Janet K. Swim has focused a lot of her research on human behavior, especially as it relates to the environment, but she didn’t home in much on the influence of gender — at least not until one Christmas several years ago when she gave a quirky kitchen hand towel to an older male friend who was head of his retirement community’s recycling committee. The towel bore the words “I’m made out of recycled material!” — she knew how hard the man had been working to get his neighbors to recycle, and she thought he would love it. He didn’t.

“He got a stern, angry look on his face, and he wouldn’t look directly at me when I gave it to him,” she said. “He left it behind at our house. I never talked to him about it, but it was curious to me, and I suspected that it might have something to have to do with it being a kitchen towel because his wife does 90 percent of the work in their kitchen.”

That prompted her to start thinking about environmental actions, and whether people view them as masculine or feminine, or even gay or straight. Swim, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, has focused some of her research in previous years on how people think about climate change and — most recently — how gender plays into that. In one study, she found that men tend to argue about the science and business dimensions of climate change, while women lean toward discussing climate change ethics and policy.

Her most recent study found that people tend to see all pro-environmental behaviors as more feminine than masculine, mostly because people usually see women as being more nurturing, she said. This fact generally wouldn’t deter a man from buying an energy-efficient lightbulb or caulking the windows in his home. But it might prevent him from going vegetarian or buying green cleaning products, two measures that are regarded as particularly feminine.

People see a connection between recycling and sexual orientation
People tend to think of changing a light bulb or hanging the laundry out to dry as gendered behaviors. Source: Pexels

The findings accord with previous research showing that men avoid going green to keep from looking feminine, though hers may be the first study that raises questions about whether people also make assumptions about sexual orientation based on environmental behavior choices.

For the study, published in the journal Sex Roles, subjects read about a fictional person taking steps to protect the environment, including “male” behaviors such as car maintenance, “female” behaviors such as hanging clothes out to dry, and gender-neutral behaviors, such as buying energy-saving lightbulbs. The subjects rated the person as having masculine or feminine traits, and also guessed the person’s sexual orientation.

Because all behaviors were viewed as more feminine than masculine, the results suggest “that, overall, if men are concerned about appearing feminine, then they may be more likely than women to avoid even pro-environmental behaviors associated with men,” she said.

What she found especially interesting, however, were assumptions about sexual orientation. “It is hard to know whether or not another person is gay or lesbian, for example, so people look for clues when trying to make this decision,” she said. “Many people are not good at this, and they rely on their stereotypes about gay men doing traditionally female behaviors and lesbian women doing traditionally masculine behaviors.”

In the study, this is how the fictional people were evaluated. “When their pro-environmental behaviors were aligned with their gender, nearly everyone saw them as heterosexual,” she said.

“The other important point to note is that the impressions were not based upon doing one behavior but a pattern of behaviors,” she added. “So, only recycling does not make people question a man’s sexual orientation. But if he recycles, line dries his washed clothes, uses reusable shopping bags, etc., people start questioning his sexual orientation.”

Kelly Pemberton, a professor of religion and women’s studies at George Washington University, who was not involved in the study, said the research didn’t consider other potentially influential factors, such as popular trends, age, income levels, marital and parental status, religion and geographic location, nor did the researchers take into account the issue of non-binary gender identity.

People see a connection between recycling and sexual orientation
Drying clothes on a clothesline instead of a dryer can help save energy. Source: Pexels

The authors, in the paper, acknowledged that further research using larger and different samples is needed, and Swim said that future studies should explicitly account for non-binary gender identity.

Nevertheless, Pemberton said, the research “can be a useful tool in combating climate change by helping us to better understand what motivates people to modify or transform their everyday pro- or anti-environmental behaviors.”

Swim suggested a few ideas that might help make pro-environment behaviors gender-neutral, including targeted marketing. This could mean showing illustrations of women being attracted to men who are vegetarians, and men drawn to women who ride bikes to work, she said.

She also suggested leaving the environmentalism out of it. When trying to get men to go vegetarian, describe plant-based foods as healthy and say they lower body fat and make men look more masculine, she said. However, she described this solution as less than ideal, as it fails to encourage people to consider their impact on the environment.

Finally, it’s important “to continue toward our greater acceptance of people who choose to engage in a variety of gendered behaviors,” she said, including “questioning people who make comments about a person based upon the gendered behaviors they do, or their assumed sexual orientation,” and praising people “when they do pro-environmental behaviors of any type,” she said.

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.