UIC FEMALES GRAVITATE TO EARTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES
The male to female ratio in the physical sciences has traditionally favored males. But that's shifting-dramatically in some casesas underscored by enrollment statistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago's department of earth and environmental sciences.
"Twenty years ago, most of these students were male," says professor and department head Gus Koster van Groos, pointing to a framed, faded photograph of students about to set off for a rock-hunting trip in Missouri. "This year," he says, "15 of the students were female, and only four were male." The photograph mirrors a trend reflecting growing female interest in geology, earth sciences and environmental studies, especially at the undergraduate level.
Women now make up 44 percent of the department's undergraduate majors. That's slightly above the national average, as tracked by the American Geological Institute, which has seen female undergraduate enrollment climb from 24 percent in 1980 to 42 percent in 1999-the last year for which figures are available.
For physics, latest UIC figures show females constitute about 30 percent. Roughly half of chemistry majors are female. For biology, however, females are the clear majority at over 60 percent of declared undergraduate majors.
More males than females in geology go on to earn graduate degrees, but trends show a growing female enrollment. "The figures show that roughly half of undergraduates in earth and environmental studies go on to graduate school, mostly for a master's degree, which is a high percentage for science graduates," says Koster van Groos. "I think that to be successful in geology, especially as a consultant, a master's degree brings a lot of additional benefits." The most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate starting salaries for bachelor's degree holders average about $35,000. It's about $45,000 for those with a master's degree.
Second-year master's student Erin Argyilan is studying climate change and its effects on Lake Michigan. Argyilan finds earth sciences "still very male-dominated, but with growing opportunities for women." Master's student Rachael Klima says that while her professors both at the graduate and undergraduate level have been predominantly male, female students are treated the same as males. But Klima adds that when she worked as an environmental cleanup instructor prior to entering graduate school, some female associates complained of inappropriate treatment by male co-workers, especially in petroleum geology. "The oil industry remains male-oriented," says Klima. "But with jobs in geology moving from oil toward more environmental work, you're seeing more women coming in."
The growing need to do site analyses for environmental impact statements requires trained geologists. Because the Chicago area has an abundance of old industrial "brown field" sites ripe for redevelopment, it has become one of the country's leading job markets for graduates with degrees in earth and environmental sciences. More and more of those jobs are going to women.
"I think that women are more concerned, long-term, about environmental problems," says Koster van Groos. "You see it here in earth and environmental sciences and, for instance, in environmental engineering. The number of women enrolled is much larger than in other branches of engineering."
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