On the surface, it might seem like women are more eco-friendly – they are better at recycling, litter less, and leave a smaller carbon footprint, according to a California State University 2000 study, a Behrend College study and 2010 research by the Swedish Defence Research Agency respectively. Moreover, an article in the Scientific American written by Brough (who also co-wrote the article “Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly?”) has recently concluded that eco-friendliness is associated with femininity, which raises the question – is toxic masculinity playing a part in our planet’s demise?
Unsurprisingly, toxic masculinity is viewed as a huge problem in our current world. A harmful stereotype that encourages certain cultural norms of what a “man” is (including traits such as dominance, violence, aggression, misogyny and homophobia), toxic masculinity can harm society and men themselves. In our mostly patriarchal world, men who display feminine attributes are viewed by some as being weak, whereas masculine traits are associated with being powerful. Ultimately, this devaluation of femininity can work as an obstacle for men to an eco-friendly lifestyle.
Research from Dr. Brough at Utah State University has tried to find a link between eco-friendliness and perceptions of femininity. His study consisted of 7 experiments undertaken by more than 2000 American and Chinese participants (Brough et al., 2016). In one experiment, participants were asked to describe whether a tote bag carrying individual was viewed as less masculine than someone using a plastic bag. Both men and women agreed that using the more sustainable tote alternative was more feminine, regardless of the sex of the shopper. Another experiment showed that participants viewed themselves as more feminine after recalling a time they did something good for the environment. The conclusion of the study was that both women and men perceive eco-friendly products, behaviour and consumers as more feminine.
Other research has demonstrated that the reason for the gender gap in green behaviour may be due to personality differences, such as one’s empathy. In a study done by McMaster University and Lakehead University, it was found that “[w]omen expressed greater levels of altruistic concern and cooperation for the sake of the ecosystem, while men expressed more competitiveness for resources” (Arnocky & Stroink, 2011). However, this generalisation does not account for the fact that empathetic men were more likely to be eco-friendlier than unempathetic women. The difference in sex thus has less to do with eco-friendliness, but more to do with gender as construct and the cultural norm of “masculinity”. In a patriarchal environment, boys are conditioned differently than girls and grow up to be less sensitive, emotional and compassionate – a problem when empathy is identified as key to climate conscious behaviour.
Climate change is undeniably gendered. Women have to bear more of the brunt, primarily because women make up the majority of the world’s poor, who are disproportionately impacted by climate change and 75% of impoverished people in the world rely on agriculture, which is at risk with the ever-changing climate. Furthermore, it is more challenging for people on low incomes to migrate to another country with a more stable environment to live in (Mercy Corps, 2019). This is without mentioning that natural disasters, a phenomenon projected to increase in frequency and scale, also reduce the life expectancy of women more than men (WHO, 2014). As Neumayer and Plümper aptly put it, there is a “socially constructed and gender-specific vulnerability of women to natural disasters”. Clearly, climate change must not be discussed in isolation from key social aspects, such as gender (Neumayer & Plümper, 2007). The domination of our political scenes by men also can be detrimental to the environment, especially if we were to take Brough et al’s study at face value. If environmentally friendly behaviour is more ‘feminine’, the lack of political action with regards to climate policy could be partially explained by the disproportionate number of men in office. Unequal political participation means that we are missing out on women’s wisdom – particularly when they can be key in understanding the domestic issues and at the grassroots level (United Nations Climate Change). The lack of women in climate politics compounds gender inequality and arguably is decreasing environmental policy effectiveness.
However, it would be dangerous for us to fall into a black-and-white characterisation. When faced with climate disaster, it doesn’t matter what sex, gender, race, religion, or nationality we are. Additionally, it’s not that men are literally spelling the destruction of our world – not all men act in an aggressive non-environmentally-friendly way. Rather, it seems that they are generally not as interested in sustainability, or as willing to try and tweak their lifestyle in order to become eco-friendlier. Additionally, it’s not like women are all eco-friendly Amazon warriors – they might leave behind a smaller carbon footprint, but in trying to assert their feminine identity, they also support the $2.4tn-a-year fashion industry and the $445bn-a-year beauty industry, which both cause rampant environmental destruction (Somerville, 2019).
In their study, Brough et al recommended ways for organisations to work around the issue of eco-friendly behaviour being perceived as feminine. For example, empowering men to overcome their sensitivity of being perceived as effeminate by affirming their masculinity was identified as a solution, as in their study it was discovered that men who were assured and affirmed of their masculinity showed more interest in purchasing eco-friendlier cleaning products. Another suggestion they made was to market “men-vironmentally-friendly” products, using fonts, colours and images traditionally associated with masculinity. Again, this suggestion was based on findings from their experiment – In Study 6A, it was found that men were more likely to donate to an environmental campaign if there was a blue and black logo of a wolf howling with the bolded words “Wilderness Rangers”, as compared to a more “feminine” green and tan logo with a picture of a tree and the name “Friends of Nature” in frilly font (Brough et al., 2016). The “Don’t Mess with Texas” ad featuring guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan is an example of a successful ‘masculine’ campaign in order to target the main demographic of litterers – young macho guys (Shaw, 2018). Evidently, masculine marketing has the potential to be effective. However, the question is whether that path should be taken. Would the marketing merely be feeding the fire of gender stereotypes and boosting eco-friendly behaviour in a way that could cripple the feminist movement? Whether this trade-off would be worth it is dependent on other factors, like the values of politicians, and the urgency of tackling gender discrimination as compared to climate change. However, irrespective of its success, masculine marketing is not the ultimate solution – it is just a band-aid on our climate demise.
Gender and climate are inextricably linked. In a utopian world, we would be able to address the stereotypes of masculinity whilst also encouraging eco-friendly behaviour without resorting to gendered policies. Then again, in a utopian world, the world wouldn’t be facing a climate crisis; countries wouldn’t be sinking and average temperatures wouldn’t be rising. Encouraging consumers to behave sustainability is undoubtedly important. However, when just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global fossil fuel emissions (Griffin, 2017), the question could be asked – will consumer behaviour, even from both genders, even come close to solving the climate crisis?
Header Image by Sandy Millar via Unsplash
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