The construction business was once hostile at best to women in the field. Many women suffered sexual harassment and pressures from their male counterparts to leave the job. Around 1980, the government began cracking down on the industry, encouraging companies and apprenticeship programs to open their doors to more women, though the field was still one that had undertones of discrimination.
Lenore Janis, president of the Professional Women in Construction group and member of the construction workforce since 1972, recalls those early days when she was headed to college and told not even to bother applying to Lehigh or MIT. She was told that if she wanted to be in the business that was going to be run by her brothers anyway, she could hold onto those architectural and design books for her brothers, who could go to design school, unlike her.
Janis also had a very difficult time getting a loan to start her own construction business in 1980. "The bank wouldn't lend me money," she says. "Discrimination was all over the place. It was in the banks that played ball with the men who then wouldn't lend, and the suppliers who did the same thing."
At the time, there were a variety of business practices that made it difficult for women to own and operate a construction business. Janis explains that if a man were to leave his construction business to his wife upon his death, that the bank would put a stop on the loan and suppliers would systematically stop providing the company with necessary goods.
"You very rarely saw women entering into construction business as a business," Janis says. "Or even if they did, women graduating with engineering and architectural degrees entering the business would get unequal pay."
But Janis fought that discrimination through hard work and determination. She went after a lot of state contracts and became government certified, helping her get to where she wanted to go. Now, she believes, the business has changed.
"They've got it a little easier than we had it in the early 80s," she says of the women currently entering and working in the field. "There is still some discrimination but it's not as open as it was."
Last December, the Small Business Administration announced legislation that five percent of government contracts would go to female-owned businesses. Janis knows that this is the way for women to pull themselves up.
"Women are able to get in and sustain themselves because of government goals," Janis says. "Women then become highly competitive after they get contracts."
Janis sees this legislation as a fairly sizable step in the right direction, though other groups are receiving a larger percent of the pie.
"Is it unfair? Yes. But five percent is a goodly number. And it doesn’t have to end with five percent," she says.
Her organization, Professional Women in Construction, has 100 members, both men and women, who network together and the group advocates for state government to increase their goals. Despite all of the perhaps unnecessary hard work that Janis has gone through in this business, she still loves the field.
"Construction is one of the most exciting industries. There's never an opening night like there is in the theater but there is something called topping out, which is equally exciting. There is good money to be made. And people will never get tired of rebuilding and expanding," Janis says.
Lina Gottesman, founder and CEO of Altus Metal and Marble Maintenance in St. James, New York, had a fairly similar experience to Janis when she first started her own construction business nearly two decades ago. After being bullied into bringing her husband to financial meetings at the bank, Gottesman simply called the banker out on what he was doing and stuck to her guns.
Gottesman appreciates the legislation that is helping her business and other women and minority-owned construction businesses to receive more work. She intends to walk through any door that is open to her and realizes that only good service will keep that door open.
"If you're not going to do good work, you're not going to get the job again," Gottesman explains. "You have to be a qualified company as well. You can't just be a woman; you can't just be a minority."
To other women who want to get into the construction field, Gottesman suggests making sure that you have a good accountant, because, she says, if you don't have your finances in order, it's basically all over. She also suggests that women support each other more in professional circuits.
"I work with men all the time and they are much more supportive of each other than we are," she says.
Having started her business about 19 years ago, Gottesman has seen the face of the business change, but there she says there is still room for improvement.
"It's very important for women and men to make sure that their daughters know the opportunity that they have because in construction they can come out of college and have higher pay and better opportunities than many other jobs offer," she says. "There are whole careers that women have been shut out of for so many years, and financial opportunities that women haven't been able to utilize like men have, so it's time that young women realize that they can be a metal and marble installer."
Gottesman is hoping that the next crop of construction workers will include more women. She is trying to tip that scale by speaking at local high schools and junior high schools, through the Girls Trendsetters Program, talking about the opportunities that Gottesman says many parents neglect to mention to their daughters. "You'd be surprised; it's amazing how receptive these young girls are," she says.