According to the 2011 study Navigating the Heteronormativity of Engineering, LGBTQ+ engineering students have employed various strategies to navigate unsupportive academic climates. Tactics such as passing as heterosexual and “covering” (i.e., downplaying traits associated with the LGBTQ+ community) require tremendous amounts of energy. Luckily, several college campuses have made strides to combat the historical prejudice and discrimination in engineering, thereby creating a more encouraging environment for aspiring LGBTQ+ engineers.
Here is an overview of six stellar universities with exceptional LGBTQ+ support and outreach, which provide degrees across various engineering subfields.
The University of California—Berkeley — a school with an entrenched tradition of fighting for underrepresented groups—also happens to boast some of the best engineering programs in the country. Ranking third among US News & World Report’s (2022) best undergraduate engineering programs, UC Berkeley provides bachelor of science (BS) degrees across eight subfields of the discipline: bioengineering, civil & environmental, electrical & computer science, engineering science, industrial & operations research, materials science, mechanical, and nuclear.
The school has numerous LGBTQ+ groups, including Queer Alliance Resource Center and a thriving chapter of oSTEM, a national organization committed to increasing the representation of LGBT communities in engineering and related fields. In its world-renowned electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) department, the administration has dedicated part of its budget to create a culture of diversity and inclusion, stating, “In order for our department to meet our mission, we emphasize an inclusive environment that respects all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, language, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientation, identity, socioeconomic status, and country of origin.
Creative technologies and an enhanced academic experience for our current and future students arise from exposure to a diverse array of perspectives.” Notably, Dr. Jay Keasling—the school’s Hubbard Howe Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biochemical Engineering—is a past recipient of the GLBT Engineer of the Year award and is profiled below in the “Rockstars” section.
Georgia Tech, another top American university in engineering, has made great strides in increasing the supportive culture for the LGBTQ+ community in the department. As proof of point, Georgia Tech created organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, the Pride Alliance, and Safe Space to disabuse campus members of prejudice. In 2014, the campus hosted a joint meeting of NOGLSTP “Out to Innovate” and oSTEM— the first of its kind.
Also of note is Georgia Tech’s Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OCCIDE), a five-year National Science Foundation-funded initiative to increase the inclusivity of the chemistry and chemical engineering departments. In its standout BS program in chemical and biomolecular engineering, students take courses such as chemical engineering thermodynamics, transport phenomena, and separation processes.
Students also have the option of completing a five-year dual BS and master of science (MS) in this subfield of engineering. Other departments available at Georgia Tech include aerospace, biomedical, civil & environmental, electrical & computer, industrial & systems, materials science, mechanical, and nuclear & radiological engineering.
Smith College of Northhampton, Massachusetts, has a long history of being queer-friendly. Not only was it a veritable mecca for lesbian feminism in the seventies, but it also listed as one of Princeton Review’s most LGBT-friendly American universities. This college has a wealth of campus groups such as Queerz & Alliez, Femmepire, and Transcending Gender. In 2004, 19 women made history as they graduated from the first-ever ABET-accredited program at a women's college.
Smith’s BS in engineering science program has comprehensive coursework in fundamental engineering principles, mechanics, circuit theory, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics. Additionally, all engineering students must complete a capstone project under the guidance of a campus mentor, a research initiative designed to give students hands-on experience in the field. Smith College is a women’s college, and trans women are eligible for admission and their Resource Center for Sexuality and Gender is an intersectional on-campus safe space for students, faculty, and staff to engage with events related to gender and sexuality.
Finally, Dr. Donna Riley—an outstanding mentor and Professor of Engineering at Smith and a GLBT Educator of the Year— is profiled below in the “Rockstars” section.
Stanford University of Palo Alto, California, was included among the Campus Pride Index’s top LGBT-friendly colleges in the country. Stanford has several campus groups supporting its LGBTQ+ students, such as the Queer Student Resource Center, the Queer Straight Alliance, and the Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, as well as several groups from intersecting minority identities (e.g., Black and Queer, Queer and Asian, La Familia de Stanford). This school boasts an abundance of top-ranked engineering programs across fields such as aeronautics & astronautics, bioengineering, chemical, structural, and mechanical engineering, to name a few.
In its exceptional civil and environmental engineering (CEE) department, there are six master’s programs: architectural design, atmosphere & energy, sustainable design & construction, environmental engineering & science, environmental fluid mechanics & hydrology, and structural engineering & geomechanics. Finally, Stanford University ranked second among US News & World Report’s (2023) best graduate engineering programs.
