When a team of students from Pasadena’s Polytechnic School set out to drive from Texas to Palmdale in a solar-powered car they’d built, student/driver Julian Harrison said a passion for racing cars lured him to participate. For Kai Herman, he said it was an interest in mechanical engineering.
But team captain Aria Wang? She cited a desire to help protect the planet.
“My future goal is probably pursuing clean alternative energy sources,” said the 17-year-old climate enthusiast, who’s headed to Yale University this fall.
It’s just one anecdote. But a growing body of research shows females, overall, are more concerned about the effects of climate change than are males. They’re also more willing to take personal action, and to support public policies, to fight it.
In a Public Policy Institute of California poll released last month, some 86% of women surveyed said addressing global climate change is a top concern or one of several top concerns, while just over three-quarters of men felt the same. That divide isn’t as pronounced in Southern California, though the poll shows local men are still more likely than women to dismiss climate issues as a serious concern.
This phenomenon is established enough to earn its own moniker: the “eco gender gap.” And women active around climate change issues in Southern California say they continue to see this dynamic play out firsthand.
While men do lead some of the more than 40 organizations that are part of the Orange County Climate Coalition, steering committee member Ayn Craciun said more are piloted by females, and many of their most active partner groups, such as the League of Women Voters North OC chapter, are entirely women-focused.
“Also, most of the elected officials leading on climate policy in OC identify as female,” Craciun said.
Statewide, an analysis of the current session found that female legislators were a bit more likely to author legislation that mentions climate change than were their male colleagues. Women now make up a record 42% of the California legislature, with 18 females in the state Senate and 32 in the Assembly, and they introduced 44% of the 136 climate-related bills authored by individuals.
Experts point to complex and deep-seeded reasons for this gap, which they say doesn’t seem to be narrowing even among younger generations.
They also say the consequences are far-reaching, with impacts on everything from mental health to reproduction to climate change itself.
Evidence shows persistent gap
The most reliable predictor of climate change concern is political affiliation. Democrats are three times more likely than Republicans to cite the issue as a top worry in that recent PPIC survey. A handful of nonpartisan factors also are reliably linked to climate beliefs, though; younger, non-White, more highly educated and lower-income residents are all more likely to support environmental action. And the gender gap rivals each of them.
“Compared to men, women are more likely to express greater concern about climate change, believe more strongly that climate change is happening, hold more objective knowledge about climate change (but also a tendency to underestimate their knowledge) and report greater perceptions of vulnerability to climate change,” researchers from Pomona College and other institutes wrote in a 2017 paper that analyzed dozens of related studies.
These gaps become most pronounced when looking at views on specific climate risks and their effects on local communities.
Some 41% of women told PPIC surveyors they have major concerns about rising sea levels, for example, while just 25% of men cited the same level of apprehension. There also was a 14 percentage point gap between the number of women and men who expressed serious concerns about flooding and heat waves becoming more severe.
Women are also much more likely to say that we’re already seeing the effects of climate change and that it’s contributing to extreme events, such as recent wildfires in California. As a result, 62% of women in the PPIC poll said it’s very important for California to pass regulations and spend money to reduce climate change, while just over half of men agreed.
It’s common to see more women than men when meeting with advocates, or attending community meetings centered on climate change, said state Sen. Catherine Blakespear, D-Encinitas, who has focused on climate issues throughout her political career. The gender divide isn’t as dramatic as it is in meetings about gun violence, which she said are often perhaps 80% female. But Blakespear said women have definitely “been able to create a seat at the table” on climate issues.
While Blakespear noted there are lots of men doing important work in the climate space, she also said she’s encountered more men than women who are climate deniers. Data confirms that observation, with men in the PPIC poll, for example, more likely to say that climate change isn’t affecting their communities at all and never will.
Prof. Jade Sasser, who teaches a course on gender and climate change at UC Riverside, said she’s seen the eco gender gap reveal itself in interesting ways.
In one of her student’s research projects on sustainable shopping habits, Sasser said male students expressed just as much interest in buying eco-friendly goods as female students. But when it came time to shop, she said, “They were significantly less likely than female students to actually purchase sustainable products at the store. So there was a mismatch in their values, or their stated values, and what they actually did.”
During interviews for a book due out early next year, Sasser said she spoke with many young women who said climate change is factoring into decisions about whether or not to have children. The question that she said comes up over and over again is: “If I know how bad it is now, and I know that it will continue to get worse, how can I morally justify bringing a child into that?”
But Sasser said the young men she interviewed, who expressed similar fears about climate change, also said their concerns “did not trickle into how they feel about having children.” And when she discussed this issue with straight young women, Sasser said they routinely told her that men they dated “still wanted to have as many children as possible.”
Tracing the gap’s origins
So where does this gender gap come from?
Some experts point to research that suggests women are naturally more empathetic and inclined to think about the wellbeing of the collective. But Sassen said, “It’s not that women are inherently more concerned with the environment, or inherently altruistic.” Instead, she noted that women continue to be the primary caretakers for children and elderly parents, extended family members, and others in the community. And so she believes the eco gender gap stems from those caretakers wanting to protect their loved ones from the harms of climate change.
