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Climate change: “Why are women taking on the burden of saving the planet?”

Conversations around climate change have stirred the UK’s eco-consciousness. But with startling figures showing just 59% of men are committed to ethical living, compared to 71% of women, Stylist explores whether a toxic underside to the environmental movement is threatening to uproot our chances of a sustainable future. 

As far as British summertime goes, 2019 will go down in history as The Year Of The Heatwave

But if you were paying attention to the news, you might also recall images of the emaciated polar bear searching for food in northern Siberia, the melting ice sheets in Greenland, and the raging wildfires sweeping across the Arctic. Faced with endless images of floods, droughts and storms, we could no longer feign ignorance. This was the year when climate change finally got real.    

On the dawn of a new ecological age, the UK has awoken to the reality of our climate emergency, and begun to embrace the power of collective action in the move to save our great, green planet. We’ve swapped our disposable coffee cups for reusable flasks and switched our devices off standby. And after months of hoarding 5p plastic bags under the kitchen sink, we proudly remember to take our reusable shoppers along to the supermarket. Don’t we?

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Until very recently, I had blithely accepted the idea that we were all being green together. After all, living in London means eco-friendly choices are simply part and parcel of everyday life, without having to make much of an effort to consciously reduce your carbon footprint. The majority of people use public transport to get to work, there are colour-coded recycling containers on every street corner, and meat-free Monday is standard practice in many offices. Even my colleagues are well drilled when it comes to the tea round (almond milk, one sugar).

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Climate change: are women disproportionately burdened with the responsibility of saving the planet?

But in the last few months, a seed of doubt has taken root in my mind, and made me question whether one demographic in particular was, quite literally, getting their hands dirty. 

It started when I noticed the racks of reusable shoppers stationed around my favourite female fashion stores, and grew when adverts for eco-friendly period products kept popping up on Instagram. I found myself skimming women’s magazine articles exploring travellers’ guilt, the phenomenon of eco-anxiety, and even a sustainable beauty glossary deciphering the differences between natural, organic, clean and vegan products on our bathroom shelves. Meanwhile, my female friends were also busy interrogating their green credentials, with talk of reef-friendly suncreams, biodegradable face wipes, and niche beauty products like shampoo bars filling our Whatsapp chats. 

All the while, I joined the dots: the women in my life appeared to be more conscientious in their attitudes, more considered in their choices and less harmful in their behaviour, than the men. Quite simply, these women had gathered behind the green banner.

suncream
Climate change: "my female friends were investing in reef-friendly suncreams, biodegradable face wipes, and niche beauty products like shampoo bars"

Saving the planet, one gender at a time

My hunch that women were spearheading the fight to save the planet wasn’t founded purely on my day-to-day experiences. Amidst the homemade cleaning products, menstrual cups and perfectly curated pantries under the #zerowasteliving hashtag on Instagram, I discovered that the zero-waste movement is largely led by female influencers such as Kathryn Kellogg, Lauren Singer, and Bea Johnson, the self-described “mother of the zero waste movement”

On the international stage, meanwhile, women are also using their public voices and political position to drive climate ambition. Take US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose proposal for a Green New Deal has shaped the environmental agenda, or the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who has been working hard to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Perhaps the most prominent of all is Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, whose stirring speeches to world leaders and environmental activism have sparked a global youth movement.

But away from the aspirational images on our screens, climate change is changing the choices of women in more serious ways. Recent research has shown British women are moving away from their fast fashion habits and buying with sustainability in mind, with 47% of millennial women interested in how their clothes were made. And then there’s BirthStrike, a growing international community of women who have vowed not to have children out of concern for “climate breakdown and civilisation collapse”.

Even with the anecdotal evidence, you might well be sceptical of the idea that women are shouldered with the burden of sustainability. After all, being green is simply about ensuring the planet is healthy and fit for human habitation. Wouldn’t the efforts to keep our oceans plastic-free, to cut our CO2 emissions, to compost our food waste be shared by both sexes? Not so much. 

According to a 2018 study, in fact, British men are seriously lagging behind women when it comes to practising eco-friendly behaviour, with 71% of women increasing their commitment to ethical living over the past year, compared to just 59% of men. Not only that, but women are more likely to spread the message of sustainability amongst their friends and family, with 65% of women inclined to encourage their loved ones to adopt an ethical lifestyle compared to 56% of men.

The research didn’t just reveal a disparity in attitudes towards ethical living. The study confirmed an imbalance in common environmentally-friendly habits, showing that 77% of women are more committed to regular recycling compared to 67% of men, and 64% of women will regularly turn down or turn off the heating when they are not at home, compared to 58% of men. There were further contrasts in newer pro-environmental practices, with 38% of women making an effort to conserve water versus 30% of men, and 33% of women frequently composting food waste compared to 27% of men.

