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PWC Reaches Its Next Level: Looking Back on the First 35 Years

Lenore Janis on the movement that started in 1980 with 12 members and became a national presence.

Mon December 29, 2014 - National Edition
Lenore Janis -Executive Director -PWC

Each month CEG is presenting a blog contributed by members of Professional Women in Construction (PWC). Founded in 1980, PWC is a nonprofit advocacy andsupport organization dedicated to the advancement of professional, managerial and entrepreneurial women in construction and related industries. PWC has chapters nationwide.

As 2014 draws to a close and PWC (Professional Women in Construction) approaches its 35th year, I am amazed both by how the time has flown and how this organization has blossomed into a far more powerful and empowering voice than any of us would ever have imagined.

In 1980, a group of 12 women, a mix of women business owners like myself (I owned and ran a steel erection business), women in mid to high-level positions, and women striving against the odds to rise to the top, met to share our similar struggles and find a way to thwart the obstacles blocking us from reaching our goals. We were united by a fierce determination to carve a path for ourselves in this male-dominated field and, frankly, we were frustrated –banks refused to grant us loans without a male co-signer; we were banned from setting foot on a job site; bosses forced us to stay out of the limelight so they could take a bow for our backstage work.

For the first five years, PWC was a support organization, run by women and for women. In 1982, we held our first trade show to encourage women to promote themselves. We were amazed when around 75 women showed up, eager to hear the speakers explain how Affirmative Action could work for our benefit by mandating the participation of WBEs (woman-owned business enterprises) in government-funded projects.

In 1984, then NY State Governor Mario Cuomo came to a PWC event and laid down the law to the few men in attendance: if the men refused to bring the WBEs on board their companies would not be awarded gov’t contracts. It was called Affirmative Action. Some cheered him but, not surprisingly, others groused. Eventually, they all realized that resistance was futile and the contracts started to roll in.

A year later we made a major change. Taking our cue from NOW – National Organization of Women – we opened our membership to men. The logic was self-evident – if we want to get the work we need to get to know, one-on-one, the people who have the work to give. Excluding men not only did not help us, it hurt us. And it went against the values we were promoting – “We do not discriminate” we declared, and we meant it!

Did the men bang down our doors to join? Hardly. One lone lawyer sent in an application. Yes, he believed in us, he opposed biases against women, but that wasn’t all of it – he saw an opportunity to do business with a growing market. He was right. Yet, though slow to join initially, men did come to our events….to see the whites of our eyes and ascertain if we knew how to run our companies.

It was a public turning point. Once men were welcomed we transitioned from a women’s support organization to an INDUSTRY association. Between 1985 and 1995, we often shared our events with CMAA (Construction Management Association of America). The frequency of events increased. We had an annual Awards Reception to honor a major project that involved women. We gained more and more visibility for women who had achieved success. We were heading in the right direction.

Eventually, more and more individuals, public agencies and companies recognized the value of stating one’s membership in PWC and, more and more, of sponsoring us. PWC was the best place to find highly qualified women in the field either as owners, professionals – engineers, architects, construction lawyers – or executives. Then too, frankly, some of it was good PR – supporting a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of women placed you on the side of the angels. And a little halo never hurt anyone.

In 1992, PWC launched its first coed golf outing. Why? Because the boys wouldn’t let us play! As late as 1989, a couple of us tried attending an industry outing and were told “why don’t you girls go play tennis?”

The first (1992) PWC golf outing drew six women and around 60 men. The next year, the number of women had tripled. Wt that timee caught the attention of the New York Times. More and more women started to take lessons – companies saw the business potential of networking on the green for women and paid for their golf lessons. Over the years our outings generally include around 30 – 34% women players.

By 1995 we had become strong, independent and ready to brave it alone. At that time, I joined PWC as full-time executive director. Our programs became more frequent, our topics more diverse and able to tap into many markets, our speakers were always drawn from the top tier –from Mayor Koch to countless CEOs, partners in major firms and commissioners. In 2005, we became the proud parents of our first chapter – Connecticut, covering New England. Today we have four thriving chapters (PWC headquarters in NY; PWC-CT; PWC-NJ; PWC-DC – including Maryland and Virginia) representing six states. Our constituency is off the charts – around 20,000 – our membership totals over 1000.

We couldn’t have done it without the government and we couldn’t have done it without the men. Why have some men been so deeply committed to the organization?

We asked that question of Bill Fife, PE, the Fife Group, PWC board member emeritus, senior advisor to IBEX and Weidlinger and former chief of aviation planning with the Port Authority of NY & NJ (PANYNJ). A longtime supporter of women and minorities in the workplace, he notes that at one time more than half of the senior managers he hired at the PANYNJ were women – “I picked the best and the brightest,” he recalls. Fife ran the MWDBE program at the PANYNJ’s aviation department. He explains, “I believe in giving back and paying forward. If you’re successful in an industry, you need to help others succeed by promoting that group, mentoring them, whatever applies. In the past, we missed the potential of half the population.”

Some might say, the ’better half.’

Lenore Janis is the Executive Director of the Professional Women in Construction organization.

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