“It’s not for girls.”
That’s how Lenore Janis describes the reaction to her childhood interest in the family business.
As the association Janis founded – the Professional Women in Construction – celebrates its 30th anniversary this year she’s been able to reflect upon and enjoy just how much progress she and other women have made in an industry that once rejected them.
Janis loves to talk about the many powerful women who are driving the industry, in many cases, working together with influential men. After all, when she was getting started, most women were prevented from even stepping on a construction site.
“Every time the newspapers got wind of [my organization], they’d ask me to put on my high heels and my hard hat,” she wryly notes during a recent interview in her basement office in a Manhattan brownstone. Her office walls are covered with framed photographs of her standing with New York’s most influential people, including one of her shaking hands with Ed Koch, posing between David Dinkins and his wife, and standing next to Michael Bloomberg.
Next to some of those hang framed press clippings, including a New Yorker cover cartoon of a woman breastfeeding her child on the steel beam of a skyscraper - “my favorite,” she says.
Growing up, Janis says it was unfathomable for most to imagine a woman entering the construction industry and her father never wanted her to walk into his factory, an 18-acre iron and steel fabricating and erecting plant in Peekskill, NY, because “the workers posted dirty pictures on the lockers.”
But after he died, he left the family business to his wife, who did not pass it on only to her two sons as expected. Instead, she told them that if they wanted to keep the business, they would have to take their sister in, as well.
“I’m sure they both said no,” Janis said, but her mother would not budge, threatening to sell the business if they refused. “So they pulled me in, [but] first, they tried to buy me out.”
At the time, she was a single mother of two, and she desperately needed the money they were offering. “The world as pictured by Hollywood was not working. Because in Hollywood, didn’t they get alimony and child support?” she jokes.
She says she was tempted to take the cash until her lawyer chided her, telling her she’d be crazy to sell her portion of the lucrative business.
“[He said] ‘Do you have any idea what that business is worth? Are you, crazy? You get over there, and you get to work!’” Janis remembers.
She followed his advice and started working for her brothers as an “apprentice,” and soon became “absolutely crazy about” construction, explaining, “With the theater, you have an opening night, but with construction you have a timeline, and then it continues.”
A former Off-Broadway producer, she is one of the few people who can compare the two from experience.
Blazing a Trail
Eventually she founded ERA Steel Construction, named after the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed both houses of Congress but failed to get ratified before its deadline. She explains, while apparently laughing at her youthful naivety, that she thought it would pass. Some men taunted her at the time by pronouncing it “error.”
If it passed, she said a constitutional guarantee of equal rights and equal wages “would have made life a little easier, but there were apparently people afraid to do that - and it died.”