Environmental engineering has many noble attributes. Environmental engineers serve the public welfare, health, and safety by preserving the natural environment, and the field has the highest percentage of female engineers. Yet the median salary is the lowest among the engineering disciplines. To understand this contradiction, researchers Daniel B. Oerther, Leila Gautham, and Nancy Folbre reviewed the literature and analyzed available data and determined that environmental engineering is susceptible to a “care penalty” where work that generates substantial unpriced benefits for others is significantly undervalued.

No one would suggest that environmental engineers should be encouraged to be “less caring,” so what should be done? In their work published in the Journal of Environmental Engineering, “Environmental Engineering as Care for Human Welfare and Planetary Health,” the authors encourage environmental engineers to leverage this care penalty by promoting the unique contributions that environmental engineering makes to the welfare of our society as a competitive advantage. The long-term objective is for the caring focus of environmental engineers to translate to the entire engineering workforce and the work they do for human welfare and planetary health and for environmental engineers to be compensated accordingly. Learn more about this research at https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)EE.1943-7870.0002013. The abstract is below.  


Among the subdisciplines of engineering, environmental engineering is distinctive in three aspects. First, descriptions of the profession of environmental engineering emphasize that environmental engineers solve problems to prevent harm, which typically is an important motivation for taking a job in care work. Second, the percentage of degrees awarded to women is highest for environmental among all subdisciplines of engineering (i.e., 53.3% of bachelor’s degrees, 46.3% of master’s degrees, and 43.6% of doctoral degrees in environmental engineering conferred in 2020 were awarded to women). Third, median salaries for environmental engineers–controlling for other variables–are lowest among engineering subdisciplines (i.e., $82,036 per year in 2019), despite high levels of educational attainment and training. Our analysis of environmental engineers working in the United States strongly suggests that the profession of environmental engineering is highly susceptible to what is known as the care penalty. The care penalty is a function of market dynamics, which tend to undervalue work that generates substantial unpriced benefits for others. The care penalty often is observed in jobs characterized by high levels of intrinsic motivation, such as concern for human welfare. Additional data would be useful to further evaluate the care penalty in environmental engineering in other countries. To address the care penalty, we do not suggest that environmental engineers should become less caring. Rather environmental engineers should be aware of this potential economic risk and seek to mitigate the care penalty in two specific ways. First environmental engineers should encourage life-cycle principles and environmental full-cost accounting in order to increase fungibility among different measures of the components of the triple bottom line of people (i.e., human welfare), planet (i.e., planetary health), and prosperity (i.e., financial gain). Second, environmental engineers should clearly demonstrate the unique contributions that technically skilled commitments to human welfare can generate. We suggest that a greater awareness of these issues could build on and strengthen growing public concerns regarding environmental sustainability. Finally, we suggest that distinctive attributes of environmental engineering may prove critical to unlocking growth in the engineering workforce as care for human welfare and planetary health.

Read the complete paper in the ASCE Library: https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)EE.1943-7870.0002013