People Tend to See 'Green' Habits as Being Less Masculine

Fragile masculinity isn’t just annoying—it could also be destroying the planet.

According to recent research in the academic journal Sex Roles, fear of being perceived as gay could be driving some men to avoid environmentally-friendly behaviors such as grocery shopping with reusable bags.

In three studies, researchers found that perceptions of environmental behavior were strongly-linked to gender, with those who engaged in green behavior being perceived as more feminine than masculine. In the first two studies, researchers gave participants logs of a fictional person’s daily activities and asked them to rate whether the person was behaving in a feminine or masculine way and to guess at their sexual orientation.

According to the researchers, participants in the study felt more “uncertainty” about the sexual orientation of those who broke with gender norms in their green or not-so-green behavior—and, they noted, a fear of being perceived as gay or lesbian may be a roadblock to individuals’ environmentalism.

“There may be subtle, gender-related consequences when we engage in various pro-environmental behaviors,” Janet Swim, a professor of psychology at Penn State and one of the lead authors of the paper, said in a statement last week. “People may avoid certain behaviors because they are managing the gendered impression they anticipate others will have of them. Or they may be avoided if the behaviors they choose do not match their gender.”

The research is just the latest to show a strong link between environmental behaviors and gender norms, as the Pacific Standard noted last week. As the publication reported in 2016, women are more likely than men to act in environmentally-friendly ways, leading researchers to seek out ways to repackage green behavior in more macho branding—sort of like how dudes apparently can’t buy Q-tips or tissues unless companies assure them the products are totally manly.

Whether that will work or not remains to be seen, but the new research may help explain why some men don’t recycle or utilize reusable bags. As Swim observed, “those who engaged in environmentally-friendly behavior “were rated as more feminine than masculine regardless of the behaviors they did”—possibly reflecting gender tropes of women as more nurturing than men. For some guys, that may not be a deterrent to doing their part to protect the environment. But for less secure dudes, that could be reason not to recycle or make use of reusable grocery bags.

“If being seen as heterosexual is important to a person,” Swim said, “that person may prioritize gender-conforming over gender non-conforming pro-environmental behaviors in anticipation of how others might see them.”

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