Climate change metaphore. Dry, brown Earth warmed by sunbeams
When a person walks out of the grocery store holding an eco-friendly canvas bag instead of a plastic bag, what gender do you think they are? Most likely, your unconscious bias answers that they are female. This is the type of answer Dr. Aaron Brough of Utah State University is trying to get to the bottom of through his research.
Brough co-authored a paper with professors from four other universities to understand how gender norms affect sustainable decision making. They report data from seven experiments that included over 2,000 participants from the US and China. What they found was remarkable.
They found that both men and women associated doing something good for the environment with being “more feminine.” And when men’s gender identity was threatened, they tried to reassert their masculinity through environmentally damaging choices. The report states that “men may be motivated to avoid or even oppose green behaviors in order to safeguard their gender identity.” This unearths a deeply held unconscious bias that Brough and team call the “Green-Feminine Stereotype.” Once this unconscious bias is revealed, it has the potential to help society shift our increasingly precarious relationship with the environment for the better. If it remains hidden, it has the potential to greatly damage our environment permanently.
In one of Brough and team’s experiments, both men and women were asked to recall a time when they did something good or bad for the environment. Those who recalled having done something good for the environment rated themselves as more “feminine” than those who recalled having done something bad to the environment. One might expect this type of gender stereotyping around green behavior to happen only when someone is concerned about how they appear to others. But even upon self-evaluation judged themselves feminine when acting responsibly towards the environment. This experiment shows how deeply held this bias is.
Another experiment took the idea further and applied the concept of the “Green-Feminine Stereotype” to product and brand selection. Male participants were exposed to one of two Walmart gift cards—one that used more comically feminine design elements like pink and floral, selected to threaten masculine stereotypes, or another gift card that was designed to not threaten masculinity. The men were then asked to make a series of choices between green and non-green products to purchase. Men who were shown the “gender threat” gift card chose more non-green products than men shown the other gift card. That means that when men felt emasculated, they asserted their masculinity and safeguarded their gender by making choices that would ultimately harm the environment.
To take this concept further, the group worked with BMW in China to test two print ads of the same car. The only difference between the ads was that the word eco-friendly was replaced in one ad with a more masculine Chinese word for protection. What they found was that men evaluated the protection option more positively than the eco-friendly option even though it was the same car. Which begs the question, do brands need to pander to an unconscious bias and affirm masculinity or use stereotypically masculine elements to positively move the needle in environmental impact?
It seems regressive to do so. With so many brands launching with a female-only audience due to lack of representation in products and market understanding, it seems like a perfect time to rebrand eco-friendly’s association with femininity as a positive thing. And men’s affiliation with positive environmental steps as a human-affirming truth that shifts us from negative and segregated gender identities into our roles as humans on this planet.
The more interesting opportunity seems to be in exposing the toxicity present within the unconscious bias that acting green is a feminine and therefore weaker or negative thing. Exposing the fact that our society creates a toxic hierarchy around femininity as a lesser thing. Brough himself cited gender research around “gender incongruence” and the great penalties that men (and women) face when they don’t fit stereotypical gender norms. Research suggests that men experience greater psychological damage or face harsher consequences when associated with feminine qualities. As a society, we are beginning to address these problems with corporate unconscious bias training, exposure and conversation. But when it comes to our environment, our toxic masculinity is greatly affecting our shared environment for the worse.
Brough sums it up nicely, “We need to overcome our unhealthy judgements of gender incongruence. And men need to be confident in their self-identity and decide to live a sustainable lifestyle without caring what other people think.” Let’s begin the conversation to start overriding our natural judgements. Our future depends on it.
Interview with Dr. Aaron Brough of Utah State University