UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Caring about the environment and putting in some extra work to help out our planet hardly seems like a gender-centric issue at first consideration, but a new study out of Penn State University finds that certain eco-friendly behaviors that are considered overly masculine or feminine can lead to inadvertent social consequences for those trying to lend Mother Nature a hand.
The study concluded that men and women are more likely to question a man’s sexual orientation if he partakes in more “feminine” pro-environmental behaviors like frequently using reusable shopping bags. Conversely, a woman’s sexual orientation is likely to be questioned if she takes part in more “masculine” behaviors such as sealing up windows to ensure no energy is wasted at home. The study also found that men are generally more likely to avoid women who regularly engage in masculine eco-friendly activities.
While environmentalism as a broad activity is traditionally viewed as more feminine, specific activities associated with environmentalism are often viewed as either masculine or feminine. The study’s authors say it is especially important to recognize and understand these social biases against environmental behavior because they can discourage people from participating in activities that can help our planet.
“There may be subtle, gender-related consequences when we engage in various pro-environmental behaviors,” professor Janet K. Swim explains in a release. “People may avoid certain behaviors because they are managing the gendered impression they anticipate others will have of them. Or they may be avoided if the behaviors they choose do not match their gender.”
Researchers conducted three experiments consisting of 960 people for this study. For the first two, participants were given one of three different summaries of a fictional man or woman’s pro-environmental daily activities. These activities consisted of behaviors that were typically considered either masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral. Afterwards, each participant was asked to rate whether the fictional person had masculine or feminine traits, and guess their sexuality.
Across all three activity variations, researchers say that participants associated the fictional person’s pro-environmental behaviors as feminine.
“Reflecting the tendency to see environmentalism as feminine, all the people were rated as more feminine than masculine regardless of the behaviors they did,” Swim says. However, when the behavior of the fictional man or woman generally conformed to their gender, they were viewed as more heterosexual.
While participants didn’t outright classify men who displayed more feminine eco-friendly traits, and vice versa, as homosexual, researchers say their findings indicate that most participants were at least unsure about their sexualities.
“If being seen as heterosexual is important to a person, that person may prioritize gender-conforming over gender-nonconforming pro-environmental behaviors in anticipation of how others might see them,” Swim comments.
A third experiment was also conducted, in order to determine if people avoid others based on their eco-friendly behavior. While in a room filled with other people, participants filled out an online survey asking about specific environmental topics they would discuss with a partner. Each participant was then given a fake list of topic preferences supposedly filled out by other people in the same room. These fake lists consisted of both a man and woman willing to discuss gender-normal eco-friendly behaviors and a man and woman willing to talk about gender-nonconforming behaviors. Finally, participants were asked to list, in order of preference, who they would prefer to talk with of the four.
The results indicated that women tend to avoid both men and women interested in more masculine environmental traits. However, even though these results point to gender biases among women, researchers say these choices did not seem to be based on gender role conformity.
On the other hand, men seemed to avoid women who exhibited masculine interests more than any of the other three options. Based on these findings, researchers say that women are more likely to experience negative social consequences as a result of engaging in typically non-feminine eco-friendly behavior.
“We were surprised that it was only women who experienced being avoided if they engaged in nonconforming gender-role behaviors,” Swim says. “We can’t say why this is happening, but it is a social consequence. Women may be experiencing this negative feedback and might not know why.”