Until her Fitbit broke, Mary Kearney faithfully wore it to track her peregrinations up and down the corridors and stairs and across the lobby, the terrace, the garden and the workout room at Tribeca Park, a rental building in Battery Park City.
Average daily travel: five miles.
“I should be skinnier,” Ms. Kearney, 49, said with a rueful laugh as she stood in the lobby of Tribeca Park the other day greeting residents, offering to help a woman who was maneuvering a bulky stroller while simultaneously hoisting a bulky toddler, and asking another woman about the progress of her kindergartner.
“You’ve been in the same spot all day,” one tenant said teasingly as he crossed the lobby. “This is exactly where I left you this morning.”
The same spot? All day? Not a chance. Ms. Kearney is the superintendent of Tribeca Park and its sibling Tribeca Green, which have a combined 670 units.
As such, she is a member of a very exclusive group. Of the more than 3,000 unionized superintendents in New York City, “I think I can safely say that there are probably only a couple of dozen women,” said Kyle Bragg, the secretary-treasurer of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which represents building service workers.Photo
Gender bias is one explanation for that modest number. This is a profession whose glass ceiling seems impervious to the big hammers wielded by Ms. Kearney and colleagues like Janet Leon, who manages operations at Addison Hall, a 237-unit co-op on West 57th Street, and Jennifer Davis, the superintendent of Greenwich Tower, a West Village co-op with 149 apartments.
But there are other contributing factors, among them a scarcity of role models and a belief among real estate executives that while they themselves may be all for hiring a woman, the residents of the buildings they manage would never go for it. And that goes double for the building staff.
“There has to be assurance that male workers are going to be able to take direction from a woman,” said Dee DeGrushe, an account executive at Orsid Realty Corporation, the managing agent for Addison Hall, where Ms. Leon has worked since July. Ms. DeGrushe added, “Also, we deal with workers of many cultures” with different attitudes about women.Photo
A managing director of a real estate firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the press, said: “It’s an old boys’ club. The supers have organizations and they all know each other, so there are all these connections, and there’s a lot of ‘Can you do something for my nephew?’ Or they’ll move to another building and pass their old job to their brother-in-law.”
Some think the issue is more basic, not so much “women need not apply” as “it wouldn’t occur to women to apply.”
“I don’t think many women are aware that being a super is even an option for them,” said Martha Goupit, an executive vice president of the Halstead Management Company. “They don’t think it’s a job that’s available to them because the profession is so dominated by men.”Photo
Popular culture hasn’t exactly been a help in job recruitment. On TV shows like “One Day at a Time,” “Good Times” and “Friends,” supers were always men — often buffoonish men, it’s true, but men just the same.
Ms. Leon still has the hammer from the tool kit she received as a 5-year-old. It was a consolation present from her father, a machinist at Pan Am, when her kindergarten teacher forbade her to play in the boys’ pretend industrial shop, steering her instead toward dolls and dress-up.
“I was always mechanically inclined, always handy,” said Ms. Leon, who went to the School of Visual Arts intending to become an art photographer. To earn some money, meanwhile, she answered an ad placed by a locksmith; she already knew how to install locks so there wasn’t much of a learning curve. Her job, naturally enough, took her to apartment buildings, mostly to work on burglar alarms, and she began meeting landlords. Their enthusiastic sponsorship ultimately led to a job offer as a super.Photo
At first, she turned her nose up: Thanks very much, but she was going to be a photographer. Then came an offer to be a part-time superintendent. Great, thought Ms. Leon, who saw it as the perfect arrangement. She could build up her bank account while pursuing her dream. “I didn’t know I would fall in love with super-ing,” she said.
Since that first job more than 15 years ago, Ms. Leon has been the super in several residential buildings and did a stint in facilities management at a university. Along the way, she went back to college and got an engineering degree (cum laude) from the City University of New York, hoping it would ease the way to larger, better buildings. “I think it’s gotten me more interviews,” said Ms. Leon, who declined to give her age. “I don’t know if it’s gotten me more job offers.”
The biographies of confreres like Ms. Davis and Ms. Kearney are similar. They were interested in fix-it projects from an early age and expanded their know-how with their fathers’ encouragement. As young adults they began working in apartment buildings, taking varying paths up through the ranks.Photo
Ms. Davis, the super at Greenwich Tower for the last nine and a half years, was a theater major in college and brought her talent at set-building to bear when she was hired as a maintenance worker at a building in Boston, receiving excellent on-the-job training to boot.
Ms. Kearney began as a concierge and handywoman, while Kathy Lynch, 62, the superintendent at the Newbury, a co-op on the Upper East Side, first worked in the building as a concierge, a job with some doorman responsibilities that also required her to work one day a week as a porter.
The women burnished their résumés with coursework in carpentry, plumbing and electrical wiring as well as building technology — heating, cooling and elevator maintenance — at technical schools or at 32BJ. “I took every class I could,” said Loretta Zuk, 54, who worked as a handywoman in an apartment house in Morningside Heights before becoming the super of an apartment building on Riverside Drive for graduate students at Columbia University, a job she’s had for the last 22 years.
