception, and in 2005 developed chapters, which are now in New England, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. One also is currently being built in Buffalo, N.Y. There are more than 1,000 members, but the constituency that is reached is far larger than that. The organization’s mailing list includes more than 18,000 names.
According to Janis, many of the women in the construction industry own and run companies, as well as serve as project managers.
“There are a tremendous amount of women in sales,” she said. “I think that the women are very much out front in terms of the sales force. This was an area which was strictly a male area at one time, and now you see the women. Are women good sales people? Yes, I think they’re terrific sales people.”
As for the general public’s view of women in construction, Janis noted that they are not very well informed.
“Apparently, they don’t know we’re here,” she said. “It’s always a tremendous surprise when a woman introduces herself and says she’s in a construction business. Everybody’s eyes open wide, and the general public is not with us. They really don’t understand.”
According to Janis, the fact that schools are all open to women is a big factor in the future of women in construction.
“I remember 20 or 30 years ago, it was very difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to go to engineering school and so on,” she said. “Today the schools are open, but what we do find is that women are not very well represented at engineering schools. I don’t know what it is — I don’t know if it has something to do with the United States of America, because I will tell you frankly that many women engineers that I meet have come from foreign countries, especially eastern Europe, Israel, where the schools seem to be open and welcoming the women. But here in the United States, we see that there are very few who have gone into the engineering field. We find that, and it’s still a matter for discussion as to why. Why are we not getting through to these young women?”
PWC is very future oriented in that it has initiated a mentorship program to get young women more interested.
Another service that PWC provides is continuing education to help people increase knowledge in many different subjects and also receive professional credits, or continuing education units.
Owner, Clark Construction Consulting Services Inc., Gaithersburg, Md.
Vinesha Clark came to the United States in 1985 to further her education, which began overseas.
“I was kind of looking forward to something different,” she said. “I enjoyed writing and thought I might end up in that field, but I actually landed my first job working for a small general contractor — and I became intrigued. All those years of building with Lego sets and watching buildings go up suddenly resonated in me. Something clicked and I wanted to explore construction a little bit more. I headed to Montgomery College, in Rockville, Maryland, and signed up for some classes in construction. This was where I belonged. I enjoyed what I was learning and went on to get a four-year construction management diploma. I was working full-time and going to school at night, and that got me into the field of working as an analyst for some of the major consulting firms, and I was always a fast learner and quickly climbed the ladder to becoming a consultant and senior consultant — mostly doing forensic construction analysis. What that means is that my work was mostly on fact findings to support litigation, in other words, the construction research and analysis that takes place when a project is impacted through design defects, cost overruns, delays and other factors.
“And that was fine. I really enjoyed that end of the work, but I also really wanted to be in the field. I have always been a very organized person and I am very attentive to details, these are great assets in project management. I wanted to see things as they happened and be a part of putting together the many parts of the puzzle. At the time, I could see that my dream of being in the field would not materialize anytime soon, mostly because of my gender. You can feel that, you are told that you are good, great reviews and decent raises, empty promises and that was as far as it went. In 2004, I lost my father and felt emptiness in my life, I needed to make a change and that is when I decided to start my own business. Clark Construction Services was founded in April 2006, and that has been really a great experience for me. I don’t regret making the change at all. In fact, I wish I had started earlier.”
Clark noted that she started looking around just like everyone else who was trying to network and meet women in the industry who could mentor and be role models for them.
“Pretty much, we all face the same type of issues in the industry,” she said. “So that’s kind of what I was thinking, and I looked everywhere in D.C. I attended several of the networking groups, and they were mostly networking events with a lot of male counterparts, not many females. I wanted a place where there were more women like me, I was hoping to learn from then, I was looking for a mentor and that’s when I discovered PWC. I reached out to Lenore [Janis] and learned that PWC was in New York and I was in Washington, D.C., so we didn’t have a chapter here. When I heard Lenore’s story — it was then that I realized how phenomenal Lenore is. I mean, she got it at a very, very early stage of our progress, and the progress of professional women in construction, in general. She started to get in the field over 30 years ago, she often reminisced about her days at meetings where she was just a pretty face in a New York City conference room despite the fact that she owned her own ’steel’ firm. Lenore forged ahead for us. Everyone can come up with different types of networking events, but this is a place where as women in construction — as professional women in construction — we can meet and greet and learn from men and women in the industry. Lenore’s philosophy is that we do not discriminate against men; we encourage them to work with us. This makes her one of the biggest role models and mentors for women in the industry — I am now a huge fan of hers. But I also know that we need to continue the work she started.”
Clark feels that attitudes toward women in the industry have changed, and are continuing to change and follow the right path toward improvement.
“But there is still some friction out there,” she said. “There is still a lot of learning to be done and a lot of enlightening to happen in those areas. We made a dent, for sure, but there is a long way ahead of us. But there is hope. There definitely is great hope, this was evidenced by PWC-DC’s recent participation in the US Science and Engineering Festival (STEM) — it was a big conference in D.C., and they had invited all the major schools in the area to attend, and something like 40,000 students were bused to the DC Convention Center on Friday, the first day of the event. We had a career booth, and it was amazing. I was blown away by so many young women, and I’m talking from the age of probably 9, who would stop by our booth and put on their hard hats — we had pink hard hats for everyone. They were so well versed in construction — they not only would say, “well I want to be an engineer,” they knew why they wanted to be an engineer. They talked about things they were inventing. They talked about bridges and playing with Lego sets and it was just amazing. It was just breathtaking to hear these young women talk and be so assertive of what they wanted to do. They know why they want to be in construction. We would talk about the different career paths and some of them were amazed to learn that there were so many opportunities available in this industry. For me, it was a big change from hearing women say well, I’ve got to do engineering because I’m good in math. Many of even my colleagues felt that way before, but I think that culture is changing quite a bit, and it’s great.”
