Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Gender Gap in Environmental Practices

Women tend to be tidier than men, at least the women in my life--mother, girlfriend, wife--have all been able to see dirt before I do, feel disgust before I do, and act to clean up before I do.  Not to say I'm a slob, not anymore at least.  Growing up with all brothers started me off deficient in hygiene (among other deficiencies), which I've worked to mitigate with the more or less constant, um, encouragement of mother, girlfriend, wife. This gendered relation to hygiene is certainly far from universal.  Indeed, my daughters tend to take after dear old dad in this regard; as one daughter famously articulated the problem when she was three and facing the task of cleaning her room: "It's so uneasy for me."  Nevertheless, I don't believe I'm wrong to say that women are tidier than men--by nature, nurture, or both.

Normally I'm inclined to defend my relative slovenliness--cautiously, in very limited contexts.  For example, order for the sake of obsessive orderliness is certainly unhealthy to individual minds and interpersonal relationships.  Plus I think that science will prove, if it hasn't already, that exposure to pathogens is healthy for the immune system and thus longterm health.  Why else would kids eat a peck of dirt?  In short, I argue, cautiously and in limited contexts, cleanliness is not always next to godliness.

I am, thus, abashed to consider the issue of gendered relations to hygiene in the face of environmental issues that are essentially issues of housekeeping, such as recycling, pollution, conservation of resources, which is to say, those issues that individuals typically can control.  This occasion to think about gendered environmentalism came from my students.  I asked a class this summer to do little research projects focused on environmental behavior.  Among many interesting projects and results, several student projects found clear correlations to gender.

  • One student counted the number of people at a grocery store using canvas or other re-usable shopping bags.  She discovered to her surprise that the overwhelming majority of them were women.  She even interviewed a male friend who insisted that carrying recyclable bags cramped his style, which involved hitting on women in grocery stores.
  • Another student found that his fraternity not only recycled nothing, but a survey of his housemates revealed they had zero interest in changing their behavior.  Apparently, they had enough trouble getting all the trash into the dumpster every once in a while.
  • Another studied the amount of water usage.  He hypothesized that women used more than men--they're cleaner after all, longer showers, more washing dishes and floors, etc.  The subjects of his survey, evenly split between male and female, agreed with his hypothesis, as did the entire class when he asked them--mostly women--at the beginning of his oral presentation.  In fact he discovered that, despite the universal belief that women used more water, actual usage, as measured by water bills, showed that men used more water; indeed, the lowest man's bill was higher than any of the women's. (One women in the class suggested that this unexpected result might point to the fact that women more often sleep at their boyfriends' place than the reverse.)
Abashed, but also intrigued, I did a quick search for publications in the area of gender and environmental behavior and found exactly one.  A Canadian study of people actively committed to cleaning up the environment found that, even in this group, women were more apt to participate in environmental organizations and more apt to perform environmental acts in their personal life--recycle, compost waste, use alternative transportation.  While more research is clearly needed, I suspect it will overwhelmingly confirm the inevitable:  Women are better environmentalists than men--by nature, nurture, or both.

These days, the maternal superego originates with Mother Nature.


Queen Whackamole said...

Interesting post. Gives me a lot to think about while I'm doing this mountain of laundry... washing two or three days of dishes... sorting out a month or two of mail...

George said...

"She even interviewed a male friend who insisted that carrying recyclable bags cramped his style, which involved hitting on women in grocery stores."

What a dumb guy. Seems like one easy way to make women like you is to seem caring, and if all you have to do is bring a re-usable shopping bag...much easier than owning a puppy as a chick magnet.


Otherwise, a neat entry. (get it?)

Trekking Left said...

As I write this, there are two women cleaning my house. Weird.

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