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Gendering the Onus of Sustainability

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

Has the Eco-Gender Gap Made Environmental Action a ‘Women’s Issue’?


The eco-gender gap is omnipresent in today’s conversations on the intersectionality of climate change and gender. Jack Duckett, associate director of consumer lifestyles research at British research firm Mintel, described the phenomenon in a 2018 report which looked at areas of significant male/female contrast in ethics and sustainability on a national level. Its data revealed that men are less likely to pursue environmentally-friendly behaviours than their female counterparts – it is this disparity which Duckett refers to as the eco-gender gap. As cause for climate concern grows, this gap becomes a powerful force in the young woman’s day to day life.

Hayley Brackenridge from Shake Up The Establishment, a registered not-for-profit organisation working towards climate literacy, observed that many young women take on the brunt of climate justice demands in following a sense of duty borne of lacking action by previous generations. She described the eco-gender gap as a disparity between men and women in both their moral concern over climate impacts and their participation in active consumerism. ‘A huge responsibility is placed on women to use their purchasing powers to combat climate change,’ said Brackenridge in an interview.

According to Mathew Isaac, a professor of marketing at Seattle University, women historically tend to embrace environmentally friendly behaviours and products more than men. Isaac’s research on contextual factors influencing purchasing intentions include findings on the implicit association between green behaviour and femininity published in the Journal of Consumer Research. ‘It wasn’t just men that seemed to have this stereotype about greenness and femininity – it was women as well,’ noted Isaac in an interview. ‘Even if you don’t consciously believe that owning an eco-friendly automobile is feminine, the link between those concepts may still be in your brain based on things we might have heard growing up.’ This green feminine stereotype is further observed in eco-friendly campaigns and products which, according to Duckett, are largely aimed at female audiences – the same target audience that is more likely to feel concern over the effects of climate change.

Climate anxieties

Pew Research Centre noted the gender disparity in views of personal harm caused by climate change in 2015. Their global attitudes survey revealed that 69% of American women believe they will be personally harmed by climate change in comparison to 48% of American men. This disproportionate sense of concern was also present among Canadians, Australians, and Germans. Zara Bending, an associate at the Centre for Environmental Law at Macquarie University and board director of the Jane Goodall Institute of Australia, has concerns about the feminised nature of climate action. ‘We are piling the mental and emotional load of environmental action onto women just like many other forms of invisible “women’s work” when we should all be sharing in the load,’ said Bending in an email correspondence.

As women we are socialised to continuously scan our environment for potential threats.

Bending described this disparity as yet another area where women are more attuned to potential threats and vulnerabilities after living in a society where their safety is undervalued. ‘As women we are socialised to continuously scan our environment for potential threats,’ said Bending. ‘Our vigilance as women when it comes to spotting the immediate and future threats of climate change is analogous to how we tuck our keys between our fingers when we walk to our cars late at night.’

Juliet Asikhia, operations lead at Climate Action Network Canada, described these disproportionate rates of eco-anxiety as unsurprising in light of the eco-gender gap. Asikhia promoted environmental awareness and gender equality while working with the European Union and several West African countries. She detailed her personal experience with eco-anxiety as a worry about climate change’s effects on vulnerable communities which don’t have the capacity to undo climate-related damage. ‘You have to survive before you can think about climate change,’ said Asikhia in an interview. ‘Climate issues, environmental issues are all interconnected with social issues.’

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, finalised in April 2022, touched on such social aspects of climate mitigation. Patricia Perkins was lead author for working group three’s contribution to this report. ‘There are people who need to have their water, sanitation, education, lighting, cooking, and housing needs supplied,’ said Perkins in an interview. ‘The poor should be able to have access to energy to meet their basic needs, but that energy doesn’t have to be high emission energy.’ Perkins added that unequal social structures make women particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate-related disasters – especially in poorer countries. ‘Women are more likely to live in poverty than men, so are less likely to be able to escape or bounce back from climate-change related disasters,’ explained Bending when noting the gap’s effects on female eco-anxieties.