The University of Michigan—Ann Arbor not only counts some of the world’s greatest queer academics (e.g., David Halperin, Gayle Rubin), but it also hosts one of the most thriving campuses for LGBTQ+ organizations. The Spectrum Center—the first university campus office for LGBT issues in the country—supports groups such as BiLateral, OutLaws, and oSTEM, among many others.
UMich also boasts one of the most prominent engineers and transgender advocates in the world: Dr. Lynn Conway, professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science. She is also profiled in the “Rockstars” section below. The vast array of master’s programs at UMich include aerospace (AERO), biomedical (BME), chemical (ChE), civil & environmental (CEE), climate & space sciences (CLASP), computer science & electrical (CSE), electrical & computer (ECE), industrial & operations (IOE), integrative systems & design (IS+D), macromolecular science, materials science (MSE), mechanical (ME), naval architecture & marine (NAME), and nuclear & radiological sciences (NERS).
Duke University of Durham, North Carolina, founded its first gay student organization in the fall of 1972. In addition to having the fourth largest LGBT center in the US, Duke has a gender-neutral housing policy and unisex bathrooms, a strong stand against at the time Governor Pat McCrory’s discriminatory laws (TIME May 2016).
This school has seven distinct master’s emphases in engineering: biomedical, civil, electrical & computer, environmental, materials science, mechanical, and photonics & optical. Finally, Duke University is also the alma mater of outstanding UC San Diego professor and LGBTQ+ advocate Dr. Michael Todd, who is profiled in the “Rockstars” section below.
Dr. Butterfield offers sound advice on finding a school that is welcoming to LGBTQ+ students. It all starts with research: “Look online and see if the school you are interested in has a student group for LGBTQ students. Then find out is it active? Are they supported? Does the prospective school have a diversity statement that includes queer folks?”
If they have both, the next step is visiting the school. “Before I picked a school or before I sent one of my kids to a school, I would go there and talk to the people that were in that environment to make sure that the diversity statement has some action to it and that the culture is truly healthy,” says Dr. Butterfield “Things are a lot better than in years past, but there are certainly places in the country where you can be more supported than others. It takes a little extra research, but you can do it and find a good home for yourself.”
He extends similar advice to soon-to-be graduating students or those already in the workforce. “If I was a student looking for a job, I would go online and see if a prospective company has a diversity statement. While this is a good step, it doesn't mean there's action behind it. Next, I would look for companies that had active employee resource groups. Usually, if they're active, the company really supports those groups,” he says. “If there is an employee resource group, and they look like they're happy, healthy, I would contact them and say, ‘I'm considering getting a job in your company. What's your perspective? What should I know is an incoming engineer?’”
According to Dr. Butterfield, some companies are really doing things right: “I just came back from a conference, and there were employees from Dow Chemical talking about how they really appreciate the not only stated inclusivity that Dow Chemical has for their employees, but also that they promote their employees' resource groups for LGBTQ+, racial minorities, and women in their industry,” he says. “And even better, they also use these groups as resources. Say they are gonna put out a new product, and it might impact a certain community, they go talk to the resource groups.”
There’s a wealth of scholarships available to LGBTQ+ students in engineering. Applications committees typically call for the following from eligible students:
Some engineering scholarships are available to LGBTQ+ students across all American universities, while others are open to applicants within a specific school. For example, UC San Diego provides one of the most generous offerings to aspiring LGBTQ+ engineers: the $10,000 Alan Turing Memorial Scholarship. Students are encouraged to contact their financial aid offices to see what’s available on campus. Here is a list of additional scholarship resources for LGBTQ+ students in engineering:
In engineering and other scientific fields, some companies have exceptional support, outreach, and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) provides Out and Equal’s LGBT CareerLink and research on how LGBTQ+ individuals are treated in the engineering industry.
In NOGLSTP’s article entitled “Career Opportunities for LGBT STEM Grads: Brighter Than Ever,” they championed one measure of how LGBTQ+-inclusive a company is: the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Corporate Equality Index (CEI). To achieve the maximum 100 percent CEI rating, companies must have the following:
Interestingly, only one engineering firm achieved a perfect 100 percent CEI: Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. That said, other companies in related industries which employ engineers also received perfect scores. Here is a look at four companies that employ engineers and have a 100 percent CEI rating from the HRC (2021):
In 2005, the Raytheon Company received the prestigious Out to Innovate National Corporate Award for its continued support, inclusion, and community outreach for the LGBTQ+ community. As a leader in the defense industry, Raytheon employs various engineers throughout its technical services, information technology, and aviation departments, to name a few.
