Women's Fight to Join the Construction Business May Get Easier

Article excerpt

NEW YORK -- Barbara Kavovit started her construction business by going to shopping malls in Westchester County to hand out business cards and solicit home remodeling work.

That was eight years ago. Today her Anchor Construction Inc. has a full-time crew of 33 workers, annual sales of about $15 million and is involved in big projects like renovating apartments and performing spaces in the Carnegie Hall complex.

She said it had been a struggle to to force her way into the "boys' club" that is the construction business. At a time when it is not remarkable to find women senior executives in corporations, partners in high-powered major law firms and traders and deal makers on Wall Street, women executives still stand out in construction. But aided by federal and state regulations that require certain percentages of public contracts to be directed to firms owned by minorities and women, many are pressing forward. "If I had known what I had to go through, I might not have started this business," Kavovit said. She added that dealing with unionized workers in New York could be "very hard" and the indifference of male executives, particularly older ones, to women's companies remains a problem. Nevertheless, Professional Women in Construction, a trade association founded with 12 members in 1980, now has more than 500 and draws hundreds of male executives to its workshops and seminars. "We needed our own forum," said Lenore Janis, its president and executive director and co-founder of the group. "We are not in the same locker room with the men and for the most part we do not play golf with them. It was hard for women to market themselves." Janis said that as many as 65 percent of the people attending the group's functions were male construction executives looking for qualified women contractors to work on their projects. According to Janis, some federal agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, have set a goal that 10 percent of the work in the projects it finances be directed to minorities and women. New York State has a goal that 10 to 15 percent of its contracts, depending on the project, be awarded to minorities and 5 to 9 percent to companies headed by women. Janis noted that the agencies try to weed out companies where the minority or woman owner is just a figurehead to attract business. "The minority or woman has to own 51 percent of the business and operate in on a daily basis, hiring, firing and signing checks," Janis said. Construction executives say another reason for the increase of women in the industry's ranks is that many more are graduating from engineering and architectural training at the college and university level and have the technical skills to rise in larger organizations. A generation ago, women were seriously under-represented in applied technology, such as engineering. That has since been largely corrected, but it may be years yet before women rise into the top jobs at construction companies. Janis said she operated a family-owned steel fabrication and and construction firm from 1980-86 when she joined the Koch administration in the bureau of building management in the Department of Sanitation. After a stint in the Dinkins administration in the Mayor's Office of Construction she returned to the trade association as the full-time director. "It was very interesting to come back to something that was my baby to begin with," she said. Inheriting a company is one, fairly easy way for a woman to get into the construction. The saga of Nancy A. Peck, the president of S.L. Green Real Estate in Manhattan, which buys and renovates buildings, is quite a different one. "It happened very much by accident," she said. "I was married and living in California where my husband was working on his Ph.D. We moved a lot and since we could not afford very much, I started fixing up the housing we lived in." Faced with a need to make a living after her divorce, she started a small construction company to renovate residential properties north of San Francisco. …


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