Lenore Janis, Who Broke Construction Industry Barriers, Dies at 86

Lenore Janis, a force of nature in the New York City construction industry who left thousands of cracks in the concrete ceiling of a male-dominated business, died on Jan. 31 at an assisted living facility in Brookfield, Conn. She was 86.

The cause was complications of Covid-19, her son John said.

Ms. Janis was a founder and the longtime president of Professional Women in Construction, which started as a small, all-volunteer nonprofit and became, under her leadership, a networking powerhouse for tens of thousands of women trying to navigate a career path that might seem purpose-built to exclude them.

A shrewdly creative organizer with a cigarette-rasped voice, Ms. Janis, by all accounts, did more than just provide mentoring opportunities and meet-and-greet sessions — though she did plenty of that, too.

Knowing that many deals in her industry were made on the golf course, she ran clinics to teach women how to play the game. She sent executives into high schools to recruit girls who might otherwise have never thought about a life in construction. And she doled out stories to young members of her trade group, lessons drawn on a life spent pushing open barriers.

“She would take you under her wing and give advice you wouldn’t hear from anyone else in New York,” said Barbara Armand Kushner, the chief executive of the Armand Corporation, a project-management firm in Manhattan.

Lenore Janis was born on March 4, 1934, in Manhattan. She grew up in White Plains, N.Y., where her father, Harry, owned the White Plains Iron Works. Her mother, Gussie (Weinstein) Janis, was a homemaker.

She studied theater at Bennington College, but left after her sophomore year to marry Herbert Fishman, an engineer. The couple moved to Indiana, where she enrolled at a local Methodist college. She was miserable.

“After a semester wearing long-sleeved modest dresses,” she wrote in a Bennington alumni newsletter in 2005, “trying to decipher Edmund Spenser’s ‘Fairie Queen’ (all the naughty lines blacked out by the school censor) and avoiding the good religious folk who wanted to ‘save’ me, I headed back East.”

A divorce decree in hand, she graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1956 and moved to Manhattan in search of work. She got a job with a public-relations company but was shocked by what she found: A woman in the office told her that the only way to move up was to accept less pay than men doing the same job.

Ms. Janis was married and divorced two more times. In addition to her son John, she is survived by two grandchildren. Another son, Peter, died in 2011.

After leaving public relations, Ms. Janis worked in off-Broadway theater. In the late 1960s she created and ran the Jewish Heritage Theater for Children at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.

Newly divorced and raising her sons on her own, she moved back to White Plains in 1972. Her father died soon after she arrived, and she and her brothers, George and David, took over the family ironworks (George died in 2016, and David died in 2020). Suddenly she was working 60-hour weeks, much of it spent driving around the New York region to visit construction sites.

“I was Janey-come-lately to this industry and learned on the job,” she said in a 2004 interview. “For years I was the only woman attending various industry functions and often mistaken for someone who must be in the interior decoration business.”

In 1979, inspired by the workplace gains made by women in the 1970s, she founded Era Steel, named after the Equal Rights Amendment, which was then awaiting ratification by two-thirds of the states.

Ratification never happened, and as the new decade began, Ms. Janis found that running a construction firm as a woman was harder than she had expected. Banks wouldn’t loan to her, and despite her years of experience, she couldn’t get access to the back rooms where developers, bankers and construction executives — almost all of them men — made their deals.

She and 11 other women founded Professional Women in Construction in 1980 with the goal of lobbying city and state governments to open the contracting process to businesses owned by women — something the federal government had already done under President Jimmy Carter.

Their efforts paid off: In 1983 Mario M. Cuomo, recently arrived in the governor’s mansion, established an office to ensure that more construction contracts would go to companies in New York State owned by women.

In 1986, Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York appointed Ms. Janis director of the city’s Bureau of Building Management, the first woman to hold the job. Among her accomplishments was the installation of women’s locker rooms in Department of Sanitation facilities. She later oversaw special projects in the city’s Office of Construction under Mayor David N. Dinkins.

Ms. Janis left city government in 1994 and was named president of Professional Women in Construction the next year. She retired in 2015, not long after her 81st birthday.

Today there are more women working in the industry than ever before, both in the boardroom and on the construction site. But progress has been slow, and since the pandemic hit there has been a steep drop in the female work force.

Still, Ms. Janis remained optimistic about her gender’s place in an industry that had, over time, begrudgingly made room for her.

“In 1980, a woman could not hope for a well-paying, managerial job in the construction industry,” she said in 2014. “Women attempting to run construction businesses were shunned by banks and suppliers. Attitudes have changed: When a woman steps into the room, she may even be pleasantly surprised to find she’s not the only woman at the table.”

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