February 10, 2021

GUEST ROOM | The Weight of Sustainability Remains on Women. Where is the Pressure on Men?

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Author’s Note: This op-ed is written with a binary distinction between men and women. This is not to ignore the importance of non-binary communities, who are also needed in the fight for the climate.

On the first day of classes during my freshman year of college at Cornell University, I rolled into  a 9 a.m. lecture with my group of friends after chatting over bowls of yogurt in the dining hall. As we took our seats and looked around our class, which was an introduction to environment and sustainability, the first thing I noticed was the lack of men in the room. For every row full of bright-eyed women, there was a single man interspersed, and a small group of men claiming the seats farthest back. 

I continued to notice that women outnumber men in the Environment and Sustainability major, and that women overwhelmingly dominate the over 40 sustainability clubs on campus. At an ‘Eco-Fest’ Zoom event in the fall, the sustainability clubs joined virtually to recruit new members. The vast majority of club presidents presenting at the event were women, save one notable fellow talking about the Engineers for a Sustainable World club. 

This disparity was further highlighted in a recent higher education sustainability conference I attended, where I spoke in a breakout session about adapting sustainability initiatives during COVID. The 12 panelists, who were students and sustainability administrators from universities across New York State, were all women. It was visible that not only were the women in the room working harder on sustainability measures at their schools, but they were also more engaged and willing to share their work with others. 

In contrast to the empathetic and clearly overworked women in the conference panel, top climate change panels are heavily dominated by men’s voices — so much so, they’ve jokingly been  called ‘manels.’ Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a keynote speaker of the conference and marine biologist, spoke of the damage these ‘manels’ can do. Her book, “All We Can Save, highlights stories of women who have made it into upper-level climate policy positions. When women are involved in policy decisions, the outcoming policy is more progressive and inclusive of the marginalized voices that are affected most by climate change. Women are more likely to empathize with a range of communities that they reside in and out of, making every policy decision with a sense of collective responsibility and empathy.

This trend aligns with long-standing research on gender differences in environmentalism, which found that women are more empathetic, more likely to think about the future and more likely to have a stronger ethic of care. This leads to a stronger sense of social responsibility in women, which prompts them to have significantly higher environmental concern and involvement than men. In contrast, men are socialized to be more independent and competitive. 

Additionally, newer research indicates that men subconsciously worry they will be categorized as feminine for engaging in eco-friendly behaviors, such as recycling and carrying reusable bags. Called the green-feminine stereotype, this can discourage men from taking individual action for sustainability.  

A recent TikTok, by @bestdressed, highlighted this sentiment in a video titled “No Nuance November,” saying: “The disproportionate burden placed on women and especially enforced between women on the internet to be perfectly ethical and sustainable as opposed to men is just another form of sexism.” 

“Like, when did we decide that it was more important for women to literally wash their own period blood out of reusable underwear than for men to like, stop buying cars with bad gas mileage, or like stop buying new cars at all. Where is that pressure?” she continued. 

So, the environmental movement is imbalanced on both ends. Fewer men are involved on the grassroots level, while they outweigh women on climate policy panels. Policy decisions are made by white men with Ph.D.s, while the on-the-ground, promotion-less and often volunteer work is done by women

In order to solve the climate crisis, we need both a bottom-up approach and a top-down approach to come together. Individual actions add up if people do them en masse, and grassroots movements are the best way to truly understand what a community needs. These movements have the power to shape what policy comes down from top leaders. Women can’t be the primary voice screaming for sustainability and social responsibility any longer. Men need to feel the same responsibility to be a part of the climate solution, and they need to take it seriously. Also of note, it is widely known that people of color are excluded from environmental organizations and movements, while at the same time, climate change disproportionately affects BIPOC communities. There is work to do in making space for racial diversity, which lags even further behind gender diversity, in top positions of environmental organizations and in the sustainability scene here at Cornell. Including everyone in grassroots-level action is a place to start. Sustainable actions that start on the grassroots level will filter up to people in higher levels of power. These actions will join the top-down approach of Biden’s climate plan. For the sake of the environment and all of the people, plants and animals that depend on it, we need all hands on deck to solve the climate crisis.

Megan Feely is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]Guest Room runs periodically this summer.