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Who will Lead Us Out of Climate Crisis? Gender, Race, and Early Career Pathways in Environmental Engineering

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Environmental Engineering Technical Session 4: Environmental Issues and the Impacts of Intersectionality

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Women in Engineering and Environmental Engineering

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Paper Authors


Shannon Katherine Gilmartin Stanford University Orcid 16x16

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Shannon K. Gilmartin, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Scholar at the Stanford VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab and Adjunct Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. Her expertise is in education and workforce development in science and engineering fields. She has particular interest in access to and equity in engineering education and practice. She studies the experiences of underrepresented students in engineering classrooms, the transition to first jobs and the “early career” for women in engineering, and the trajectories to senior leadership in technology settings.

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Angela Harris North Carolina State University

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Dr. Harris is an Assistant Professor in the Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering Department at North Carolina State University. Harris received a PhD and M.S. in Stanford's Environmental Engineering and Science Program (completed 2015). Harris completed her B.S. in Chemical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Harris conducts research related to water, sanitation, and child health in developing countries. Harris has extensive experience in developing survey questionnaires and conducting structured observations at the household level as a part of research studies in Tanzania, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Alongside her work in environmental engineering, Harris also conducts research related to engineering education. Currently her work related to education seeks to better understand student career choices and institutional support for students in career development and career preparation. She also works on better understanding undergraduate engineering student interests, behaviors, development, and career choices related to innovation and entrepreneurship.

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Christina Martin-Ebosele Stanford University

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Christina Martin-Ebosele is a master’s student in the Sustainability Science and Practice program at Stanford University, where she completed her bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering. As an engineer, she is passionate about research and technical work related to climate change. She has previous work experience as an engineer in Motor Manufacturing at Telsa and a research assistant at Stanford University in the Soft Tissue Biomechanics lab. Christina is currently a Product Design Engineer at Apple, where she brings a sustainability perspective to product design.

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Sheri Sheppard Stanford University

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Sheri D. Sheppard, Ph.D., P.E., is professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. Besides teaching both undergraduate and graduate design and education related classes at Stanford University, she conducts research on engineering education and work-practices, and applied finite element analysis. From 1999-2008 she served as a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, leading the Foundation’s engineering study (as reported in Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field). In addition, in 2011 Dr. Sheppard was named as co-PI of a national NSF innovation center (Epicenter), and leads an NSF program at Stanford on summer research experiences for high school teachers. Her industry experiences includes engineering positions at Detroit's "Big Three:" Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, and Chrysler Corporation.

At Stanford she has served a chair of the faculty senate, and recently served as Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education.

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Environmental decline is accelerating worldwide, underscoring the need for transformation of the way broader society engages in the climate crisis. Who among engineering students is preparing to enter this problem space and lead change? This study represents a first step in defining the “people space” surrounding the problem space at an early workforce moment: the transition from college to work.

Our particular interest is in the gendered and racialized components of this workforce moment. The severity of climate decline is gendered and racialized, as are the factors driving it. In addition, environmental engineering sees among the highest percentage of women among degree-earners relative to other engineering fields, and among the highest percentage of women from underrepresented racial/ethnic minority (URM) backgrounds in engineering, although the number of URM women pursuing environmental engineering degrees is small. Against the backdrop of social and structural inequality, environmental decline, and degree attainment patterns, we consider how diverse groups of women are positioned for leadership in the field.

Our research questions are: What are environmental engineering students’ graduate school and job intentions during college? What are their graduate school and job destinations 1-3 years post-graduation? How do intentions and destinations vary by students’ gender and race/ethnicity? We examine students’ career pathways in other majors to contextualize patterns.

Data come from the longitudinal, NSF-funded Engineering Majors Survey (EMS). The first wave of EMS (EMS 1.0) was administered at a nationally representative sample of 27 U.S. engineering schools in 2015. A second wave was administered to 1.0 respondents in 2016, and a third wave, in 2017. Our focal baseline sample is composed of 75 1.0 respondents who marked that they were environmental engineering majors, 568 respondents marking civil engineering majors (our “peer” major), and 5,360 respondents majoring in other engineering fields. Our focal longitudinal sample is smaller, requiring more of a “case study” approach among environmental engineering graduates (longitudinal sample size in other fields is sufficient for statistical analysis).

Findings show that one-third of environmental engineering majors are leaning towards graduate school while they are juniors or seniors in college. They are significantly less likely to consider pursuing an MBA and more likely to consider pursuing a JD compared with other engineering majors. They are significantly more likely to consider employment in non-profit agencies and less likely to have start-up intentions compared with other majors, although the majority of all engineering students target employment in medium to large business settings within five years of graduating.

Among environmental engineering majors, women in aggregate appear to be less interested in corporate jobs than are men, but this is not the case for our small sample of URM women, nearly all of whom were leaning towards corporate employment. On average, women are significantly less likely than men to talk with peers and faculty about professional options, a gender difference not observed in other engineering majors; URM women, however, report more frequent conversations with faculty about professional options, but not with other students. The small number of women in our longitudinal sample who were employed by the third wave of the survey all reported working in business settings in utilities, construction, and waste management/remediation services industries.

Our discussion explores how these results might prompt new thinking about undergraduate engineering education and environmental work. We consider how our findings can inform teaching and learning for effective early career practice and future leadership. We propose leadership modules in environmental engineering curricula that focus on not only the urgent environmental problem space, but gender and racial equality in the people space surrounding it.

Gilmartin, S. K., & Harris, A., & Martin-Ebosele, C., & Sheppard, S. (2021, July), Who will Lead Us Out of Climate Crisis? Gender, Race, and Early Career Pathways in Environmental Engineering Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--38058

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