Bending also said disproportionate rates of eco-anxiety may be related to, or heightened by, the female targeted messaging of many sustainability initiatives. David Soberman, Canadian National Chair of Strategic Marketing at the Rotman School of Management, said it is advantageous for advertisers to appeal to the consumer’s sense of anxiety with issues where negligence can cause death and damage. Given the gender disparity in views of personal harm caused by climate change, it stands to reason that women are more susceptible to such targeted marketing.

Effecting change without essentialising

To market eco-action without capitalising on the gender-gap, Seattle University’s Mathew Isaac recommends avoiding overly feminised branding. According to Isaac, the traditionally feminine imagery, colours, and appeals used by marketers of environmental products are becoming a thing of the past. ‘Men in particular tend to avoid environmentally friendly products when their masculine identity feels threatened,’ said Isaac. ‘Fragile egos will make it more tolerable for us to accept a project that doesn’t seem at odds with an identity we want to show to the world.’ Brackenridge said she too hopes for a doing away with overtly feminine branding in favour of more gender-neutral advertising. ‘People are advocating for eliminating this idea of a binary gender in advertisements because we know gender to be fluid,’ explained Brackenridge. According to Bending, maximising buy-in beyond conventional markets requires featuring a greater diversity of people modelling positive behaviours.

‘If I could pick one gender neutral waste area, it would definitely be medical waste.’

Bending also encourages sustainability initiatives to consider what was successful in the past and replicate it for broader appeal. For instance, using the same marketing machine that mobilised behind women reducing period waste to work its magic for other forms of everyday waste. ‘If I could pick one gender neutral waste area, it would definitely be medical waste,’ said Bending. ‘Think of all the waste accrued over the last few years – every swab, every mask.’

Such aspirational advertising builds momentum, but it must be followed with action to prevent a heightening of eco-anxieties or a scrutinising of eco-friendliness. ‘I do not want sustainability claims to be another form of “mere consumer puffery” that companies use to move product without the credentials and evidence-base to back it up,’ added Bending.

Jenn Harper, founder of Cheekbone Beauty, said some sustainability-oriented companies create unreasonable expectations through zero-waste branding. Harper’s cosmetics company originally planned to achieve zero-waste by 2023 before amending their goal to the creation of as little waste as possible. ‘It’s one of those impossible concepts that I think got carried away,’ said Harper in an interview. ‘We’re humans. We make waste to some degree.’

Cheekbone Beauty’s less-waste makeup lines are in keeping with Harper’s Aanishnabe roots. According to Harper, the philosophy comes down to a consciousness about which resources are used, the number of resources used, and the purpose for resources used. ‘When we think of how we make and create things, we want to make only what we need for the consumer at this time,’ she said. Cheekbone beauty is also dedicated to bettering the lives of Indigenous youth through donations addressing the educational funding gap.

Education and moving forward

Informing people – especially young women – about the feminised nature of climate action falls under the umbrella of promoting informed advocacy, according to Brackenridge. In the academic context, elevating and amplifying a range of voices in course materials is one way climate researchers and professors might contribute to bridging the eco-gender gap. ‘Actively look for, cite, and be willing to collaborate with researchers from our planet’s biodiversity hot-spots,’ said Bending. Researchers from these spots, disproportionately located in the Global South, have vital insights to share but are often hampered by the costs of publishing open access.

Asikhia noted another key to promoting sustainability literacy: education on how to hold leaders accountable for their climate-related decisions. According to Perkins, accountability is achieved through a combination of government regulation, public pressure, and investor pressure which ultimately brings businesses into line when it comes to the transition. Brackenridge maintains that upholding the green feminine stereotype will continue to isolate young women from the male-dominated levers of power.

To move forward on the road to climate justice, we must search for areas in our lives where greenness and femininity are unconsciously linked and begin to rethink climate action as a responsibility spanning all genders.


Alina Fatima Jaffer is a journalism student at Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her on Twitter @AFJ03 .

Image by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.


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