Its website states: "Diversity is at the heart of all we do at Raytheon. We embrace diversity and diverse opinions; we treat people with dignity and respect to support our inclusive culture. This allows us to retain and attract the world-class talent and supplier base we need to develop the innovative solutions our global customers depend on. We view our diversity as a competitive advantage as a key enabler of our growth." Overall, as the first company in its industry to receive a perfect CEI, Raytheon has a long-established track record of recruiting, retaining, and promoting its LGBTQ+ engineers.
Ecolab—a global leader in food inspection, sanitation, and other services—also received a perfect CEI rating. This company has created a vast network of associations to combat ageism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism within its ranks. Notably, its Pride Organization is open to all members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies, and Ecolab also has an illustrious history of diversity recruitment.
Turner Construction Company, a US-based international constructions services company, employs 5,200 people and completes $10 billion in construction annually. It boasts comprehensive safety through its trademarked approach: Building L.I.F.E.® (Living Injury Free Every day).
On its website, Turner notes that it “fosters a culture of diversity and inclusion in which all employees contribute creative ideas, seek challenges, and have the opportunity to grow...We do our best work in teams made up of individuals with different backgrounds and passions to cultivate diversity in our offices and on our sites. We strive to recognize our similarities and celebrate our differences.”
Apple has received a perfect CEI since 2002, the first year the HRC began its ratings. Tim Cook is the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He authored an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing the recent slew of “religious freedom” laws—legislation intended to advance discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community based on the church—and has been a longtime supporter of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
Cook stated: “We want every person who joins our team, every customer visiting our stores or calling for support to feel welcome. We believe in equality for everyone, regardless of race, age, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. That applies throughout our company, around the world with no exceptions.”
In its comprehensive 2002 list of Best Places to Work, the HRC also listed the following companies which employ engineers:
In a landmark survey of 10,000 LGBTQ+-identifying youth aged 13 to 17 by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)—Growing Up LGBT in America (2021)—51 percent of LGBTQ+ students reported being harassed compared to 25 percent of non-LGBTQ+ students. Non-LGBTQ+ youth were also twice as likely to report being happy, and 47 percent of the LGBTQ+ youth said they didn’t fit into their community.
Although there are still significant challenges facing LGBTQ+ students entering college, particularly in fields traditionally dominated by heterosexual white males, there’s a rapidly increasing group of “out” heroes who serve as mentors and role models. Here are five of the “out” rockstar professors in engineering who are inspiring LGBTQ+ students nationwide:
Dr. Anthony Butterfield
Dr. Anthony Butterfield (he/him) is an associate professor in the University of Utah’s chemical engineering department. He is also the founding chair of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) LGBTQ+ Initiative and the chair of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Chemical Engineering Division.
For the past six years, he has been a Safe Zone Trainer for ASEE, where he conducts STEM-specific LGBTQ+ trainings at conferences. He is also the founding faculty advisor for the University of Utah’s oSTEM group. Currently, he teaches intro to chemical engineering, capstone projects, and chemical engineering design and development.
Dr. Michael Todd
Dr. Michael Todd, a professor of structural engineering at UC San Diego, is a leading researcher and program director of the Department of Structural Engineering. in the structural health monitoring of civil, mechanical, and aerospace engineering projects. As one of the pioneers of “smart structures”—self-measuring systems which send performance feedback—his adeptness with both hardware and software have made him a leading structural engineer internationally today.
He’s received numerous awards, including the Alan Berman NRL Publication Award (1999), NRL Patent Awards (2003 and 2004), the Fifth International Workshop on Structural Health Monitoring’s Professional of the Year (2005), and the Von Liebig Entrepreneurship Award (2005). He’s a member of UCSD’s OUT List—an organization of LGBTQ+ faculty and administrative professionals—as well as a member of QuEST, an LGBTQ+ engineering society based in San Diego.
Dr. Todd graciously answered some of Online Engineering Degrees’ questions in a July 2016 interview. Here’s what he had to say about being LGBTQ+ in engineering:
Who encouraged you early in your life to enter a career in engineering?
I would say that the initial encouragement came from my father, himself a nuclear engineer. My childhood best friend’s father was also an engineer. Once I became an undergraduate, I became very impressed with all the engineering faculty I met; while I thoroughly enjoyed mathematics and physics, it was the engineers who I felt really took these tools and did something useful with them. Engineers fundamentally DO or MAKE things to make society better, and this had great appeal.
Have you ever faced discrimination or prejudice in your profession?
My first job after graduate school was with a civilian federal research job with the Department of Defense, and while I never faced any explicit prejudice or discrimination, I would definitely say that the general climate for LGBTQ+ people at my workplace was not very receptive. I was not out at all among colleagues or work associates, despite being comfortably out to friends and family.
