Presence of Mind

Understanding environmental and other social problems.

The Yin and Yang of Gender and Environmentalism

How women and men differ when it comes to the environment

Although the differences aren't large, women and men differ in their environmental attitudes and behavior.  Public opinion polls find that more women than men say the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment. In comparison to women, men are more likely to support increased use of nuclear power and offshore oil and gas drilling. Studies also find that women score higher in environmental concern than men do, a finding that holds cross-culturally. 

Women are more likely to endorse the “new environmental paradigm” (NEP), which views humans as part of nature. They more strongly agree that we shouldn’t upset the carefully balanced ecosystem, and that human behavior may create eco-crisis. 

 

Women also tend to score higher than men on some important values underlying environmental concern.  According to psychologists like P. Wesley Schultz, people act proenvironmentally based on their egoistic, altruistic, and biospheric values. These values explain why people do or do not care about environmental problems; people may care because they believe such problems directly affect them (egoistic concern); other people (social-altruistic concern); or nature and ecosystems (biospheric concern). Women not only score higher than men on these values but they place a higher value on altruism (i.e., self-transcendence), the value most associated with environmentalism.  

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Some might say these gender differences occur because menstruation and childbirth connect women to nature. Others suggest a “motherhood mentality” arising from their roles as childbearers and caregivers puts women more in touch with the interconnectedness of humans and nature. Most researchers attribute gender differences in environmental concern to value differences from traditional gender socialization. Females are more likely to be socialized to be communal and other-centered (which is more consistent with values of self-transcendence related to environmentalism), while males are socialized to be agentic and competitive (which is more consistent with self-enhancement values contrary to environmentalism and efforts to dominate nature).

Women play a central role in environmental sustainability, particularly in the home realm, where they influence the family’s adoption of home sustainability behaviors. Women also have a long track record as grassroots environmental activists, often acting because environmental degradation directly affects their daily activities and their family’s health and well-being. Despite this, men dominate environmentalism at all levels, as scientific and economic experts, entrepreneurs, policy makers and spokespeople.  This matters, because it has resulted in a focus on “masculine” technological and scientific solutions at the expense of more “feminine” approaches focused on behavior change and living more harmoniously with nature. 

Having said all that, I feel it is dangerous to “gender” environmentalism.  Sure, we could see these “feminine” and “masculine” approaches in a yin yang fashion. But I don’t like that this labeling suggests that some forms of environmentalism are the domain of women and some of men when these differences are modest, and result from nurture more than nature. Such labels may discourage men from adopting environmental worldviews emphasizing living harmoniously with nature; worldviews key to environmental sustainability. They may also discourage women’s participation in forms of environmentalism traditionally dominated by men.  

References

Burn, S.M., Winter, P., Hori, B., & Silver, N.  (2012).  Gender, ethnic identity, and environmental concern in Asian Americans and Euro Americans.  Human Ecology Review, 19, 136-145.

Hunter, L. M., Hatch, A., & Johnson, A. (2004). Cross‐National Gender Variation in Environmental Behaviors. Social Science Quarterly, 85, 677-694. 

MacGregor, S. (2010).  A stranger silence still: The need for feminist social research on climate change.  The Sociological Review, 57, 124-140. 

Schultz, W. P. (2001). The structure of environmental concern: Concern for self, other people, and the biosphere. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21, 327-339.

Zelezney, L., Chua, P., & Aldrich, C. (2000). Elaborating on gender differences in environmentalism. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 443-457. 

Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

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