Do Women Care More About Climate Change Than Men?

The role of gender in tackling climate change — according to science

Recently I heard environmentalist economist and author of Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth, speak (she joined us for our Rebel Book Club April meet up). She mentioned that she attended a recent youth climate strike in Rome, and took photos of her favourite placards during the day. When she got home and took a look back through the photos to decide which to post to her Twitter, she realised that all of the photos she’d taken were of girls. Of course, in recent months this has been embodied by schoolgirl Greta Thunberg as she has become a leading figure in communicating climate change. So, where are all the men when it comes to tackling climate change?

To move this out of the dangerous area of anecdote and firmly into fact, let’s look to the research. Studies conducted in this topic so far have found that gender and political belief are the only two factors that impact whether people accept climate science, and whether they make personal behavioural changes to reduce their environmental impact.

A 2017 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication on gender differences in public understanding of climate change, [1] for instance, found that women are more likely to agree with climate scientists, believe that climate change will be harmful, and be concerned about climate change, than men are. You can see the results in the image below.

Beyond the general public, a 2018 study by a team of researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland found that female economists are more likely to support environmental policies than their male counterparts [2]. That means that if we have more female leaders, and particularly more female politicians, we’re more likely to reduce our emissions to a safe point.

Why do women care more about climate change?

So why is it that women care more about climate change than men? I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to this question, but some of the main arguments are: women make the consumer decisions, women are child-bearers, environmentalism is a ‘feminine’ trait, women are less consumed by self-interest than men, and women are more motivated because they are the gender that will feel the impacts of climate change most heavily.

Women make the consumer decisions

Traditionally, women have been in charge of maintaining the household whilst men have been in charge of earning money. Although this is starting to change, women are still generally associated with the domestic space, and with the activity of keeping the home and the family safe.

Therefore, consumer decisions i.e. the weekly shopping and household purchases, largely lie with the woman of the house — studies suggest that 80% to 85% of all consumer decisions in a heterosexual relationship are made by the woman. In terms of the environment, this would include decisions like which energy company to choose, or how much meat the family will eat. This goes some way to explaining the prevalence of women as the driving force of the zero waste movement, which arguable started with Bea Johnson’s notion of the Zero Waste Home.

Women are child-bearers

Although obviously both men and women can be parents, it is the woman who carries a child. Therefore, arguably they are closer to and feel more keenly the pressure to maintain our world for future generations, and for their own children. In London in early May 2019, for instance, we saw the Mothers Rise Up march, with mothers demanding action against climate change to protect the health of their children. This came after mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah discovered that her daughter’s fatal asthma attack was likely due to high air pollution levels in the area they lived together.

Environmentalism is a ‘feminine’ trait

A 2016 study by Aaron R. Brough of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and James E.B. Wilkie of Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame found that there was a psychological link between perceptions of femininity and being environmentally conscious.

They carried out seven experiments with 2000 participants from the US and China, and found that the concepts of greenness and femininity are cognitively linked. This meant that people who made purchases deemed to be eco-friendly, were also seen as more feminine. [3] In the Scientific American Brough explained:

“Both men and women judged eco-friendly products, behaviours, and consumers as more feminine than their non-green counterparts. In one experiment, participants of both sexes described an individual who brought a reusable canvas bag to the grocery store as more feminine than someone who used a plastic bag — regardless of whether the shopper was a male or female. In another experiment, participants perceived themselves to be more feminine after recalling a time when they did something good versus bad for the environment.”

Women are less self-interested

Another argument is that men are more likely to act in self-interest than women. Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations argued that all humans have a need to fulfil their own self-interest, and that if we allow this to develop, we will also become economically prosperous. Essentially, giving everyone the freedom to produce and exchange goods as they pleased (now known as free trade) would create both domestic and foreign competition in the market, and that people’s natural self-interest to look out for themselves in this situation would promote prosperity. This has become the basis of modern economic theory, and the capitalist system that the Western world relies on.

Read more on Adam Smith and humans as ‘consumers’ here

But perhaps this self-interest is more a male trait than a female one. Christiana Figueres, former climate chief of the United Nations, spent 20 days on a boat in the Antarctica with 80 female scientists, and describes how they came together to collaborate on how they could save the planet. She argues that this is because women have a ‘stewardship’ role, caring for children and for the planet — bringing us back to the idea of women and domesticity.

“It wasn’t about, ‘How do I improve my career, how do I get to the top of my ladder?’ It was, ‘How do I use my skills, my expertise, my knowledge and my practice to contribute to a global issue?’’. I do have the feeling that we women tend to be more collaborative, we tend to be more long-term, we tend to be more global in our thinking because of our innate stewardship role … in society.”

Women are more affected by climate change

When it comes to the impacts of climate change, women will be more affected by climate change than men. Particularly, the effects of climate change will hit single mothers the hardest. They are vulnerable to poverty, having to look after themselves and their children, often with little or no income of their own. Therefore, when hit by extreme weather or a natural disaster, they will find struggle to overcome it.

United Nations data shows that currently, across the globe women make up 80% of all people displaced by climate change [4]. Perhaps it is this reality which motivates women to speak up about climate change mitigation.

“Women all over the world are … on the frontlines of the fall-out from climate change and therefore on the forefront of climate action.” — Natalie Samarasinghe, executive director of the United Nations Association UK.

I can’t say for sure which of these arguments are correct, but they all seem viable in their own way. What is certain, though, is that we must ensure that women are included in all conversations about climate change. We cannot tackle climate change, without also tackling gender inequality.

References

[1] ‘Gender differences in public understanding of climate change’, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (2017), https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/gender-differences-in-public-understanding-of-climate-change/

[2] ‘Gender and European Economic Policy: A Survey of the Views of European Economists on Contemporary Economic Policy’ (2018), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/kykl.12166

[3] ‘Is eco-friendly unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption’, Aaron R. Brough & James E. Wilkie. Journal of Consumer Research, https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article-abstract/43/4/567/2630509?redirectedFrom=fulltext

[4] ‘Climate change impacts women more than men’ , BBC Science and Environment, (2018), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43294221

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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