Of course, while the "cultural barometer” regarding LGBTQ+ issues was different back then, too (mid to late 1990s), military-oriented workplaces were lagging even worse in terms of awareness, understanding, and tolerance. When I left the government for the University of California San Diego (UCSD) in 2003, I found a much different climate on campus. While UCSD is somewhat of an overall culturally conservative campus, I find it much more generally accepting and tolerant, although I would nonetheless claim that engineering, on average, is one of the more conservative disciplines with regard to LGBTQ+ issues.
How has the field of engineering changed over the years as more underrepresented groups enter the ranks?
Indeed, I believe the field has changed. In particular, it has been very exciting to see a lot more young women find encouragement to enter STEM fields, and as of today, I think we have a much better balanced gender representation in engineering, and even my department (structural engineering is related to civil engineering, which is arguably the oldest and most “traditional" of all engineering sub-disciplines).
Women have taken several leading positions in student professional societies and other organizations over the last decade, and this will become reflected in the workforce in due course.
With regard to LGBTQ+ people, the additional challenge is that it’s not “observable”. LGBTQ+-identified people lack the overt or obvious classifying characteristics that traditional gender-based or ethnicity-based people have. It’s only been very recently that UCSD, for example, has allowed LGBTQ+ people to self-identify on application forms.
I’m hopeful we’re on a continuing positive trajectory in this area because visibility is the best encouragement to empower LGBTQ+ people to express themselves comfortably and naturally integrate into their peer groups and the profession.
Who continues to inspire you professionally in structural engineering?
He wasn’t a structural engineer, but I’ve always admired Richard Feynman, the great physicist, who had the gift of explaining the most difficult concepts in very easy, plain ways (and, of course, managed to win a Nobel Prize for his own scientific genius). I also still truly admire my structural/mechanical engineering PhD advisor, who taught me the importance of being very interested and committed to your work while being balanced in appreciating the greater life out there, whether it be sports, music, politics, whatever.
I also consider a mathematics professor whom I had during my undergraduate days (whom I consider a friend still to this day) to have been a particular role model as an LBTGQ scholar who epitomized the self-confidence, academic brilliance, and Renaissance-like myriad interests that I found so compelling and worthy of emulating.
What advice would you give to LGBTQ+ students interested in structural engineering?
I would first and foremost tell them to GO FOR IT! This is fundamentally a discipline where consequences have tremendous societal implications; structural engineers have their hands in the design, analysis, and construction of airplanes, cars, roadways, bridges, dams, buildings—everything!—that makes us function. Budding structural engineers should consider it a privilege to serve society this way.
I would also encourage LGBTQ+ students specifically to look for role models and peers…Mentoring (even peer-to-peer mentoring) is the best way to navigate the challenges presented by a difficult curriculum, compounded by the difficult views on many LGBTQ+ issues that still pervade society. While everyone must have his/her/their own journey of self-expression, I would tell LGTBQ STEM students that there is not only strength but also comfort in numbers; talk to visible mentors, out faculty, other out students...Network through all available channels to find your empowerment.
Dr. Miles Ott
Dr. Miles Ott, a data scientist at Twitter and former assistant professor of statistical & data sciences at Smith College, was named the LGBTQ++ Educator of the Year in 2021 by Out to Innovate. His research in the statistical implication of missingness in network data and public health outcomes has impacted students in STEM disciplines. Specifically, Dr. Ott’s research uses research to highlight substance abuse statistics in emerging adults, monitor HIV surveillance in hard-to-reach populations, and track health outcomes for LGBTQ+ health.
He mentors students researching mental health in transgender individuals and writes openly about his experience as a trans person in academia. His advice for future LGBTQ+ STEM students in his acceptance of the Out to Innovate award was, “Your environment is tremendously important for your success. Look for mentors and colleagues who see you as a whole person and not just as a collection of accomplishments. The work it takes to find the right environment is always worth it. When you get the chance, be the supportive colleague or mentor that helps someone else do their best work.”
Dr. Donna Riley
Dr. Donna Riley, the Kamyard Haghighi head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, has been a leading LGBTQ+ advocate for two decades, particularly in the engineering field. She helped shape Smith College into one of the most LGBTQ+-friendly campuses in the nation, publishing an article in Leadership and Management in Engineering to increase awareness and inclusivity in the industry.
From 2013 to 2016, Dr. Riley was the program director for engineering education for the National Science Foundation. She also authored a book entitled Engineering and Social Justice (Morgan and Claypool, 2008). Not surprisingly, Dr. Riley was awarded NOGLSTP’s LGBT Educator of the Year (2010) for her work in engineering and combating discrimination and prejudice in the workplace.
