What’s climate change got to do with gender?
I wouldn’t blame you for at first guessing - not much. Much of the media presents a very narrow view of both issues - what have polar bears got to do with how many female billionaires there are, after all? And, while the feminist and environmental movements have for a long time supported each other, actually joining forces in campaigning has been rare.
But the more I started to look into it, the more I realised that the link between climate and gender isn’t just some vague footnote - it’s huge. Women* are more impacted by natural disasters. They are also less involved in decision making, both locally and internationally. But, what is maybe most shocking is the fact that it runs both ways. Not only is climate change making gender inequality worse, but our society’s narrow gender roles are part of what’s causing climate change in the first place.
To put it simply, it is seen as ‘girly’ to care about the environment. Various studies have shown that both men and women think of ‘eco-friendliness’ as a feminine quality - anything from buying ecological laundry detergent to refusing to use plastic bags can make us view ourselves and others as more feminine. While this might seem harmless at first, it gets scary when we see that these stereotypes can and do actively discourage men from acting in a pro-environment way, especially when they feel that their masculinity is threatened.
And once you start looking for it, examples are everywhere.
Women on average have a lower carbon footprint, due in part to driving less, and eating less meat. Watch a few adverts, and it’s easy to see the link - to be a real man is to eat burgers and to drive a big diesel car, and to be feminine is to stay at home and eat a salad. For an extreme example, look to Trump’s “coal rollers” - the hyper macho anti-environmentalists who intentionally modify their cars to make them pollute more in a crude display of “masculinity”.
And it’s not just about shopping habits, or a few rogue Trump supporters - the problem runs much deeper.
In terms of attitudes, from a young age girls are socialised to be more emotionally empathetic, to work as part of a team, and to hold back from leadership positions. At the same time, boys are encouraged to be more individualistic, more competitive and to aim to be in charge. This difference in attitudes, and especially emotional empathy - which isn’t just ‘human nature’, but is drummed into our heads by society as we are being raised - has been shown to be a huge factor in how much someone shows pro-environment behaviour: the more empathetic we are, the higher we place the environment on our list of concerns.
This could explain why women* are generally more supportive of environmental regulations, and self report as more concerned about climate change. It also provides a possible explanation for why, when more women* are in government, that government is more likely to sign on to international environmental agreements.
So - for those who doctors declare male at birth, there is a huge pressure by society to not value the environment on which we depend, to not show too much empathy, or risk being labelled a ‘girl’. That’s not to say that there aren’t men out there who identify themselves as environmentalists, and impressive ones too. But these men are swimming against the current - the reality is that these societal constructions have painted a “pretty” picture of environmentalists as female. Yet, us women, the ones who are encouraged to be concerned about the environment, are taught not to seek leadership. In this way, we are set up to fail.
This is the same unequal system that means that 80% of those forced to move due to climate change are female. This is the same system that meant that, in the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, the death rate was 5 times higher for women that men, when women missed the early warnings given in public spaces because they weren’t allowed to leave their homes without a male relative.
This is the system that has pushed us so far down the road to climate catastrophe, which will be bad for us all as humans, regardless of gender.
So what’s the solution?
In the long term, we need to change our culture. To raise children to be empathetic and to work together, regardless of gender. To stop shaming men for having emotions, and allow them to make decisions based on helping society and the planet rather than protecting their individual ‘masculinity’. To stop seeing ‘girly’ as an insult, and instead acknowledging that caring for the world around you doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong.
But this will take time, and we don’t have much of that left. So, in the short term, we need to promote women to positions of power, allow those most vulnerable to lead the way to a better future, and accept that climate change does not exist in a vacuum outside of other societal inequalities. If we are serious about creating a better world for our children, then that means tackling gender inequalities as part of the environmentalist movement too. Not just for politicians or CEOs, but for everyone.
At UKYCC we have been trying to encourage the UK government to nominate a gender representative in their delegation to the UN’s climate negotiations. We have also been looking within our own organisation, working to challenge our own assumptions and norms. Because we need change at all levels - and we believe that challenging the oppressive gender norms we have now could not only help to prevent climate chaos, but could help us to build a more equal, happier society in the process.