Climate Change: Women Care, Men Shrug

Women are more likely to acknowledge global climate change than men are, according to new research, and they know more about it, too.

September 28, 2010

Mother nature? Women seem more likely to pay attention to climate change.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Worldwide, scientists are trying to convince an increasingly skeptical public that global climate change is in fact happening and that humans are the primary cause. Yet, despite all the facts about climate change they have at their disposal—from international bodies like the United Nations to reports from the U.S. government—just 50 percent of the American public acknowledge that it's a problem. And, a new study shows, that may have everything to do with gender.


"Past research on public opinions about environmental issues has found that women are more concerned with direct threats, for instance, things like air pollution and water quality, while men are more likely to think about faraway issues—holes in the ozone, global warming, biodiversity loss, things that won't hit them right then," says Aaron McCright, PhD, associate professor of sociology at the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University and lead author of the new study. "But more evidence suggests that women are starting to have more concern about those global issues than men."

THE DETAILS: McCright's new study, published in the journal Population & Environment, analyzed Gallup-poll data from 2001 to 2008 to see whether women or men were more likely to acknowledge that climate change was occurring, or that humans were the root cause; which gender had greater actual knowledge about the issue; and which gender thought it had the most knowledge. Over that eight-year period, women consistently showed greater concern about climate change than men, with 35 percent of women worrying about climate change a "great deal," compared with just 29 percent of men. Also, 37 percent of women felt climate change would threaten their way of life, compared with just 28 percent of men.

When it came to actual knowledge about climate change, women won out: 59 percent believed the effects of global warming have already begun to happen (which they have) while just 54 percent of men did; and 64 percent, in agreement with government scientists, said that pollution from human activities was the primary cause, compared with 56 percent of men. Also, 66 percent of women knew as well that most scientists believe global warming is occurring, while just 60 percent of men did. On the other hand, men had a higher perceived understanding of global warming than women did. That is, they were more likely to say they knew a lot about the phenomenon than women were.

McCright found that women's concern over climate change held true despite factors that could influence their beliefs. For instance, he thought that women who were employed might be less concerned about the issue because of a "marketplace mentality" that places a higher significance on economic gain than environmental issues, and he expected that women with children would be more concerned, due to a "motherhood mentality" that promotes protection of nature and a concern about their children's future. But the women who were employed, whether they had children or not, were just as likely as the moms to exhibit concern over climate change.

WHAT IT MEANS: Much of the logic behind why men are less likely to acknowledge the facts on climate change than women has to do with basic sociology, says McCright. "It's sort of this gender socialization that happens from the moment you're born," he says. "You receive all sorts of cues from your parents, your peers, your friends, and the media about what boys and girls should be doing." Boys, he adds, are brought up to think that being masculine means being unemotional and exercising control and mastery of their surroundings, while girls are taught to be empathic and compassionate towards others. It's those basic social beliefs, he says, that leads professional women with no children to be just as concerned about climate change as mothers.

"Women are socialized in thousands of situations throughout their young lives to be empathetic, caring, and compassionate," McCright says. "So it's no wonder that girls in high school express more concern about the environment than boys, girls in college express more concern, and so on, throughout their adult lives." He's quick to add that men aren't completely unfeeling and apathetic about environmental issues. In his study, he notes that boys are taught to be the economic providers for their families, and men are more likely than women to internalize that "marketplace mentality," which places a greater importance on economic stability than environmental protection.

McCright adds that gender isn't the only variable affecting people's attitudes. "Certainly political ideologies and general ideological differences had a huge impact," he says of his results, and his study found that age and race influenced attitudes as well, with younger adults and non-whites being more likely to acknowledge climate change than older white adults, regardless of gender.

Climate change is certainly affecting every one of us, male and female alike; as McCright writes in his study, it's "the most expansive global environmental problem facing humanity" and a serious challenge to economic growth, technological development, and overall prosperity. So maybe a the feminine outlook isn't a bad thing.

Want to convince people that climate change is a real problem? Here are a few ways:

• Be a feminist. McCright cites one study finding that people, both men and women, who support feminist goals are more likely to exhibit more concern for the environment.

• Think locally. "Where women have had a much larger influence on environmental issues is at the local level, especially those focused on health, safety, and environmental justice," McCright says. He notes that campaigns against Love Canal and water pollution in Woburn, Massachusetts (profiled in the movie A Civil Action starring John Travolta), were led by women. Look at how climate change might impact your local community, for instance, how severe flooding of local waterways could increase as climate change becomes more prevalent or how diseases, such as Lyme disease, could proliferate in your town as a result of warming temperatures.

• Uproot the resistance. There are several core reasons why it's tempting to overlook the climate change threat. To change someone's mind, identify which ones are motivating him or her, and aim your counterarguments along those lines. See "6 Reasons You’re Ignoring Global Warming" for examples.