Men and Sustainability… Why Does it Seem So Unpopular?

A while ago I saw a post by the German food saving initiative “RESTLOS GLÜCKLICH” reporting a gender imbalance in their social and environmental activities: there are always more women than men engaged. Whether it is in their workshops or in their office, women are in the majority.

They presented some survey data from different German institutions which seem to confirm that this is a common situation:

* More women (87 percent) have more ethical and environmental concerns over food waste than men (76 percent) (German Environment Agency)

* Women (73 percent) try more often to reduce plastic waste than men (63 percent) (German Environment Agency)

* For business travel, 86 percent of women consider sustainability (use of public transport, train travel, and eco-friendly hotels) to be important, compared with only 76 percent of men (Press Portal)

* Far more women (38 percent) than men (19 percent) are willing to give up meat for reasons of animal welfare and environmental protection (German Environment Agency)

“Beim Anblick dieser kurvigen Süßkartoffel kam bei uns ein Gedanke auf: Wir haben ein Ungleichgewicht. Bei sozialen und ökologischen Belangen engagieren sich mehr Frauen als Männer. Bei unseren Workshops sind Frauen in der Überzahl; in unserem Büro auch. Ob wir es uns eingebildet haben? Laut der Forschung, eher nicht.

*Ethische und ökologische Bedenken in Bezug auf Lebensmittelverschwendung formulieren Frauen (87 Prozent) häufiger als Männer (76 Prozent) (Umweltbundesamt)

*Auf Plastik und Verpackungsabfälle versuchen Frauen (73 Prozent) häufiger als Männer (63 Prozent) zu verzichten (Umweltbundesamt)

*Bei Geschäftsreisen halten 86 Prozent der Frauen Nachhaltigkeit (Nutzung von öffentlichen Verkehrsmitteln, Zugreisen und umweltfreundlichen Hotels) für wichtig, dagegen nur 76 Prozent der Männer (Presseportal)

*Wegen Tierschutz und Umweltschutz sind Frauen (38 Prozent) weit häufiger bereit als Männer (19 Prozent) sich überwiegend oder komplett vegetarisch zu ernähren (Umweltbundesamt)

Habt ihr das Ungleichgewicht bezüglich Nachhaltigkeit und Klimaschutz auch mitbekommen? Habt ihr Theorien dazu, wie diese Situation entstanden ist? Wir finden das Ganze sehr spannend und denken beim Süßkartoffel kochen nach!”

This post made me think. I have been active in many environmental initiatives around the world and also founded my own initiatives, COLLECTIVE GREEN​ and 享食台灣 Foodsharing Taiwan​. Women always make up the majority of participants; and in most cases the number of female participants greatly exceeds the number of males.

I think it’s a very interesting phenomenon; and as a male, I would like to further explore options to motivate other men to care more about social and environmental issues, or at least find out why they don’t engage, and under which circumstances they might. I plan to do further research on the topic, but for now, I want to share what I have done so far, spread the word and hear your experiences!

I asked myself, how do I begin to figure this out? What articles are there on the topic? Who could I talk to and how could I get in touch with other people involved in environmental activities? Well, I chose the easiest way and asked Facebook. I shared a post on the COLLECTIVE GREEN page in the hope that people would share it and I would get replies and opinions. And it worked!

Are women more caring about the environment than men?

Before that, though, I looked for existing articles on the web. I found an article titled, “A vexing question: why do men recycle less than women?” in The Guardian. The author says, “Simply put, the research confirms that women recycle more, are more likely to support environmental regulations, know more about the scientific aspects of climate change and are more likely to express concern about its effects. By all measures, men just seem to care less.”

The author also mentions an older article from the Los Angeles Times that concludes the following: 

“When it comes to caring for the environment, is there a gender difference between men and women? A growing body of social science research suggests yes. Women consistently rank values strongly linked to environmental concern — things such as altruism, personal responsibility and empathy — as more important than men do. They also say they see environmentalism as important to protecting themselves and their families.”

Well there seems to be a consensus in the literature, but what would people on Facebook say? 

That is when I shared a little survey on COLLECTIVE GREEN and this is what I got:

Female: “This is a complicated subject, but a key aspect of this phenomenon is men’s desire to project a more masculine self to a world in which patriarchy is still the norm. To many people, “caring” (nurturing, protecting, etc.) about environmental or social issues is often associated with a “feminine” worldview. So, even when men care about environmental or social issues, they don’t feel safe or comfortable expressing it. Both women and men reinforce the patriarchal social “status” quo. As I said, there is more to it, but this is a major reason to me.”

Male: “In general, females have a more caring and nurturing biological makeup. Men are more selfish and would rather be out there doing something for themselves than for someone else. I think the social constructionist view might be correct sometimes but it’s not a huge factor. It’s a global phenomenon, so it leads one to think it must be something more than cultural norms. On a similar topic, I heard something recently on the statistics on general political leanings in the US. On the left, particularly the far left, women vastly outnumber men. The further right and more conservative you go the more men are there.”

Male: “Mother nature & Mothers nature.”