Climate change: according to new research, women are becoming more committed to shopping sustainably

The problem with the eco gender gap

With the evidence that women are outperforming men when it comes to green behaviour, there’s no denying the existence of an eco gender gap. But does the study show that women are naturally more eco-conscious? Does it confirm that men simply care less about ethical living? Above all, when sustainability is hitting the zeitgeist on so many levels, why is saving the planet left to women?

Like many of the injustices in our society, the eco gender gap is intrinsically linked to the prevalence of gender norms, given that a persistent imbalance in the division of household labour remains strong in UK households. A recent study conducted by University College London found that women perform approximately 16 hours of household chores every week, compared to six hours by men, while in 93% of the couples surveyed, women undertook the majority of domestic duties. That means that the unpaid work that goes into managing a home and family, and therefore the ethical choices associated with shopping, school runs and recycling, invariably falls to women. 

But even if women do tend to run the household, they are still systematically pressured to lead a green life. Research into the ethnography of sustainability in mainstream America found that women are more easily swayed by eco messaging than men, and aspire to an eco-friendly lifestyle. And whilst a 2016 survey found that 56% of women chose products because they were sustainable, compared to 47% of men, we can’t simply conclude that women are more eco-conscious. In a world where women are pressured to strive for perfection in every realm of their life, and so too are conditioned to perform free emotional labour, green behaviour has become yet another marker of ideal womanhood.

One questions remains: if the green movement is so feminised, where does that leave men? Worryingly, new research from Penn State University has revealed a startling truth: that men are resisting eco-friendly behaviour for fear of other people questioning their sexual orientation. The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, found that participants aligned green behaviour with gender stereotypes, similar to a previous 2016 study that confirmed environmentalism fell into widely perceived ideas about masculinity and femininity. But the research also highlighted that there are certain pro-environmental behaviours that threaten a man’s heterosexual identity. When asked to evaluate a male fictional character that recycled and used a reusable shopping bag, activities traditionally associated with women, men unanimously said that they were “uncertain of his heterosexual identity.” 

Sadly, the study also suggested that these harmful gender roles wouldn’t just constrain climate activism; they might actually prevent men from socialising with women with gender-incongruent green tendencies. “Gender-bending women were socially avoided by men,” the researchers observe, adding that men experience “discomfort engaging with a woman who is not clearly heterosexual”.

Climate change: according to a new study, recycling is perceived as a 'feminine' behaviour

What do the eco-experts say?

When all is said and done, there can be no escaping the reality that a combination of toxic masculinity and strict gender roles have constricted people’s climate activism, and placed the burden of everyday eco-friendly work into the laps of women. But what do the experts make of the eco gender gap? 

Climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth, Rachel Kennerley, explains that at a grassroots level, women are taking the lead in fighting for a safer planet. “In Lancashire, the anti-fracking Nanas have been defending their community from drilling,” she tells Stylist. “In the fight to end air pollution, mothers, including groups like Mums for Lungs, have led the call for clean air and internationally, many of those fighting to protect the land and water where they live are women.” 

This foundation for this sense of responsibility, Kennerley confirms, lies in deep-rooted gender norms. “When you think about it, it’s not that surprising,” she says. “Recycling, preventing food waste, taking cloth bags to the store, even protecting resources like water, and making sure there is food during times of drought - these tasks are closely associated with running the home, which has traditionally been seen as a woman’s domain.”

Even as they bear the emotional burden of saving the planet, Kennerley points out that it’s imperative we acknowledge how climate breakdown inflicts disproportionate real-world consequences on women. “Those with fewer resources are bearing the brunt of the crisis, and many of the world’s poorest are women,” she explains. “In times of scarcity it’s often mothers who go without to make sure their families can eat. When extreme weather hits, because women still primarily look after children and the elderly, they are the last to evacuate; leading to higher female death tolls. Around 90% of the 150,000 people killed in the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone were women.”

In 2019, the path to a fairer, green future is clear. “If we are going to create a more sustainable world, we need to create a more equal one,” says Kennerley. And, quite simply, a more equal world means one free of the scourge of restrictive gender norms and toxic masculinity. 

We must resist the notion that being green makes you less macho, and environmental excellence will earn women social approval. We must allow men to experience a greater emotional range, and rewrite the narrative that caring about the planet – about anything or anyone else – is inherently feminine. 

Above all, we must cultivate a more compassionate culture in order to create positive environmental outcomes for the next generation. The planet is for the future, not just for our lifetimes.

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