The UK Parliament declared a climate change emergency in May, while around the world, many have become more conscious of their impact on the environment, whether it be cutting down on single-use plastics, buying sustainable products, or eating a more plant-based diet.
Although we are increasingly aware and are working to reduce our impact on the planet, research from Penn State University reveals that some “green” behaviours may be seen as either feminine or masculine, which researchers says may have social consequences.
In a series of studies, the researchers evaluated specific pro-environmental behaviours, such as using reusable shopping bags. They were also more likely to question a woman’s sexual orientation if she engaged in “masculine” pro-environmental behaviours, such as caulking windows.
Additionally, men were more likely to avoid women who were interested in “masculine” pro-environmental behaviours.
Janet K Swim, professor of psychology at Penn State, said it is important to understand these social consequences because they may hold people back from engaging in behaviours that could ultimately help the environment.
According to researchers, environmentalism in general may be seen as feminine because it fits with women’s traditional role as caregivers. Nevertheless, particular pro-environmental behaviours can align with either traditional feminine or masculine roles.
For example, women were more traditionally associated with recycling or using a reusable shopping bag, whereas behaviours such as paying bills online or turning off the air conditioning were considered to be gender neutral.
The study also found that men who engaged in the traditionally feminine behaviours were more likely to have their heterosexual identity questioned.
“Behaviours don’t just help us accomplish something concrete, they also signal something about who we are,” Swim said. “Line drying clothes or keeping tires at proper pressures may signal that we care about the environment, but if those behaviours are seen as gendered, they may signal other things, as well.”
In three studies with a total of 960 participants, the researchers assessed impressions and avoidance of men and women engaging in “feminine” and “masculine” behaviours.
During the first two studies, participants read fictional summaries of a person’s daily activities, which included either feminine, masculine or neutral pro-environmental behaviours. Participants then rated whether the person had masculine or feminine traits and guessed what the person’s sexual orientation might be.
Across the board the characters were “perceived as being more likely to have positive feminine than positive masculine traits” – confirmation that certain green behaviours are not associated with manliness.
Participants who learned that the male character engaged in behaviours associated with women did not, on average, view him as homosexual. Still, they “were uncertain of his heterosexual identity,” the researchers write.
The researchers did a third study to examine whether people avoided others based on the other person’s pro-environmental behaviour preferences. In a room with several other people, participants completed a digital survey where they indicated which environmental topics they would like to discuss with a partner.
A final study suggested these evaluations can have real-world consequences. After participating in a similar exercise, 303 people were asked who they would be interested in speaking with about environmental behaviours.
“Gender-bending women were socially avoided by men,” the researchers report. They add that this phenomenon appears to be driven by men’s “discomfort engaging with a woman who is not clearly heterosexual.”
The worrying part, however, was how these perceptions might influence which climate friendly behaviours – if any – people chose to engage with.
“They may be subtle, gender-related consequences when we engage in various pro-environmental behaviours,” professor Swim said. “People may avoid certain behaviours because they are managing the gendered impression they anticipate others will have of them. Or they may be avoided if the behaviours they choose do not match their gender.”
A 2017 study in Scientific American showed similar results, which suggested men fear engaging in eco-friendly behaviours because this may make them seem less masculine.
With many people already sick enough of gender stereotypes, this new research has given us enough of a reason to ditch the dated concepts all together. We need to stop expecting women to shoulder the burden of the climate emergency and accept that it is everyone’s responsibility to do what they can for the planet, irrespective of gender, race, sexuality or class.
This is despite the climate emergency appearing as a distinctly feminist issue because, as Margaret Atwood told the Guardian last year, women are likely to fare worse than men in any situations of civil unrest or food shortage which may occur as a result of climate breakdown.
So, from now on let’s put our arbitrary concept of gender to the side and all do what we can for the planet – while we still have a planet.