Female: “I was thinking about something similar the other day – when I’m visiting my woods, I stop in garages sometimes to get tea/food. I try and bring a reusable cup, but I have to say I have rarely seen a dude ever bring a reusable cup into the garage. I thought maybe women in most cases are the carers, the nurturers, therefore we actively care about green stuff? I asked my partner, and he thought women tend to think ahead more, plan – therefore think about stuff that hasn’t happened yet – like the future water wars, fuel wars, climate chaos!”

Female: “… not sure really, I suspect the issues are pretty complex… it’s a ‘man’s world’? Their jobs contribute to planet wrecking more often than womens’? A lot of these issues are around food, and men perhaps don’t think too much about what they eat. They’re fatalistic about the future… what will be will be, I have to earn a living? To be honest with you, when we ran ‘climate camp’ here in 2010 there were easily as many men as women involved.”

Female: “I notice that a lot of men are more pessimistic to the point that they say ‘it doesn’t matter anyway’… and maybe it’s also combined with a dash of laziness, because it’s easier you know. Because it means you don’t have to change your behaviour. I say this because I noticed that the people that did eventually change their behaviour said it was partly that too. Suddenly you hold yourself accountable for what you do.”

Female: “I tend to disagree with this. Yes there are slightly more women interested in the subject but it is more 55/45. At least from people I know.”

Female: “This is an interesting topic, I have noticed the same (my office, my studies, etc.) and my gut feeling is that women (generally) tend to be more connected and compassionate with nature, when we are connected with ourselves and our naturally cyclical bodies. I also read recently that a certain percentage of men (will have to look up the exact statistic) do not recycle because they don’t want to be thought of as ‘gay,’ attributing femininity to caring about environmentalism.”

Male: “Most endeavors requiring someone to change or even consider personal changes in habits….all dominantly women. So either men think they got it covered or just don’t care about much more than having a beer with their ‘bros’.”

Female: “I have thought about gender and environment for some years, but when you go on this discourse you get a lot of resistance, as some people do not understand the link, and also because results can be very confronting for the people ‘that behave unsustainably’. The first thing is to read especially about power structures and how they shape the economy and society. Second, some people write about different masculinities. R. O’Connell wrote about the ‘hegemony of certain masculinities’. I think our society praises the certain ‘wounded masculinities’ too much, because men with these masculinities are in power, so that some men (happily, not all men) think indeed, as [a previously posting female] said, that it is “feminine” to care for others, or do ‘environmentally friendly’. It is not because they are men, but because some men are wired to think in a certain way that they are the ones pushing the statistics toward negative answers.
I think it is also important to not only look to gender. Most white women from the urban middle class would answer differently than most black women from the urban middle class. And there we get into some controversial research that touches very sensitive topics that also makes me nervous that I do not say anything wrong that would offend people… because we should also talk about race, class etc. During a conference last month, I met one guy who researched sustainable food consumption between black and white Americans, and his results really lead to some treats at his address, because black people’s consumption is more sustainable -and he was black. Gender, race, class and other ‘structures’ are very well intertwined, so I would not only zoom into ‘gender’. Some days ago I read this article about a personal experience. Last month I organised a meeting about gender and industrial ecology. It was interesting to see that we have a gender balance, but the men who were there all worked or were from ‘developing’ countries.
Just a last thought. I think most men are really amazing and like to provide and help and support. I met many male circular economy entrepreneurs who are amazing and very in tune with the environment and society, and know what’s best for them. It’s just that in certain circles, men think to be ‘real men,’ they should eat meat, spend and exploit, and also women who like to be treated as a man and get the same benefits will go for the same behaviour. So… we should talk about certain ‘models’ and ‘ideals’ rather than about gender, race etc…
I was just reading an online free course about ecolinguistics. Part 6 talks about identities and gives the example of how many advertisements describe the ‘ideal man’ as a red meat eating violent man. I can recommend to look into this course, because storytelling can be a great tool for change:

Comments in German only:

Frau: “Frauen sind genetisch/hormonell betrachtet empathischer/sozialer eingestellt und daher auch selbstloser bzw. daran interessiert, wie sie der Gemeinschaft mehr helfen können, statt sich selbst in den Mittelpunkt zu setzen.
Zusätzlich kommt noch, dass sie auch dahin mehr erzogen werden („Mädchen müssen doch lieb sein, Jungs können auch Raufbolde sein“).
Dieses Denken und Handeln ist für die Psyche/Ausgeglichenheit allerdings gesünder. Man fühlt sich erfüllter.
Vielleicht gibt es die Midlife-Crisis/Sinnes-Krise daher auch eher bei Männern als bei Frauen???”

Well, I simply want to share those opinions with you and I do not want to comment on them. I will leave this to you and would like you to think about it.

Have you noticed a gender imbalance regarding interest in the environment, sustainability and climate protection? Do you have theories about what are the causes for this situation? What are your thoughts on this? Is this fact or only fiction? What can we do about it? Think about it, and let me know!

By Stefan Simon for COLLECTIVE GREEN