Feminism and behaviour change: do current demands for environmental behaviour change disadvantage women?

July 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

What are the politics of current demands for behaviour change? Do these demands fall unequally on women and men? Do we need to think more about gender roles in creating a low-carbon society? These were the themes of a workshop I ran recently for the Green Party’s ‘Women by Name’ conference.

Because of the way domestic tasks tend to be divided, it is likely that more responsibility for reducing carbon emissions will fall on women: there is the potential to push women back into domestic practices and roles that as feminists we fought to leave behind. If using less energy means using fewer labour-saving devices then it isn’t hard to predict who is likely to be providing that labour.

Unfair family footprints

A quick glance at a family carbon footprint can be illuminating. Who is most likely to find themselves responsible for routine behavioural changes such as such as turning lights and equipment off, drying laundry outside, cooking from scratch rather than using processed foods, chopping vegetables smaller, defrosting the freezer or walking the children to school? All these activities fall within women’s traditional sphere of responsibility and are repetitive and time consuming. They add to the everyday burden of life. If taken on they can add to the stereotype of women as nagging about domestic work. In contrast tasks stereotypically done by men tend to be one-offs – doing some DIY to draught-strip the doors, ordering a new boiler or arranging insulation. So where women’s commitment to carbon reduction tends to be onerous in its everyday changes, men’s is likely to be less so.

Self-image and good mothering

Demands for behavioural change can also meet resistance from women because they affect women’s sense of themselves as attractive or as homemakers and mothers. Demands for shorter showers, fewer new clothes and less frequent laundering can be experienced by women as an attack on their femininity if they imagine themselves grubby, unkempt and unfashionable as a result. A demand to avoid out of season fruits and vegetables may conflict with a woman’s image of herself as a good mother providing healthy food for her children. A demand that children cycle to school can make a mother feel that she is failing to protect her children properly from risk on the roads.

Encouragement to use public transport also affects men and women unequally. Women tend to be more concerned about personal safety and use the car in preference to public transport late at night. Work often only makes sense for women if they can drop the children at school or the childminder before driving on to work. Returning home with tired, grumpy pre-schoolers on the bus in the rush-hour is a nightmare many women understandably resist.

The upside

On the upside, there are some behavioural changes that women may find easier than men. While the male ego is often tied up with the size of his car engine and the speed at which he drives, women are more likely to be content with a small car, agree to observe the speed limit and drive more slowly. They may also find it easier to adopt a low-meat diet. A recent report found a strong connection between meat and masculinity. “To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American food,” the authors write. “Soy is not. To eat it, they would have to give up a food they saw as strong and powerful like themselves for a food they saw as weak and wimpy.”

It’s political as well as personal

In many of the examples above women are not just likely to be seen as more responsible but are likely to be made anxious by the demands being put on them. Understanding this is essential if we are trying to encourage change. Behavioural change is a political and structural issue as much as a personal one however. If the conditions that make behavioural change flow easily are not there we should not expect women to compensate for these lacks. We need to make sure that a low-carbon society does not come at women’s expense either practically or psychologically.


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