Why Is Being Eco‑Friendly Considered A Feminine Trait?
Societal definitions of masculinity prevent men from making eco-friendly choices.
Sustainable consumption has always witnessed a gender gap. Previously, this disparity was attributed to personality differences between the sexes. The social psychological values of altruism, self-interest, conventionalism, and willingness to change, influence one’s environmental concern, thereby determining their behavior toward the environment. Research suggests that men and women define and prioritize such values differently, which in turn, causes a dissimilarity in their behavior toward the environment, reports Vice US.
A 2016 paper, however, highlights an unconscious bias that also could be at play here, authored by Dr. Aaron Brough of Utah State University in partnership with professors from four other universities. This stereotype, known as the Green Feminine Stereotype, makes both men and women believe that green consumers are more feminine, thus justifying men’s decision to abstain from eco-friendly choices. Men are often more concerned about maintaining their gender identity than women, and we have noticed, time and again, that society too expects that of them. In this effort to subscribe to popular notions of machismo, Brough’s research suggests, people may be affecting the environment gravely.
Brough and his team reported data from seven experiments that they conducted, which included more than 2,000 participants, both men and women, from the United States and China. The findings are alarming.
In one of the seven experiments conducted by the team, the participants were asked to think of a time when they did something good for the environment, or a time when their actions may not have been in the interest of the ecosystem. The ones who recalled doing a kind act rated themselves as more “feminine” compared to those who remembered hurting the environment. How we appear to others affects our behavior as we tend to conform to the stereotypes about us, a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. The researchers, however, observed that even when the participants were evaluating themselves while not worrying about what others thought of them, they did not change their responses, which is deeply worrying as it shows how ingrained this bias is.
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In another experiment, male participants were shown two Walmart gift cards. While one of the cards had stereotypically feminine design elements such as the color pink or floral themes, the other was neutral. After having looked at the gift cards, the participants were asked to make a choice between a series of eco-friendly and non-eco-friendly products and brands. The researchers observed that the men who were shown the gendered gift card picked more non-green products than those who were shown the other gift card. This study further illustrates that men assert their masculinity by opting for non-sustainable brands and products when they feel threatened by femininity.
To check whether or not the stereotype also affects how people respond to product advertisements, the researchers worked with BMW in China. They took two print ads of the same car. The ads were identical except for the use of the word “eco-friendly” in one and a Chinese word for protection in another. The team observed that men responded to the eco-friendly option less positively than the protection one, though the ads were for the same car.
Apart from unearthing this unconscious bias, Brough’s study also confirms how femininity, even today, is considered a weakness. There is no denying that both the sexes are rebuked for not fitting their gender stereotypes. As NYU psychologist, Madeline Heilman reports, women who are competent, and display stereotypically masculine qualities at the workplace such as assertion and forcefulness, are seen by both sexes as unlikable, unfeminine, conniving, and untrustworthy. However, what we are noticing here is that there is a hierarchy in place, where femininity comes way below masculinity. For the men, being vulnerable, acting nice, displaying empathy, expressing pain, and other stereotypically feminine qualities, contribute to them being looked down upon as weak and incompetent. Men who stray from masculine norms are penalized severely. They experience greater psychological damage. As a result, they go to great lengths in order to not come across as feminine. This further explains their environment-unfriendly choices.
With the revelation that toxic masculinity may be shaping people’s choices, which in turn, is adversely affecting the climate, one cannot help but wonder whether brands can use this information to contribute to positive environmental impact. The association of eco-friendliness with femininity needs to be branded in the right light.
Incorporating gender neutral designs for eco-friendly products, can help in making the concept more gender-inclusive. The other alternative involves roping in the idea of powerful femininity. This variant of femininity includes women adopting qualities that are traditionally considered masculine, such as strength, assertiveness, and competitiveness, thus altering the way femininity is conventionally viewed. For example, powerful feminine icons encourage people to make greener choices. These, however, are temporary solutions and they don’t really tackle the underlying threat men feel femininity poses. What really needs to be done is to teach men to embrace vulnerability as a strength. This way, not only do we change men’s attitudes and enable them to make more eco-friendly choices, we also slowly do away with the bias itself. However, on the contrary, what we do see is that brands around the world continue to accommodate toxic masculinity by pandering to gender stereotypes.
These stereotypes are being questioned both at work and in society in order to undo the effect they have had and continue to have on our mental health and perception of ourselves. However, now that we know this bias is also disastrous for the environment, greater effort needs to be made. This unconscious bias revealed to us by Brough and his team can help us make wiser and healthier choices by being more conscious each time we feel the urge to obey stereotypes.
Correction: An earlier version of this article lacked an attribution of information reported by Vice US on March 25, 2019. It has been updated to reflect the source of the information.
A postgraduate in political science, Riya Roy is the creative communications at weunlearn.org. She is a United Nations volunteer, leading a global team of writers for iuventum’s media newsletter. In the past, her articles have appeared on Arré, LiveWire, BeBadass, Noble Missions for Change Initiative, and Feminism In India. She finds comfort in poetry.