New York’s Women of Steel

In a blue-collar business bursting with male bravado, a handful of willful women work twice as hard to conquer the world of construction.

New York’s Women of Steel

“When I started in the masonry trade, men around me tried to break me and to discourage me,” says Michelle McKenzie, speaking on a freezing New York winter day, her nose and mouth covered with a motley scarf to keep them warm. “But I stuck with it.”

McKenzie, forty-eight, is a rare sight in the world of construction, a traditionally male realm. In the United States, women have gradually broken into the industry over the past forty years, yet still account for only nine percent of the workforce, in a field that pays noticiably more than many other blue-collar jobs.

“It’s been seventeen years since I worked on the field and I make fifty dollars an hour, plus benefits — that is a total of $1,800 per week,” McKenzie says proudly. “I own my home. I can take vacation. I have a good life.”

Lenore Janis, the president and owner of Professional Women in Construction, holds up an image of female workers which mimics Lewis Hine's famous photograph of men working on the Empire State Building.
Lenore Janis, the president and owner of Professional Women in Construction, holds up an image of female workers which mimics Lewis Hine’s famous photograph of men working on the Empire State Building.

Nearly all women in construction relate a sometimes-difficult relationship with their male counterparts. Forced to find a job after the departure of her husband in 1972, Lenore Janis took over the reins of the family steel business. She has now been in the industry for four decades and chairs the organization Professional Women in Construction.

A construction worker controls pedestrian traffic near the Ground Zero site.
A construction worker controls pedestrian traffic near the Ground Zero site.

“I remember a young woman very well,” Janis says while smoking a cigarillo in her New York office. “This was really early in the game, in the late 1970s. The boss sent her into the field in order to do the kind of job that a superintendent would do. But the men yelled and threw rocks at her. The boss came and said, ‘Guys, what’s the matter with you? I want to train her.’ And their response was, ‘We don’t want her here because now we can’t pee on the steel!’”

That woman became one of the leading superintendents in the New York construction industry, says Janis. And many companies eventually added toilet facilities to job sites, but she never forgot how hard it was to break into a man’s world.

Barbara Armand, the CEO and owner of a construction business in Manhattan.
Barbara Armand, the CEO and owner of a construction business in Manhattan.

Janis says that the intervention of the U.S. government was crucial to women’s advancement in the field. In the 1980s, quotas were imposed for women and minorities in public projects, including the rule that between five and fifteen percent of selected companies must be run by a woman. Barbara Armand, who founded the construction management firm Armand Corporation, admits that affirmative action was successful for her. But she’s quick to add with a smile: “I’ve never thought that my talent was less. I knew I was just as good as men.”

While there are no such quotas on private projects, some women have been able to break in there as well, such as Pia Hofmann, who has spent sixteen years as a crane operator in New York. “I’m like an adrenaline junkie,” she says, sporting glasses around her neck and a “bitch” sticker on her helmet. “I know I’m skilled but I’ve got to be extra good to prove myself.”

Pia Hoffmann, a German immigrant, operates her crane at a job site in midtown Manhattan.
Pia Hoffmann, a German immigrant, operates her crane at a job site in midtown Manhattan.
Female students during a safety class at the Nontraditional Employment for Women Center, an organization that prepares women for construction jobs.
Female students during a safety class at the Nontraditional Employment for Women Center, an organization that prepares women for construction jobs.

In Manhattan, the nonprofit school Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) has taken over a former fire brigade barracks, where it trains some 500 women per year in jobs like construction. During the six-week sessions, women of all ages and backgrounds go up and down stairs loaded with sixty-pound buckets, study mathematics, learn the basics of carpentry and electricity, and even get tips on how to react to sexual harassment.

A student trains to become an electrician at the NEW Center.
A student trains to become an electrician at the NEW Center.
A student trains at the NEW center.
A student trains at the NEW center.

Elise Harris, forty-three, is one of these women, who decided to make a new start in life. She left journalism to become an machine operator. “People around me are surprised when they hear about such a professional retraining,” says Harris. “They do not see the intellectual side of it. They shouldn’t depreciate it.”

Pia Hoffman on a construction site in Manhattan.
Pia Hoffman on a construction site in Manhattan.

Shamsell Abdill and Gina Candan, two project managers at Armand Corporation, currently work on a field in the Bronx. Candan still seethes about an incident at a site meeting a few years ago, when the owner of the place got confused and asked her for a coffee, assuming she was the secretary. Old stereotypes die hard. Income inequalities do too, as Abdill testifies: “It took me twelve years to get where I am. But it wouldn’t have taken that long if I was a man.”

Gina Camdan, a project manager assistant on a job site in the Bronx, relaying orders to construction workers.
Gina Camdan, a project manager assistant on a job site in the Bronx, relaying orders to construction workers.

“Look at me,” Candan says, a slip of a woman wearing Caterpillars. “I’m five-foot-three and I weigh 110 pounds. I’ve got to be pretty firm because men don’t want to listen. You’ve got to be strong and talk with confidence even if you’re not sure of what you say.”

“We must constantly fight and defend our decisions,” Abdill confirms. Moreover, she pays close attention to what she wears — nothing provocative — and how she behaves: no too-friendly smiles or taps on the shoulder.

Female workers from the Armand construction company travel to a work site in the Bronx.
Female workers from the Armand construction company travel to a work site in the Bronx.

But even if Candan and Abdill sometimes complain about these downsides, they concede they wouldn’t do anything else. “What I like is to see something raw being built up. It’s crazy!” Abdill says. “The difference is that women really care about the project. They take it more personally. For men, it’s just a job. For us, this project that we follow from cradle to grave is a bit like our baby.”

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