The responsibility for saving the world from the ravages of climate change should not be a gendered issue. However, multiple studies have found that women, more than men, engage in pro-environmental behaviours.
This phenomenon has been termed the ‘eco gender gap’ by Mintel, following their findings that, in contrast to the 71% of UK women committed to more eco-friendly living, 59% of UK men committed the same. This disparity is significant and replicable, seen in studies ranging from the willingness to cut down on red meat consumption, to a Swedish study finding a higher use of ‘consumption-related’ energy in men. Even with products considered to have ‘gender neutral marketing’, women form the majority of the customer base, with online zero-waste retailers Plastic Freedom and Package Free Shop reporting women forming 90% of their customer base.
Past attempts to explicate this issue have attributed innate personality differences to women being more environmentally conscious. With some of the most visible climate activists of this generation being women, with prominent figures such as Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Jacinda Arden all standing as vocal proponents of climate action, one could see how the conclusion that women have stronger attitudes towards protecting the environment could be traced to some intrinsic difference with men.
However, this assumption is a fallacious one, as social perceptions, cognitive biases, widespread sexism, and a reductionist view of gender as binary and determinative all play into women being more likely to care about climate change.
A sexist cognitive bias persists in the fight for climate action and has existed for generations. Middle-class women were at the forefront of environmental causes in the USA in the early 1900s. In order to manoeuvre in the exclusionary political sphere, they justified their activism as natural to their traditionally feminine responsibilities. As women, they argued, their compassion drove them to protect the natural world. Necessitated into this argument by patriarchal structures, femininity was cognitively linked to the environmentalists' cause. Unfortunately, the established feminine domain of environmentalism presented a hindrance for men engaging in climate action, with the idea of losing their ‘masculine authority’ if they were associated with activism that had been gendered.
Cognitively linking ‘greenness’ and feminism persists, with studies finding that more feminine than masculine traits are associated with pro-environmental behaviours. Veganism is a prime example of this. A survey by the Vegan Society found that 63% of participants were female, in contrast to 37% male. This issue centres less on associating femininity with veganism, and more with meat consumption being associated with masculinity. Deviating from this ‘masculine’ behaviour is thus regarded as feminine; femininity is seen as ‘other’. Eating meat is strongly associated with white, heterosexual masculinity, in addition to a general metric of Western consumer success. Men shunning green behaviours is thus associated with not wanting to associate themselves with gender non-conforming traits.
Not only are behaviours gendered; but climate change policy arguments have also received gendered treatment. Arguments focussing on science and business are attributed more to men than women, whereas the inverse is seen with arguments focussing on ethics and environmental justice. Men also tend to attribute negative feminine traits to other men using ethical and environmental justice arguments. This dismissal of certain climate arguments based on their association with femininity is both sexist and impedes the discourse around climate change.
Further, leaders in positions of policy-influencing power are still overwhelmingly men. The eco-gender gap persists, not just due to gendered biases, but the realities of those in positions to influence climate change policy. In our patriarchal culture, men land top roles in nearly every industry, significantly the governmental realm for the climate change fight.
Compounding pro-environmental behaviours and arguments, a study found that a willingness to buy green products was associated with altruistic signalling. Green products tend to cost more but are seen to benefit the environment generally (the greenwashing of products is a different matter entirely). Given that the reasoning for engaging in green consumer habits is linked to ethical arguments, and those ethical climate arguments appeal to women more than men, the gender disparity in green consumption can be understood further.
Returning to meat consumption presents an interesting foray into other attitudes that deter the adoption of pro-environmental behaviours; capitalist models of success convey prosperity and status upon the action of meat consumption, in tandem with masculine affirmation. Recognising the various sources of social pressure hindering climate change, and adopting an intersectional approach to activism, is important in the climate fight.
Moreover, the binary gendered discourse around climate change is incredibly limiting, treating women as a homogenous group and erasing gender-on-conforming individuals. The fight for climate action, and the social structures impeding arguments and behaviours, extends beyond the patriarchy to race, class, post-imperialism and neo-colonialism. Understanding gendered attitudes towards climate change represents one of a multi-dimensional interactions approach to tackling climate change with a focus on social consciousness.