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Sustainability and the Gender Divide

Are women taking charge?

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While gender and sustainability may seem unrelated, they are, in fact, closely intertwined. Women are more likely to acutely feel and live the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. They are also often the primary drivers of socially responsible initiatives and lifestyle choices.

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Leaders of the movement

There are many famous female faces in the sustainability movement—Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Naomi Klein, and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams are just a few.

But women, in general, are a great force behind the sustainability movement, too.

Compared to men, women live an eco-friendlier life: they litter less, recycle more, and leave a smaller carbon footprint.

In a survey of 546 professionals from 65 countries, women were shown to be more driven to grow their sustainability knowledge than men and have higher demand for sustainability-focused roles. In addition, they also have a higher level of education within the area of sustainability.

Research also shows they are more willing to support policies that address climate change and other environmental hazards.

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Climate change impact on women

Across the globe, women experience the effects of climate change disproportionately.

For example, climate change may adversely affect pregnancy outcomes when extreme heat events drive up the incidence of stillbirth, when the increasing number and intensity of storms limit access to services and health care, or when illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, and Zika virus are spread more readily.

A Canadian study that looked at gendered mental health impacts following natural disasters indicated a sharp rise in both anti-anxiety and sleep aid prescriptions and reported sexual assaults among women within the same period after the 2013 floods in southern Alberta.

In many areas across the globe, women also bear a greater burden of effects due to their disproportionate role in obtaining food, water, and fuel and through their increased role in agriculture employment. During periods of drought and erratic rainfall, women must work harder to provide for their families, and girls are often forced to leave school to assist during tough times.

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More than women’s work

According to research, one of the reasons men shy away from the sustainability movement is the misconception that caring about the environment is “a feminine activity.”

A 2017 group of experiments involving more than 2,000 American and Chinese participants revealed a psychological link between eco-friendliness and perceptions of femininity.

The research showed that both men and women judged eco-friendly products, behaviours, and consumers as more feminine than their non-green counterparts. For instance, in one experiment, bringing a reusable canvas bag to the grocery store was seen as more feminine than someone who used a plastic bag, whether that shopper was male or female.

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Organizations are hoping to change this

MÄN (Men for Gender Equality) is a Sweden-based feminist organization founded in 1993 with the aim of working against men’s violence. Today, they have over 2,500 members in Sweden alone.

In 2014, project manager and psychologist Vidar Vetterfalk read Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything (Knopf Canada, 2014). The book’s key message was that achieving a just and sustainable world can’t be left up to climate organizations and politicians. Vetterfalk realized MÄN could also be an avenue to healing men’s relationship with nature.

Through group sharing sessions, their main means of creating change, participants develop a deeper sense of connectedness, says Vetterfalk. By sharing their feelings with other men and feeling supported, it becomes irrelevant whether caring for the environment is a feminine thing or not.

In the end, Vetterfalk says, “Care and belonging become more important than masculinity norms.”

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Raising environmental stewards

Whether you have kids or not, there are many ways you can empower the younger generation to care for our planet.

You can start by leading by example with your lifestyle choices. Although there are many ways, some include using only biodegradable products, taking shorter showers, and carpooling.

You may want to start a project together with a special kid in your life, such as starting a compost bin, making your own soap, or cleaning up litter together.

You may also want to volunteer to lead programming for kids, such as a tree planting program or creek cleanup.

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How to get involved

Check out these organizations to tap into ways that you can do more for the environment.

Women 4 Climate

An international organization that aims to empower and inspire the next generation of climate leadership using methods such as mentorship, research, and contests.

Fashion Takes Action

Canadian nonprofit dedicated to advancing sustainability in the entire fashion system.

WHEN (Women’s Healthy Environments Network)

Toronto-based nonprofit whose focus is on educating individuals on how to reduce the risk of illness and injury that comes from the environment surrounding us.

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A sustainability disparity

Although 34 percent of women want to learn about sustainability to positively contribute to the environment, society, and the future of humanity, fewer men—24 percent—feel the same way.

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