Do Women Make Better Environmentalists Than Men?


If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, than who takes better care of planet Earth? This squabble of the sexes has surfaced on the internet in recent months, with commentators pointing to the fairer sex as the keeper of the environment. But do gendered discussions about the environment miss the forest for the trees?

In an article this week on The Huffington Post, Jennifer Grayson, founding editor of The Red, White, and Green, discusses the notion that women must be greener than men because men have been responsible for two recent environmental catastrophes: the BP oil spill and the Massey coal mine explosion in West Virginia.

“…I don’t believe that either of these examples proves that men are somehow less likely environmentalists than women,” Grayson writes. “In my mind, they only demonstrate two inconvenient truths: 1) Women are still poorly represented in leadership roles in large corporations (to wit: 29 female CEOs in the Fortune 1000); and 2) A lot of large corporations are too greedy to put environmental concerns before their bottom line.

While Grayson checks off male and female contributions to the environment (like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), she concedes that men and women might handle their environmental concerns differently, with men focusing on big picture eco concerns and women taking small steps to green their lives.

“I’ve witnessed this in my own life: My mother-in-law, to her credit, willingly jumps on almost any eco-improvement I’ve written about, especially when it comes to household purchasing. No change is too small – organic milk, BPA-free cans, biodegradable doggie doo bags – you name it,” Grayson writes. “My father-in-law, on the other hand, isn’t as excited by recycled wine totes (although I’m sure he uses them), but he does boast a fabulous career in the green energy sector.”

A January article in the New York Times hammers the point home: women want to green their lives, while men want to green the world. Marital strife ensues.

“Christienne deTournay Birkhahn, executive director of the EcoMom Alliance, an organization based in Marin County that provides education to women who want to have their families live more sustainably, finds that disputes over how green is green enough often divide along predictable lines by sex,” reads the article, “Women often see men as not paying sufficient attention to the home. Men, for their part, really want to make a large impact and aren’t interested in a small impact,” she says.

This eco discord plays out in predictable ways – woman wants to save water, man likes to take long showers, woman complains, man refers to her environmental awakening as a “high-priestess phase.” Or, woman wants to recycle yogurt cups, man tosses them in the trash to “bait” her, woman complains, man tells her that her efforts won’t make a difference for the environment.

While believable, these tiffs should be taken for what they are – ho-hum marital disputes – rather than indications of broader interactions between men and women regarding their relationships to the environment. The notion that women zero in on small ways to change the environment fits nicely into the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” theory that women keep track of their relationships through an elaborate subconscious point system, one in which emotional bonds are strengthened by a series of tiny gestures from their male mates: flowers, compliments, chivalry. Women, it follows, are quibbling, nitpicky nesters, ladies who want things just so in their relationships and homes. Greening the home? Just another way for women to get their control freak on.

In this template, men are the big-picture thinkers, cultivating closeness with their partners through lavish love displays: trips to the Bahamas, diamond rings. They express their concern for the environment in parallel strokes: Recycling? How about engineering a new recycling system?! Men are the visionaries, the ones who cultivate renewable energy sources while their wives tend to the backyard chickens

While these stereotypes about men and women boil down complex interactions into a set of simple gender rules – creating expectations for men and women that dog them throughout their relationships and careers – they also do a disservice to the environment. With all this hype about who cares about what, we forget why we should care at all.

Image: Ed Yourdon