Celebrating Professional Women in Building Week at Penn State

Rachel Fawcett
September 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In celebration of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Professional Women in Building (PWB) Week, Sept. 14-18, the PWB Council of Central Pennsylvania partnered with the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center (PHRC) to offer an insightful discussion for students in an architectural engineering (AE) course.

The PWB Council of Central Pennsylvania is the local council of the NAHB PWB Council within the Builders Association of Central PA (BACP). The PHRC is administered from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Penn State. 

According to labor force statistics in 2019 from the Current Population Survey and analyzed by the NAHB, the share of women in the construction industry is currently at 9.86%, although women make up almost half — 47% — of the total working population. The PWB of Central Pennsylvania and the PHRC seek to engage students in an effort to mitigate this disconnect for women working in the construction industry upon graduation. It also ties into the greater goal of the Penn State College of Engineering to achieve gender equity by 2026. 

Brian Wolfgang, associate director of the PHRC and instructor, teaches AE 470: Residential Building Design and Construction to Penn State students each fall with a record high enrollment of 101 students in 2020. AE 470 continues to be one of the foundational courses for the residential construction minor at Penn State, which equips students in any major to pursue a career in residential construction.  

This special class began with Keri O’Shea, executive officer of the BACP, who introduced the local PWB Council and explained the value of involvement in professional societies and organizations. Professional organizations offer students the opportunity to network, to find job leads and to be active contributors in their industry.  

Transitioning into the next portion of the class, Sarah Klinetob Lowe, housing systems specialist of the PHRC, moderated the discussion featuring two women leaders in the residential construction industry: Emma Dickson and Lorna Arocena. Dickson, project manager at Toll Brothers, is a 2018 Penn State alumna with degrees in civil engineering and economics and a minor in residential construction. Arocena, an architect, is the sole practitioner of Lorna Arocena Architect in State College. 

The discussion centered on the experiences of Dickson and Arocena in the industry. Students submitted questions earlier in the week that were then distilled down to shape the conversation. The topics covered included their personal career paths, the state of the industry in regard to COVID-19 and current design trends, their experiences as women in construction, the challenges that they have encountered and a few specific questions tailored to each woman’s career. 

As a recent graduate entering the industry, Dickson shared her perspectives on the opportunities and challenges she has experienced.  

“I love what I do, and I thoroughly enjoy this industry — there’s so much out there, and you’ll really able to advance if you broaden your horizons beyond one niche,” she said. “However, as a woman, especially on the construction end of things, it’s very hard to get the respect that I think a man would get right away. But it shouldn’t be just my responsibility to get the men to respect me. It’s up to men, as well, to be able to tell the others, ‘Hey, you can’t talk to her like that, or you have to listen to her when she tells you to do something; she knows what she’s talking about.’ Once I get that respect from people, the job becomes great and is so worthwhile.” 

Arocena, who has had an extensive career in both residential and commercial design, shared her perspectives on where the residential industry has been and where it needs to go.  

“The past generation is one of excess, and people are now rethinking how they live,” she said. “We are in a time of climatic extremes, and the new architecture has to adapt and be resilient to what is happening. But the best part is your generation is at the forefront of that. You can create your own model of how societies come together and how we get back to harmony with nature and our planet. Quoting Buckminster Fuller: ‘You can’t change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ And I’ll be supporting you all the way!” 

The organizing entities including the PWB of Central Pennsylvania, the BACP and the PHRC are looking to continue this discussion in collaboration with the Penn State NAHB Student Chapter and at other educational institutions. 

For more information on the Professional Women in Building Council of Central Pennsylvania, visit the website at https://www.centralpabuilders.com/professional-women-in-building-council. For more information on the NAHB Professional Women in Building Week, visit the website at https://www.nahb.org/PWBWeek.

The Pennsylvania Housing Research Center collaboratively engages with the residential construction industry to catalyze advancements in homebuilding through education, training, innovation, research and dissemination. For more information on the PHRC, visit the website at https://www.phrc.psu.edu/


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Last Updated April 15, 2021