Unfortunately, sterling credentials and decades of experience are no match for hidebound notions about a woman’s place. At an interview for a super’s job at a building on the Upper East Side, a man on the co-op board asked Jennifer Davis if she knew how to change a light switch. Yes, she did. “And then he said, ‘Well, what about a broken window?’ ” Ms. Davis, 55, recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yes. Generally, things like that are done by an outside company, but I’ve done it, yes, if that’s what you’re asking.’ He was kind of sexist and insulting.”
Happily, that job didn’t come through.
Ms. Leon recalled a meeting with a co-op board during which “a man held up some tools and asked me to identify them,” she said. “I wanted to tell the guy, ‘My mother has better tools in her kitchen drawer.’ Then he threw a screwdriver at me to see if I could catch it and asked me to lift a radiator. I asked why I would do that when I could put it on a handcart.” Things went rapidly downhill from there. Some years later, Ms. Leon was set to take a super’s job at a co-op on Riverside Drive only to have the offer rescinded; she was told the building’s much-loved handyman had said, “It’s me or her.”Photo
Ms. Lynch of the Newbury has occasionally had a contractor push back “and maybe made me feel not as mighty as I thought I was,” she said. “But I always have the upper hand. I can just say goodbye and show him the door. He can tell by the look on my face that something isn’t being done right and he gets to it.”
Ms. Leon said, “Some people are just uncomfortable with a woman.”
Men may feel threatened by a woman super because, well, they themselves should be fixing the leak in the bathroom. Women, meanwhile, may feel uneasy about another woman carrying their parcels. Let’s not get into how men might feel about handing off a package to a woman.Photo
“I’ve had managing agents look me in the eye,” Ms. Leon said, “and say: ‘You were such a good candidate. It’s nothing personal, but we just don’t feel comfortable hiring a woman at this time.’ ” What’s been astounding to Ms. Leon is how comfortable these agents feel about expressing their discomfort.
It is equally astounding to Steven D. Sladkus, a real estate lawyer. “It’s shocking to me that a building would be so brazen in its improper attitude,” he said. “Of course, it’s illegal to discriminate against anyone in connection with employment opportunities based on gender. That said, I’m sure many people are loath to pursue the matter for fear of being blacklisted by any other potential employer.”
As Ms. Leon put it, “I love this profession and wanted to keep working in it.” She is happy with how things turned out. “I have a good building,” she said, “and I couldn’t ask for a more welcoming staff and residents. I’ve been moved by it. But I believe that a man with the experience and education that I have would be able to get more benefits and a lot more money, and would have more opportunities, more choices of buildings to work in, than I’ve had.” According to Mr. Bragg of 32BJ, individual buildings set a super’s salary; the union contract spells out the rate of annual wage increases.Photo
Insensitive co-op board members and sexist handymen notwithstanding, more and more women are going to come into the profession, said Tami Veikos, a senior vice president of the Related Companies, which owns and manages Tribeca Park and Tribeca Green.
The role has changed, she said. “Obviously, the mechanical skills have to be there, but now your basic super is a much more rounded person with computer skills and things like that. As the job has evolved and as the requirements for the luxury market, particularly, have become more managerial and more hospitality-driven,” Ms. Veikos continued, “it’s becoming a business that women are seeing themselves in.”
Loretta Zuk is a case in point. “I go from doing work orders on the computer to greeting new residents to supervising the contractors, to figuring out new ways to be energy efficient and yelling at a couple of guys for not cleaning up after themselves,” she said.
You’ll pardon female supers for thinking they bring a little something extra to the table — a little more compassion, a little more cleaning. “I think women listen better and I think they empathize more with tenants about their apartments,” Ms. Kearney said.
Ms. Leon keeps a mini wet-dry vacuum on her tool cart as well as a dust brush and scrupulously polices the area after finishing a repair, she said. “As a woman I understand how invasive it can feel to have someone come into the home to do work, and I am mindful that I’m in somebody’s home.”
Residents of Tribeca Park, Tribeca Green and Addison Hall may see nothing particularly remarkable about having a female super, but visitors often express surprise. “One man who was here last week said, ‘Wow, you’re the first female resident manager I’ve seen,’ ” Ms. Kearney said, adding that she’s had nothing but support from residents and staff. “And I answered, ‘Yeah? Well, get used to it.’ ”
At Greenwich Tower, “people see me as a selling point for the building,” Ms. Davis said. “Realtors will say, ‘Oh, this is the super. She’s always here and she’s great.’ But I do find that contractors are often surprised. Every couple of weeks I’ll hear from one of them, ‘Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve never seen a female super before.’ ”
“A long time ago,” Ms. Davis added, “My father told me to ‘get a sign that reads, “See the lady super: $5,” and soon you’ll be able to retire.’ ”
Correction: October 16, 2015
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article referred incorrectly to a super shown with a colleague. The super, Janet Leon, is a woman.
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