Sustainability and the Gender Spectrum: It’s Hard Being Green

I’ve been involved with sustainability and practicing green habits for around three years now. In that time, the vast majority of the influencers, friends, colleagues, mentors and peers that I’ve met have been female. Even Gen Z’s most outspoken advocate for climate change, Greta Thunberg, falls into this category. As such, I wondered about the connection between femininity and greenness, and how that link led to the “responsibility” for climate action falling mainly on the female population.

Greta Thunberg is one of the most outspoken – and young – climate activists, striking for climate change each week.

The scientific literature, not to bore you with the details, follows a logical path. Firstly, we see that most people associate women and femininity with traits such as empathy and altruism; for instance, companies with women on their corporate boards (which should be, um, all of them, but that’s an issue for another day) were shown to be more generous with their donations and charity work. We then see the link between these compassionate characteristics (giving back to people, having an impact on the global community) and sustainability. In reality, sustainable habits will not benefit us so much as generations to come, as well as plants and animals affected by the changing world.

Of course, we cannot say whether these traits arise because of socialization of both men and women, rather than inherent characteristics, but these implications can be interpreted as how stereotypes about masculinity and femininity relate to ‘green living’ and the level of importance men and women place on maintaining these stereotypes. Not only is there a cognitive association between green behaviour and femininity, this association affects gender stereotypes in terms of self-perception and social judgements. Based on this idea, it could be said that the reason women are more likely to engage in sustainable habits is because men are concerned with protecting a masculine image, and that image does not interact with those habits in his cognitive mindset.

But how do these separate roles become so distinct? In a study about “sustainability consciousness” (SC) in boys and girls in formal education, they found that indeed there is a significant gap in the SC of students in schooling, and further that it increases with age. Girls consistently have a higher SC than boys, increasing as they move from grade 6 through grade 12. The socialization theory that suggests, “ it is the gender role expectations that promote the girls’ concern for others and the increasing importance of gender issues in adolescents that is the mechanism behind the increasing gender gap in the students’ SC,” (Olsson & Gericke, 2017) supports the role of feminine stereotypes in separating the sustainability consciousness of women and men, and that it begins at least in middle childhood and adolescence.

The logical next step would be to examine the influences of gender gap in sustainability in practical settings in adulthood. Regarding the relationship between gender diversity and environmental practices, a balance of women and men at the corporate level is more likely to produce ‘sound environmental performance’ rather than a primarily male executive team. Therefore, gender stereotypes in terms of the difference in sustainability consciousness between men and women does have an impact at the level of the workplace and adult life.

From this logical, straightforward arc we can see how men and women are socialized in terms of their sustainability consciousness and further the responsibility that they feel as a result of those stereotypes. However, this only pertains to the gender binary; how do gender-fluid, non-binary and transgender people fit in with these connotations about sustainability?

Gender fluid, non-binary and transgender people should be included in our discussion about sustainability.

Unfortunately, there has not been much research conducted with regards to this topic; it seems, however, that clothing designed with gender-fluidity in mind also tends to be more sustainable. This phenomenon, however, might have less to do with gender and more to do with age: although there’s many middle-aged and older people who are gender-fluid, non-binary, and/or transgender, the population is notably youthful. Similarly, it is well-known that young people, as a whole, are more concerned with sustainability and climate action than older generations.

In all, more research needs to be done in terms of the inclusion of gender-fluid, non-binary, and transgender people with regards to sustainable habits. It would definitely be interesting to me to see if transgender people retained the sustainability stereotypes of the gender that they were assigned at birth after transitioning, or if non-binary people felt less of an obligation than women to be sustainable and less of an obligation than men to protect a masculine image. Ecoage.com, a magazine specializing in sustainability conversations, has a great article “Mythbusters: Which Gender is More Sustainable?” that touches briefly on this subject.

In any case, the stereotypes that arise around the gender spectrum and sustainability are both unfair and unhelpful. Climate action and green habits are practices that the entirety of humanity needs to take on together, and some of the first steps are increasing sustainability consciousness education for both boys and girls in school as well as decreasing the patriarchal idea that men cannot be empathetic or altruistic, and by that measure, sustainable.

Here are the articles I used if you’d like to read further 🙂

Birindelli, G., Iannuzzi, A., & Savioli, M. (2019). The impact of women leaders on environmental performance: Evidence on gender diversity in banks. Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management. https://doi.org/10.1002/csr.1762

Brough, A., Wilkie, J., Ma, J., Isaac, M., & Gal, D. (2016). Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The green-feminine stereotype and its effect on sustainable consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 43(4). https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucw044

Mestre, V. M., Samper, P., Frías-Navarro, D., & Tur-Porcar, A. (2009). Are women more empathetic than men? A longitudinal study in adolescence. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 12(1), 76-83. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1138741600001499

Olsson, D., & Gericke, N. (2017). The effect of gender on students’ sustainability consciousness: A nationwide Swedish study. The Journal of Environmental Education, 48(8), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/00958964.2017.1310083 

Shoham, A., Almor, T., Lee, S., & Ahammad, M. (2017). Encouraging environmental sustainability through gender: A micro-foundational approach using linguistic gender marking. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(9).  https://doi.otg/10.1002/job.2188

Simmons W., & Emanuele, R. (2007). Male-female giving differentials: Are women more altruistic?. Journal of Economic Studies, 34(11), 534-550. https://doi.org/10.1108/01443580710830989

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By Ashley Abrahart

November 25th, 2020

Links for images:

https://ra.nea.org/2020/07/03/neas-highest-honor-goes-to-climate-teen-activist-greta-thunberg/

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