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 the 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.