Clark has seen big progress in the types of jobs women hold. There was a time when women were only managing project files. Today, they manage projects, they design projects, are in on management decisions, serve as architects, engineers, and construction managers.
“We do quality control, we do audits, we are construction lawyers … so there is just huge progress there, I think,” she said. “And in fact, many people at this festival also talked about how they are seeing more and more women involved in such things including safety, quality controls, risk management, schedulers, project management, program management and ’Superintendent’… So there are a lot of opportunities, and that actually was one of the reasons we participated in this festival. We wanted to let the young generation know of all the opportunities available and our goal is to continue to talk about those opportunities.”
Clark noted that she understands that statistics show that women make up about 13 percent of the industry workforce, and out of that there are about 1.2 percent working on site.
“But we make half of the population of the world — so we are 51 percent, so there is a major discrepancy here,” she said. “However, things are progressing, but not fast enough. I think it should be faster. And the same applies to how women are paid in the industry. We make 1/3 less than men, and that’s something that comes up a lot.”
Clark sees the progress of women in construction as a journey.
“Lenore has started something, and she has put passion over and above anything to make this organization happen, and now we have a place,” she said. “It is up to us to take that passion to the next level. It is up to us to help the young generation of the women coming out of college: help mentor them, help them get more involved in the industry, help them know where the opportunities are in this industry, because there are many. Women are very good in construction. We have this ability to quickly visualize things. We see the big picture. We are very organized. We understand the process that needs to take place. We run schedules in many aspects of life, and we know how to prioritize. We face these challenges daily and we think very logically, so that makes us better construction people, and that makes the construction industry a good place for us.
“We have overcome many of the challenges. We have proved ourselves, and we’re good at it. And I think we should take advantage of that. We need to continue it — talking about it more — going out there and reaching out to these women at all levels. A lot of them don’t know what this industry has to offer and it is kind of our job to change the nature of things, and bring out those opportunities, and we have a lot to catch up if we are only 13 percent.” Someone once said that we write our legacy through our daily actions, we need to really give that some thought as we start our day in the morning. I do.”
Paul Hoffmann, Vice President, Manager of Special Inspections, HAKS Construction Management, New York, NY
Paul Hoffmann has been in the construction industry for the past 20 years, and currently runs the special inspection and material testing group as vice president for HAKS; a construction management, engineering, architecture, land surveying and special inspection/material testing firm with 600 employees, nearly 200 in his group alone.
He noted that he has seen a “major, and welcome, increase in the expansion of important roles and responsibilities of women in all facets of construction and real estate in NYC and major markets. He believes the changes are “a simple case of pursuit, opportunity, and ambition.”
In fact, Hoffmann noted that he is currently interviewing for an assistant project manager with his group, and he has received (and interviewed) more qualified resumes and applicants that are women vs. men.
In his experience, he has seen a jump in the number of female design engineers, architects, and now strength in senior construction management.
“The amazing growth in the market in values and activities create outstanding career paths with higher than average compensation and this has led to the industry being a target for talent,” he said. “There is far less machismo walking around these days. Skill is the key to success, man or woman. No one is surprised to see a woman in a hard hat.”
Nicole Hunter, Project Manager, HNTB Corporation, New York, NY
Nicole Hunter has more than 20 years of experience in project controls, procurement, public information, and business development. She is currently a project manager with HNTB.
“The role of women in construction over the past 10 years has evolved from predominantly mid-level support or administrative positions to more managerial and technical roles — engineers, architects, project managers,” she said. “There were always women in construction, but in the higher executive, managerial or technical roles, in my experience, there have been very few. In addition, I am happy to say that there are more women in trades — a great advance since it has been extremely hard for women to get a foot in the door.”
She believes that more women are getting involved due to exposure to the industry.
“Women in construction and professional organizations are reaching out to high schools and colleges and letting the young women students know they have an option and giving trailblazing examples,” she said. “Also, a lot of professional women have an opportunity to mentor students that intern for a summer at various companies and projects. The interns see the professional women and realize that they could do what they are doing too.”
In her experience, others in the industry have accepted women into roles more commonly held by men on a case by case basis, but not across the board.
“I’ve been enormously fortunate to have worked for firms that have extremely advanced ideas and encourage women to go above and beyond,” she said. “However, I’ve observed from colleagues that this isn’t always the case. For example, I’ve witnessed a lot of scrutiny of associates because they are a woman, and men still try to hold on tight to ’the old boys club.’ I’ve seen lack of advancement of women or subtle ways of exclusion as simple as not inviting the woman executive to a meeting. A very keen awareness is necessary, and a woman cannot be afraid to stand up for herself and call people on their indirect behaviors or treatments — this can include support staff, sometimes women, who are used to working for a man. Also, what I have commonly seen is a woman executive will give a directive and then it has to be verified or validated by a male counterpart in order for the person being given the direction to proceed.”
She feels that the general public has accepted women in construction, and always finds it interesting for a woman to be in the industry.
“The perception of construction being constrained only to someone in a hard hat on a construction site has evolved — thank goodness,” she said.