Is It Unmanly to Care About the Environment?

Men litter more than women, partly because concern for the environment is often perceived as un-masculine. Highways England/flickr

More of us are living a green lifestyle, but when it comes to gender, the sustainability movement has not caught on equally. Compared to women, men remain more resistant to going green.

Not all men are that way, of course. Many walk the environmental walk every day. That includes some pretty big names like Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Ed Begley Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Still, as a whole, studies show that women not only litter less than men, they also recycle more and use less energy.

It’s long been assumed the differences are related to altruism and feelings of social responsibility. That is, women tend to place a higher priority on nurturing others (which, presumably, includes the earth). But there may be more to it than how men and women are socialized (or wired) for caring. According to a study published in the August 2016 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, men may be reluctant to hop on the green bandwagon for fear of looking un-masculine.

It's been suggested before. Marketing giant Ogilvy and Mather caught a hint of it in a 2011 survey where more than 80 percent of respondents (male and female) said they viewed the green movement as “feminine” rather than “masculine.”

Gender threat

Leonardo DiCaprio environmentalist
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is renowned for his environmental efforts (and manliness). Here he delivers remarks at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference in Washington, DC. U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons

Building on those earlier findings that “men tend to be more concerned than women with gender-identity maintenance,” the new study — authored by Aaron Brough, associate professor at Utah State University, and James E.B. Wilkie, assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame — set out to explore whether society’s prevalent “green-feminine stereotype may motivate men to avoid green behaviors in order to preserve a macho image.”

Through a series of seven experiments, involving more than 2,000 participants in the U.S. and China, they confirmed that eco-awareness and femininity are linked in most people’s minds, and that those who engage in green behaviors and purchase green products are not only stereotyped as more feminine but also see themselves that way.

In one experiment, both male and female participants described someone carrying a reusable canvas bag at the grocery store as more feminine than an individual carrying a plastic bag, regardless of the shopper’s gender.

Another experiment showed that participants saw themselves as more feminine after remembering a time when they did something to help the environment versus a time when they hurt the environment.

Yet another experiment found that when men’s masculinity was threatened they were less likely to buy sustainable products. The researchers showed male participants either a pink gift card with a floral design or a standard gift card and had them envision purchasing a lamp, backpack and batteries. Men who saw the card with the floral design as feminine (the threatened group) were more likely to choose non-eco-friendly versions of each product compared to other men.

men buy green products
More men will buy green products that are marketed for masculine appeal, including the use of darker colors and bolder fonts on packaging. Mike Mozart/flickr

Other key findings:

  • Men opened their wallets more to environmental non-profit groups that had a masculine logo with darker colors, square versus rounded fonts, “manly” symbols such as wild animals versus trees, and more rugged word choices (for example, “wilderness” instead of “nature”). The same effect wasn’t found in women who donated similarly, regardless of branding.
  • Men were likelier to buy eco-friendly products, such a hybrid car, if they used masculine rather than conventional green branding.

Guy-friendly green marketing

According to the authors, the sustainability movement can close its gender gap with a few male-inspired tweaks. Writing in Scientific American, Brough and Wilkie suggest that green companies use the marketing messages, images and branding logos that affirm masculinity. Likewise, they recommend that pro-environmental groups employ the same guy-oriented marketing and branding tactics to prompt more men to engage in eco-friendly behaviors and support green causes.

“Men who feel secure in their manhood,” they write, “are more comfortable going green.”

Wilkie describes more about the study and efforts to make green more masculine in this video: