Researchers have known for decades
that women tend to beat men on environmental metrics. They generally use less fuel
and energy. They eat less meat
. They're more concerned about climate change
.James Wilkie, a business professor at the University of Notre Dame, wanted to understand what drives this gender eco-friendliness gap. After years of exploring psychological bias, he and his colleagues developed a theory.
"Men’s resistance may stem in part from a prevalent association between the concepts of greenness and femininity and a corresponding stereotype (held by both men and women) that green consumers are feminine," they assert this month in the Journal of Consumer Research
. "As a result of this stereotype, men may be motivated to avoid or even oppose green behaviors in order to safeguard their gender identity."
The researchers conducted a set of experiments, each designed to gauge if we actually do ascribe gender to green products and whether such perceptions impact our willingness to use them. They found people consistently connect environmentally conscious goods to their idea of femininity.
[Is a vegetarian diet really better for the environment? Science takes aim at conventional wisdom.]
The first survey of 127 college students asked respondents if they thought green products appeared masculine, feminine or neither. Most participants, both men and women, said items designed to protect the planet seemed feminine.
Another group of 194 students took an online quiz instructing them to imagine two grocery store shoppers, one carrying a green reusable bag and another toting a plastic sack. The quiz asked: Which seemed more eco-friendly, wasteful, masculine and/or feminine? The green shoppers seemed to respondents more eco-friendly and feminine, regardless of their gender. The plastic shoppers came off as more wasteful and masculine.
The researchers next gave a group of men phony gift cards and told them to pick from a selection of batteries, which included a green option. In both a faux Walmart and an online shopping scenario, the men avoided the green choice. “Self-perceptions of femininity suggest that threats may also influence private behavior,” the authors wrote.
Wilkie’s team also found men in the studies were more likely to donate to an environmental nonprofit group that had a “masculine” logo — one with darker colors and bold fonts — than to an organization that displayed lighter tones and “frilly” letters. Logos didn’t have an impact on where women said they’d want to donate.
“Stereotypical feminine behavior and attitudes are more in parallel with taking care of the environment,” Wilkie said of the findings. “Male traits tend to conflict with this idea of maintaining a nice environment for other people.”
Wilkie blames stereotypes. Previous research, Wilkie noted, suggests that men are socially penalized more for breaking gender norms when it comes to the products they use — or even the drinks they order. Meanwhile Carrie Preston, director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Program at Boston University, said it’s concerning that feminine-seeming goods or actions repel some men. “That says what’s feminine is bad, is lesser, is second class,” she said. “Although men’s and women’s roles have changed significantly, masculinity hasn’t changed as much.”
Caring about what people think of your drink choice or grocery bag may seem silly. There’s nothing inherently feminine about recycling, and some would argue that femininity itself (and how it’s marketed) is a cultural creation. Still, a 2011 survey from the global marketing firm Ogilvy and Mather found 82 percent of adults in a nationally representative sample said “going green” is more ladylike than manly.
However, there is a possible solution, according to the team's report. "Despite a prevalent stereotype that green consumers are more feminine than non-green consumers," the researchers wrote, "we show that men’s inhibitions about engaging in green behavior can be mitigated through masculine affirmation and masculine branding."
This article has been republished from The Washington Post. It may have been edited for publication purposes.