She is the author of two books, “Engineering and Social Justice” and “Engineering Thermodynamics and 21st Century Energy Problems”. She was featured on the Purdue Engineering Podcast, speaking on research-based methods for increasing student engagement in first-year engineering programs.
Dr. Jay Keasling
Dr. Jay Keasling holds many titles at UC Berkeley as a professor of biochemical engineering. He is also the CEO of the prestigious Joint BioEnergy Institute and Philomathia Foundation Chair in Alternative Energy. He won the Out to Innovate LGBT Engineer of the Year (2010) award for his work in biochemistry. His research contributions include the development of a cost-effective, antimalarial drug called artemisinin. Through his pioneering techniques, he helped lower the production cost from $2.40 per dose to $0.25 per dose.
Additionally, his groundbreaking strides in the metabolic engineering of microorganisms have also led to developments in safely degrading environmental contaminants. He’s received countless awards and honors throughout his career, including fellowships from the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, the National Institute of Health (NIH), Zeneca Ltd., and Chevron, in addition to the renowned National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award.
Dr. Lynn Conway
"If you want to change the future, start living as if you're already there."
Dr. Lynn Conway, professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, is an internationally renowned innovator, educator, and LGBTQ+ advocate. As a young IBM researcher in the 1960s, Dr. Conway made pioneering innovations in computer architecture. Sadly, IBM fired Dr. Conway in 1968 upon learning that she had begun undergoing gender transition.
A gritty survivor, Dr. Conway completed her transition and restarted her career in “stealth-mode.” While working at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s, she pioneered breakthrough silicon-chip design methods that fueled Silicon Valley’s microelectronics revolution during the 1980s and beyond (the "Mead-Conway VLSI Revolution"). She went on to serve as assistant director for strategic computing at DARPA and then joined the faculty at Michigan in 1985. After coming out via the internet in 1999, Dr. Conway went on to evolve her trans-support website, lynnconway.com, into a multilingual beacon of encouragement and hope for transgender people worldwide.
Dr. Conway has won countless honors and awards for her research, including the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Award (1985), election to the National Academy of Engineering (1989), Electronic Design’s Hall of Fame (2002), NOGLSTP’s Engineer of the Year award (2005), IEEE Computer Society’s Computer Pioneer Award (2009), Computer History Museum’s Hall of Fellows (2014), the IEEE and Royal Society of Edinburgh’s James Clerk Maxwell Medal (2015), and two honorary doctorates.
Dr. Michael Falk
Dr. Michael Falk, a professor of materials science and engineering and vice dean of undergraduate education at the Whiting School of Engineering at John Hopkins University is a long-established role model in the LGBTQ+ community on and off-campus. He has more than 50 publications on the behavior of materials (e.g., the impact of mechanical stress on semiconductors), phenomena which he demonstrates through computer simulations.
Dr. Falk is the recipient of many awards, including an NSF CAREER award (2002), University of Michigan’s Jon R. and Beverly Holt Award for Excellence in Teaching (2005), Out to Innovate’s GLBT Educator of the Year (2008), and the Diversity Recognition Award from the John Hopkins Institutions Diversity Leadership Council (2011).
While the field of engineering is increasingly opening its doors to the LGBTQ+ community, there is still evidence of prejudice and discrimination in 2021. For aspiring LGBTQ+ engineers, Dr. Todd said it best: “While everyone must have his/her/their own journey of self-expression, I would tell LGTBQ STEM students that there is not only strength but also comfort in numbers; talk to visible mentors, out faculty, other out students...network through all available channels to find your empowerment.”
With these closing thoughts in mind, please consider this list of resources for the LGBTQ+ community in engineering:
Why are women underrepresented in engineering, the top-paying undergraduate major in the country? Why does a disproportionate amount of engineering research funding go to men? Which schools are actively creating opportunities for women? Which female engineers are leading the way? Find out here.
By reading a select number of engineering blogs, university students can gain access to the thoughts of some of the best engineers in the world, and get on the path to becoming one themselves.
The concepts of civil engineering are particularly well-suited for the game environment, emphasizing the proper distribution of resources, the management of supply chains, and how the built environment interacts with the lived environment.
This is a role for tech-lovers, for logical thinkers, for those who like being given an answer and then are told to find the question. But it’s also a role for communicators, for relationship builders, for people who enjoy cross-departmental collaboration.
Engineers might be the only group of people where you can give them a problem—and they can consider it a gift. The engineering mind thrives on hunting for elegant solutions to complex tasks. That doesn’t mean you should give an engineering student a homework assignment for the holidays, but it does mean you can have some fun with the gift you eventually select.