From reusable keep cups to fervently telling the bar staff to hold the straw, more of us today are embracing a greener lifestyle. In the UK, 65% of Brits say they are trying to live more ethically than a year ago, but the trend for green has not caught on equally. 71% of women committed to more eco-habits in the past year, in comparison with just 59% of men. While a lot of research in the past has assumed this to be entrenched in personality differences between the sexes, more recent studies suggest that it’s because for women, the degradation of the environment represents more than saving the polar bears, and for men, actions that cause less environmental damage are seen as a threat to masculinity.
Studies across the board have found that women are more likely than men to recycle, turn down the heating, use less water, compost, buy environmentally friendlier products, support environmental business, and to pay higher taxes if the money is used to protect the environment. Such differences in altruism and social responsibility have long been put down to the assumption that women tend to prioritise nurturing roles (which, assumedly, includes the planet). But studies are proving that it may be a little more to do with culture than hardwiring. The ‘eco gender gap’, according to a study in 2016, may be down to men fearing that engaging more with environmental causes and products is perceived to be effeminate.
Though it’s been long presumed that men are less sensitive than women, they seem to be particularly conscious of how their gender identity is perceived. We’ve seen it for years in the influx of ‘for men’ cosmetics products and the dedicated ‘man’ sections in personal care shops. And now, it seems, those environmentally friendlier products, are in need of a more ‘men-vironmental’ aesthetic to turn men on to the movement.
This feminine perception of environmental pursuits seems to have been going for a while; a survey in 2011 by advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather found that over 80 per cent of those surveyed, both men and women, saw environmental pursuits as more effeminate. A few years ago, a series of experiments confirmed it. In one, participants described an individual who used a reusable bag over a plastic one as more feminine, regardless of gender. In another, participants described engaging in environmentally friendly behaviours as more feminine, versus ecologically destructive actions that are perceived as more testosterone-fuelled. In another experiment, they found that men are more likely to donate to environmental charities when they had ‘manly’ symbols like wolves rather than trees. And in the test that had male participants given a pink gift voucher and the choice between an eco product or a standard product, men overwhelmingly picked the more environmentally damaging one. Curiously, the decision wasn’t as pronounced if they were given a plain voucher. This suggests that as co-author of the study Aaron Brough put it: “When a man feels secure in his masculinity, he will feel more comfortable going green because his macho image is no longer at risk.”
These studies do not prove that men don’t care about the environment, but that there has been a push by both marketers to position their aesthetics closer to the female end of the spectrum, and that it’s created an effeminate perception of the movement. In branding, it seems the decades of genderised marketing that denotes ‘for women’ with imagery of flowers and butterflies, means that when an environmentally friendly product has images of things that are found in the environment, it’s a little too close to damaging the masculine reputation that many men cultivate. It seems sustainability has uncovered a strange phenomenon that makes men more likely to litter, drive an emissions-heavy 4×4, and chop down wood. Though clearly as gender representatives, not all men, like Al Gore, Bill McKibben, George Monbiot, and Leonardo DiCaprio. But it seems those that navigate themselves wholly to the designated men section for shampoos and body wash for scents like ‘gun metal’ and ‘wood smoke’, are more likely to. But a threat to manhood shouldn’t get in the way of the rest of the planet trying to make sure there’s a future to it.
But, like all gender-sensitive topics, the responsibility probably doesn’t just lie on one end of the spectrum. The greater investment that women make into environmental pursuits could be down to something closer to self-preservation than a philanthropic nature. According to a report by the United Nations, women in both developed and developing nations are more affected by climate change than men. Gender inequality is compounded by global warming, where women, with less access to resources to survive, face “higher risks and greater burdens”.
The most people living in poverty are women, and so in poorer nations, many lack the means to escape the impact of a hostile natural environment. In the 2010 UN report, it was revealed that in 63% of households of rural sub-Saharan Africa, the responsibility falls on women to collect and carry water for the family. This role will get extraordinarily difficult as the globe heats up, receding water supplies and rising temperatures in the desert. In most developing nations, rather than the image we have in the west of a rugged, bearded man as the farmer, women do the vast majority of agricultural work, yet reap just a percentage of the profits than farms worked by men. As climate change threatens the fertility of soil and rainfall, this could become even more threatening to women access to food and capital. And despite being responsible for the vast majority of labour in these nations, it’s common for women and girls to eat after the men of the household, eating a fraction of what is available, reducing their physical ability to weather out a natural event. Another study by the London School of Economics revealed that women are more likely to be killed by natural disasters and that 80% of all climate refugees are women.
If women are fortunate enough to live in a more industrialised country, there are still barriers to achieving the same level of support men receive in the event of a natural disaster. The disproportional wages between men and women means that women have less access to financial independence, and are less likely to be able to get back into jobs after climate events. The stubborn rate of discrimination in legal proceedings means that women are less likely to recover from the effects of climate change. And at the brunt of persistent traditionalist cliches, when a third of Brits still believe that a woman should stay at home with the children, women are more likely to remain in the danger zone to protect the kids in the event of extreme weather.
As inequality across all sectors takes its time to be rectified, there are fewer women in the position to make the crucial decisions that will alleviate this unbalanced burden. According to an Environment and Gender Index study, women make up less than a third of the decision makers in six out of nine official environmental decisions. But it seems that this lack of representation is not only a gender issue but can leave countries lagging behind on essential climate mitigation – countries which have the rights and opportunities of women closer to that of men have lower per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide. Other examples of women’s essential role in effective climate solutions have been seen across the world. Forest-management organisations in India and Nepal who have more women on the board are more effective in conserving their land. A study of 130 countries found that those with more women in government are more likely to approve environmental legislation. And in the UK, waste management companies who have fewer women at the helm are less efficient than those who do.
Though the case of global warming, with it’s indiscriminate threat to all inhabitants of the earth, may seem like one of the only causes that require equal collaboration between all genders, countries, and levels of GDP, it’s clear that our biases have no bounds. This misbalance threatens to impede not only the rights of women but also the lofty heights of the white men sitting in positions of power in corporations and governments alike. The environmental cause is in desperate need of an aesthetic overhaul to engage men, and of a rewrite of the official tableau to include women in its ranks. It’s long been questioned why there’s been such slow uptake of mitigation for the most dangerous threat of our societies, perhaps the environment needs to tag in on the #metoo movement.