Against the grain: female students dominate environmental engineering

Photos of the Civil and Environmental Engineering majors in the Class of 2017 are featured on the wall in Anderson Hall on Nov. 15. (Max Lalanne / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts’ School of Engineering is an objectively male-dominated space. According to data from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions website, while 54 percent of undergraduate students at the School of Arts and Sciences identified as female in 2015, that number falls to just 42 percent for engineering students. There is one program, however, in which the engineering school’s gender imbalance is flipped: more often than not, the majority of students in Tufts’ environmental engineering program are female-identifying.

The environmental engineering degree is offered through the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, which also offers undergraduate degrees in Civil Engineering, Architectural Studies and Environmental Health. According to the department’s website, the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering program teaches students skills such as risk assessment, pollution prevention and design and operation of different engineered projects.

Senior Marisa Zellmer is currently studying environmental engineering, having declared the major as a first-year.

She said that when coming to Tufts, she was told that the school had a larger percentage of female engineering students than most other engineering schools, despite the disproportionate representation of men.

“However they’ve done it, they’ve been really good about getting women in engineering,” she said.

Zellmer said that after taking a number of foundational engineering classes, she began to take more specified environmental engineering courses and noticed the divide in gender. Within the Class of 2017, she said, there are eight women in the major and four men.

“I don’t know if it’s maybe viewed as more ‘women-friendly’, which sounds terrible,” she said. “I think a lot of women in general growing up were probably pushed away from something like computer science or electrical engineering toward more stereotypically ‘woman’ fields, and then maybe this is seen as [a] softer form of engineering.”

Senior Jenny Skerker was interested in doing something related to the environment during high school, and decided to declare environmental engineering upon learning more about it after arriving at Tufts.

“I thought it had more to do with climate change,” she said. “There definitely is a climate change component, and I understand kind of the pollution and public health perspective of it as well.”

Skerker said that she’s noticed the higher female ratio in some of her classes. She thinks a reason that the program attracts more women could be that the humanitarian applications of the discipline are more clear.

“One thought on why there are more women in environmental engineering is [that the program is] more straightforward in the applications [that] can help people,” she said.

Murvi Babalola, a fifth-year senior, studied environmental engineering and is spending an extra semester to study environmental health engineering and public health. He is also an environmental studies major, which he noted is a predominantly female field as well. He said that he was the only male environmental engineering major in the Class of 2016.

“I think partly, especially where you get to the health applications and the environment applications, they tend to be a little less high-tech and a little more humanitarian … I think that definitely plays some sort of a role,” Babalola said. “[Health]-related majors at Tufts, I think in general, tend to have more females than males. And definitely in the environmental community, it’s hard to find a guy.”

Professor John Durant has taught a number of classes as a faculty member of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department since he started working at Tufts in 1995. He explained that the major has become more popular after being accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) in 1998.

But Durant said that attracting students to the environmental engineering major can still be challenging.

“We get very good students,” Durant said. “Tufts always gets very good students, and the challenge for us is to make environmental engineering sufficiently attractive as a major … to maintain a critical mass of students [so] that the learning experience for all the students and the program is enhanced. Because there’s always going to be majors out there that are perceived to be more lucrative, in terms of job prospects and potential rewards, so we’re in competition with other majors.”

Durant also noted that some of the students’ interest in the major comes from its connection to other fields, such as public health, which he believes could contribute to the larger number of women in the field.

“The thing that I think makes environmental engineering attractive to women, perhaps men as well, is the really strong connection to health … but also the job prospects are particularly good,” he said. “And then a lot of the professionals in the marketplace are women, so there’s just a really nice connection, a really nice continuum between who their classmates are and who their likely supervisors or peers are going to be in the professional consulting world and government and academia.”

Despite Durant’s point that there are more women in the environmental engineering field than in other engineering fields, Zellmer and Skerker both noted that nearly all of their engineering professors at Tufts have been male.

“I don’t know if that’s something that’s changing and getting more females in it, or [if] more women are going into STEM things in general,” she said. “Other than one or two professors, all of my civil or environmental people that I’ve dealt with so far have been men.”

Alex Rappaport, a senior majoring in environmental engineering, said that his program is one of the less popular degrees within the engineering school in general. Initially, he was not even aware of the program and planned to major in chemical engineering.

“It had a reputation of not really being taken that seriously … but I was under the opinion that I was going to do the intense engineering,” Rappaport said. “And chemical engineering was the one that people touted as being one of the hardest, but also one of the most widely applicable, disciplines.”

He noted that as environmental sustainability is becoming a larger concern for people and businesses, the relevance and value of environmental engineering skills are growing.

“It’s definitely one of the younger engineering disciplines, but I think there’s a growing shift in it now, now that you have … a huge shift in millennial interest in environmental issues,” Rappaport said. “Environmental engineers are being called in as contractors for people who are trying to be proactive on the environmental side, which is really exciting.”

He also said that other engineering disciplines, especially older ones, can come with an image or connotation of exclusivity. He also emphasized the association of environmental protection with more feminine values, even if this association is untrue.

“I think there’s also a legacy issue that isn’t so apparent immediately,” Rappaport said. “Chemical, mechanical and electrical are really old engineering disciplines that are really characterized by old white dudes. It’s the archaic institutions of engineering, where you have a whole bunch of stuffy white people in suits sitting around a table talking about how ‘we’ can change the world. And so, when you suddenly get a new field, that opens an opportunity for people who have not yet become a part of the conversation to maybe find their own little niche.”

Babalola said that the gender gap in environmental issues spans beyond just the environmental engineering major. He has observed a similar trend in environmental on-campus student organizations.

“I worked with the Eco-Reps [Eco-Representatives] program for a number of years as well, and even then, I think we had to make a deliberate effort to hire male students, because it wouldn’t have been very difficult to end up with a pool of just female Eco-Reps,” he said.

Rappaport, who also has a background in entrepreneurship, noted that the gender demographics of the major may change over time as men who are interested in corporate and startup work require more skills in environmental sustainability.

“As sustainability becomes more important in business, I imagine more men who are pursuing entrepreneurship or pursuing sustainable building and sustainable tech are going to realize that they need sustainability as part of their repertoire,” Rappaport said. “So I can imagine you have a whole bunch of up and coming, budding kind of business and engineering types seeing environmental engineering as something that’s going to be important in the business field.”

Rappaport said he has heard the field of environmental engineering characterized as a “softer” discipline compared to more technologically-oriented fields such as mechanical engineering and computer science engineering. He noted that this terminology implies a clear gender bias, yet he believes environmental engineering seems to be a more welcoming field for women.

Zellmer expressed optimism that interest in environmental engineering across genders will continue to grow at Tufts.

“My year is bigger than most years are, but I feel like especially as people are trying to become more sustainable and more environmentally conscious, [the program] will probably grow,” she said. “I think Tufts has a really good department in general. In general, I’ve enjoyed my professors, which is more than I can say about a lot of other people and their departments, in engineering and not.”