NEW YORK CITY-After chief engineer John Augustus Roeblingdeveloped decompression sickness in 1872, it was his wife Emily whostepped in to oversee day-to-day construction on the BrooklynBridge until its completion in 1883. Notwithstanding that example,when Lenore Janis entered the construction business nearly acentury later she found that women were not even allowed on the jobsite.

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“When my father said to me, ‘this business is not for girls,’ heknew what he was talking about at that time,” Janis tellsGlobeSt.com. Janis got into the construction industry only becauseher mother, who had inherited the family business from her latehusband, insisted that Janis’ two brothers bring their sister in,threatening to sell the business if they refused.

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Janis would go on to found her own firm, Era Steel Constructionand, in 1980, an industry association known as Professional Womenin Construction. Thirty years later, it has branched out from itsNew York metro base into six regional chapters with a totalmembership of 1,100. Aside from New York, they also includeConnecticut; New Jersey; Washington, DC; South Florida; andnortheastern Pennsylvania.

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More such chapters are likely to follow; Janis says she’s gotteninquiries from Chicago; San Diego; and Tampa, FL; among othercities. “The expansion happened on its own,” she says. “We did notgo out and recruit. The calls to establish the six chapters we nowhave came from outside, from women who appeared to be desperate forsome kind of organization that would meet their needs.”

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PWC’s aim is not solely to offer encouragement and support forwomen and minorities in the architecture/engineering/constructionsector, although that’s certainly one of its purposes. It alsoprovides a venue for its members to network with owners anddevelopers as well as leading construction industry firms—and forthose constituencies to seek out PWC members. “What good is havingyour own business if you’re not a party to all the interaction andconnection that’s going on?” Janis asks.

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In the early days of Era, named for the Equal Rights Amendment,the cause of Janis and other women was aided somewhat bythen-President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 executive order establishingprograms and goals for minority- and women-owned companies. “Didthe contractors like seeing me there? No,” Janis recalls. “Theytook every opportunity to tell me that they didn’t want me, thatthe government was forcing them. I could only come back with‘you’re getting your job done on time and under budget. What do youwant from me?’” Some of Janis’ colleagues felt an organization wasneeded to exchange information, and so PWC was born.

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Five years later, “we realized that we had done enough crying oneach others’ shoulders and the great need was to integrate thewomen into what is still a male-dominated field,” Janis says. “Inorder to do that, we took a vote to allow men to join on an equalbasis.”

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The first man to join PWC was an attorney, says Janis. “He hadforesight. Then the major companies began to join.”

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Today, each PWC chapter also has at least one or two men on itsboard. “We think this is one of the reasons that we’re moving soquickly ahead,” Janis says, adding that “a great deal of support”for the organization has come from business-owning men withdaughters “Their concern was that they might not be able toleave their businesses intact to their daughters.” In former years,she adds, “if a wife inherited a construction business, she foundout very quickly that the banks pulled all their loans, thesuppliers pulled their credit and she was selling the business forfive cents on the dollar.”

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Janis cites the great strides women have made in what wasformerly an all-male enclave, yet she’d like to see furtherprogress. More women in the upper echelons of the major firms is agoal, and having more become engineers would be a plus.

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“I know that women are greatly encouraged to go intoarchitecture and now more than ever, women making a career changeare encouraged to go into project or construction management,” shesays. PWC funds a scholarship for a master’s degree in constructionmanagement, and Janis says it’s gotten a number of takers.

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In gratitude for the example set by the “chief surrogateengineer” who saw through the Brooklyn Bridge project to itsconclusion, PWC initiated the Emily Roebling Leadership Award someyears ago. But Janis notes, “It’s amazing that so many people areonly now learning about her achievement. It seems to have been awell-kept secret.”

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Paul Bubny

Paul Bubny is managing editor of Real Estate Forum and GlobeSt.com. He has been reporting on business since 1988 and on commercial real estate since 2007. He is based at ALM Real Estate Media Group's offices in New York City.