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How Gender Stereotypes Affect Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds that certain green behaviors are linked with masculine and feminine stereotypes.
men groceries plastic bags

New research points to a surprising disincentive for going green: the fear that others might question our sexual orientation.

There are many reasons people fail to act in environmentally friendly ways. Inertia, for some. Fatalism, for others. Then there's the difficulty of fully grasping the long-term consequences of our actions.

New research points to another, more surprising disincentive for going green: the fear that others might question our sexual orientation.

As a 2016 study confirmed, environmentalism is widely perceived as feminine behavior. Even today, caring and nurturing behavior is associated with women—and that includes taking steps to sustain the environment.

But as this new paper points out, specific types of pro-environment behavior can align with either masculine or feminine stereotypes. It also reports that engaging in the "wrong" type of environmentalism can lead people to wonder about your sexuality, and perhaps even avoid socializing with you.

"Behaviors don't just help us accomplish something concrete; they also signal something about who we are," lead author Janet Swim, a Pennsylvania State University psychologist, said in announcing the findings. "Line-drying clothes, or keeping tires at proper pressures, may signal that we care about the environment, but if those green behaviors are gendered, they may signal other things as well."

In the journal Sex Roles, Swim and her colleagues describe three studies about the impressions made by specific types of green behaviors. In the first, 170 participants recruited online were asked to evaluate a fictional character named either David or Diane, whose daily routine included several environmentally friendly activities.

These were either actions traditionally associated with women, including recycling and using a reusable shopping bag; actions traditionally associated with men, such as caulking windows and doors and donating to a waterfowl sportsman's group; or gender-neutral actions like paying bills online or turning off the air conditioner.

Participants then picked the personality traits they felt described this character, and gave their impression of his or her sexual identity using a 10-point scale from heterosexual to homosexual.

Across the board, David or Diane was "perceived as being more likely to have positive feminine than positive masculine traits"—confirmation that certain green behaviors are not associated with manliness.

Participants who learned that David engaged in behaviors associated with women did not, on average, view him as gay. Still, they "were uncertain of his heterosexual identity," the researchers write.

A similarly structured follow-up study confirmed these results. People who engaged in gender-incongruent green behaviors were "rated as less likely to be heterosexual," the researchers write, "suggesting that people were questioning targets' heterosexual identity rather than declaring them to be gay or lesbian."

A final study suggested these evaluations can have real-world consequences. After participating in a similar exercise, 303 people were asked who they would be interested in speaking with about environmental behaviors.

"Gender-bending women were socially avoided by men," the researchers report. They add that this phenomenon appears to be driven by men's "discomfort engaging with a woman who is not clearly heterosexual."

Given that meeting potential sex partners is a basic human drive, these findings have practical implications. Environmental organizations may have better luck recruiting people if they offer a mix of traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine projects, and then let volunteers choose their tasks (and, ideally, mingle afterwards).

Or, as Swim and her colleagues put it: "Activists, policymakers, and practitioners working to engage in, and promote, pro-environmental behaviors may wish to take into account pressures to conform to gender roles."

So, guys, the answer to the question, "Does toting around this reusable shopping bag make me look gay?" is no—but it does raise questions, and eyebrows.

To counter this, perhaps some smart entrepreneur should come up with a line of virile satchels adorned with macho-man logos.