By Brandon Gertz, MEM ’21 Nicholas School Communications Student Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. - Diversity is a key topic in environmental science and policy. Studies have shown that racial minorities are underrepresented in both education and jobs relating to environmental issues and that fewer women than men hold faculty positions teaching the topic. These disparities matter, especially since minority communities are often impacted more by environmental problems than others are.

A new study by Ruolin “Eudora” Miao, a 2019 graduate of Duke University, and Nicolette Cagle, a lecturer at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, suggests one way to close these gaps: To increase diversity in environmental fields, you need to nurture people’s “environmental identity.”

Ruolin "Eudora" Miao
Ruolin "Eudora" Miao

“Each of us is tied to many different identities,” Miao explained. “I’m a woman. I’m Chinese. I’m a food lover! Those factors guide what I decide to do each day. Environmental identity works the same way. Do I see myself as a part of nature? Is environmentalism part of who I am as a person? The answers to those questions influence how people act, like whether they buy reusable grocery bags or sign up for an environmental science class.”

In their study, Miao and Cagle interviewed Duke undergraduate students to gain insights into how environmental identity develops over a person’s life. Three factors that emerged were gender, race, and ethnicity.

“Gender, race, and ethnicity impact environmental identity in different ways,” said Miao. “Gender stereotypes, for example, limit the different environmental experiences people can have. One of our male interviewees liked pressing flowers when he was younger but was shamed by his friends because it was a ‘feminine’ thing to do. Women that we interviewed, on the other hand, were sometimes discouraged from taking on physically demanding field work.”

Racial divides were also stark. Compared to 50% of white participants, only 17% of racial minority students said that their environmental identity was affected by experiences like childhood play in backyards. Much more important to minority students, though, was the impact of teachers.

“All students who told us that their teachers were very important to their environmental identity were from racial minority groups,” Miao said. “Our participants from racial minorities often also reported very strong bonds with teachers from the same racial background as them, which is really valuable to their development.”

“First, it’s important to remember that gender and race have a big impact on our relationships with our mentors when it comes to the environment,” she said. “Schools and businesses should consider these results when designing their programs. Boosting faculty diversity is especially important to increase the pull of environmental education for potential students.”

“Second, gender stereotypes and concerns should be taken into account when designing classroom activities or field courses. Instructors should closely observe whether students of all genders are participating in field activities equally, and if gender stereotypes or physical concerns seem to influence student decisions. If, for example, fewer women are wading into a swampy marsh to collect data, instructors should find ways to get more women involved. Providing students with a ‘heads up’ about the physical expectations of a field course, accommodations for physical constraints, and regular, private check-ins about their comfort levels are all good ideas for addressing these barriers,” Miao said.

“Finally, it’s critical to understand that nature can be a source of empowerment for marginalized groups,” she added. “Our participants felt free of judgment and empowered when experiencing nature. Increasing the accessibility of green spaces like parks and trails carries extra benefits for marginalized women and racial minorities in this way. That means that educators and decision-makers should intentionally promote opportunities for marginalized groups to experience nature.”

Miao earned degrees from Duke in biology and environmental science and policy. The new study began as part of her undergraduate thesis before being developed further and published as a peer-reviewed paper on January 25 in the journal Environmental Education Research.

Following her graduation in 2019, Miao took a position as a land stewardship fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. There, she fulfills her dual passions for field work and education by helping with land management while also designing and running environmental outreach for diverse audiences.

CITATION: “The Role of Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in Environmental Identity Development in Undergraduate Student Narratives,” Ruolin E. Miao and Nicolette L. Cagle; January 25, 2020, Education Research. DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2020.1717449