“If you look at the history of environmental justice organizing, a lot of it has been community-based campaigns led by women who were concerned about how toxic chemicals in the air, the soil or the water were impacting their children, whether they would make their children sick and how to clean those things up,” Sassen said. Climate activism, then, is simply a continuation of that work.
Kim Fortun, an anthropology professor at UC Irvine who studies environmental injustice, said she’s seeing this caretaker connection play out as she organizes a community meeting in Orange County around strategies for coping with prolonged power outages, something that could occur as heat waves intensify. As they tackle questions such as how to find cool spaces, or how to help family members who rely on medical devices, Fortun said she expects most of the people attending the meeting will be women, who are still largely in charge of running their households.
“I think women are often in a position to figure those things out,” Fortun said. “And so they do come to these meetings to learn how to both understand and act on the lack of sufficient infrastructure.”
Women themselves are also much more likely to be impacted by climate change. The United Nations calls it a “threat multiplier,” with extreme weather, drought, displacement and other consequences increasing the risks and injustices women often endure.
“Climate change harms women and girls the most due to longstanding and persistent gender inequalities and disparities in access to information, mobility, decision-making, resources and training,” Craciun said. “Climate change also intensifies rates of violence, displacement and poverty women face. And after climate disasters strike, women and girls are less able to access relief and assistance, which creates a vicious cycle of vulnerability to future disasters.”
Some of these injustices are more likely to affect women in developing countries. But Sassen said two consequences of climate change common in Southern California — heat waves and mental health challenges — are already disproportionately impacting women.
For example, even though pregnancy and birth complications both increase during heat waves, women often aren’t included in public warnings on local heat advisories. During such events women also are more likely to have cardiovascular issues and to die when temperatures spike.
Women are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, too. And Sassen said many young women she has interviewed believe climate change is contributing to these issues.
Meanwhile, there’s solid research to show that men — and particularly wealthier White men — are more likely to want to preserve the status quo, Pomona and other researchers noted in that 2017 study. That includes defending an economy that’s still reliant on fossil fuels, with men much more likely to be in power at those corporations and lobbying in their defense.
Since these roles are so deeply ingrained in our society, Sassen said she doesn’t expect the eco gender gap to close much in coming years, despite younger generations of all genders expressing greater concern and understanding of climate change.
It doesn’t help that marketing around products that claim to be sustainable often targets women, who are still more likely to handle household burdens such as buying food, clothing and cleaning products.
“Especially on things like personal care products, healthy eating, plastic consumption, there’s a lot of gender targeted, gender crafted advertising,” Fortun said.
Some of these products truly are better for the planet, while others are greenwashed. They’re also often more expensive. So women are being bombarded with messaging about the need for sustainable products and left to sort out which ones are valid and how to afford them. That’s why some circles call the “green tax” the “new pink tax,” where products marketed toward women are pricier without necessarily being any better.
On the flipside, consumer choices and lifestyle changes that can truly help the environment are often seen as “feminine,” Sassen said. Examples include carrying reusable tote bags, buying hybrid or electric cars, or becoming vegetarian. One local ranch owner recently said he’d never met a vegetarian who wasn’t female.
“Some men specifically reject those choices for that reason,” Sassen said.
But that issue also creates an opportunity, she said. Corporations can try to narrow the eco gender gap by gearing ads for sustainable products toward men, too. Some EVs, for example, can accelerate faster than gas-powered cars — a factor that could make them more attractive to men. Robert Downey Jr. plays such potentials up in his new HBO series “Downey’s Dream Cars,” where the “Ironman” actor modifies his collection of classic cars to be more eco-friendly.
Climate outreach targeting men also should highlight how sustainable actions “enhance social stability and security,” the Pomona paper says, suggesting taglines such as “Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life” or “It is patriotic to conserve the country’s natural resources.”
Gap affects climate policy
For now, given the makeup of our governments, experts say the eco gender gap is hampering the world’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Governments with higher percentages of women in office are significantly more likely to have stricter climate laws in place, according to a 2019 study by Australian researchers. And even after accounting for a wide range of other factors, the study found those stricter climate laws mean residents of countries with more women in office emit less carbon than residents of countries led predominantly by men.
Women are still minorities in most Southern California governments, in the state legislature, and in Congress.
If California elected 10 more females next year, hitting 50% representation for the first time, a formula developed by Australian researchers for that 2019 study suggests the state would pass more aggressive climate laws and reduce annual carbon emissions by about 240 kilos per person.
Running the numbers, Blakespear said she hopes to see the state legislature achieve gender equality as soon as 2026.
While she of course wants to see more Democrats elected, she said Republican women do seem to be “a little bit more environmentally inclined” than their male counterparts. And she said policy is better in “every possible way” when women of all political stripes have an equal seat at the table.
“The commitment to reduce human suffering, and to support families and progressive policies, is just much more present when women are in decision-making positions. So having 50% women in the legislature is really important for climate reasons and for every other reason.”