Gender norms challenge for green transition

University of Gothenburg

How people eat, travel and consume goods and services is a significant source of climate impacts in the Nordic countries. Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK) is now publishing a new research overview which aims to reveal, challenge and contribute insights into gender stereotypes as they relate to consumption and lifestyles. Among other things, the report shows that a caring ideal can be an important key in the green transition.

How can we make it possible to live sustainably in the Nordic countries? How can we better understand how differences in lifestyle that affect sustainability arise? Responsible production and consumption, Goal 12 of the 2030 Agenda, has been identified as one of the areas where the Nordic countries face the biggest challenges in their sustainable development work. This area is also the focus of the NIKK project Sustainability, lifestyles, and consumption from a gender perspective, which is part of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ programme Sustainable lifestyles in the Nordic region.

The new research overview entitled Climate, gender and consumption – a research overview of gender perspectives on sustainable lifestyles summarises the state of international research in seven different areas: Food, Housing and energy, Clothing and consumer goods, Transport, Work and time use, Culture and tourism, and Activism and influence. The report aims to reveal and challenge gender stereotypes as they relate to consumption and lifestyles, and to contribute to a better understanding of how gender differences arise and are strengthened and reproduced in these areas.

Ideals and norms have an impact on the climate

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Jimmy Sand, Analyst at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research

Jimmy Sand, Analyst at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research
Photo: Natalie Greppi

“At the group level, there are clear and not very surprising differences between men and women. For example, men eat more meat than women do, and meat consumption has a bigger impact on the climate than vegetarian foods do. But a more detailed analysis shows that the underlying factor in this is norms and ideals, rather than gender per se. For example, men who want to be perceived as ‘real men’ also eat more meat. Conversely, a traditional feminine body ideal leads to a more vegetarian diet, but this is not primarily a result of consideration for the climate,” says Jimmy Sand, author of the report and analyst at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, University of Gothenburg.

Attitudes and behaviours are influenced by norms and ideals that relate to care and technology, and these areas are often associated with femininity and masculinity, respectively. All in all leading to a greater or lesser impact on the climate.

“Generally, women are more inclined to change their behaviours, while men are more interested in technical solutions to the climate crisis, such as solar panels. Prejudices about technical expertise as being a masculine field can also deter women from engaging with matters that concern technology,” says Jimmy Sand.

Care ideal promotes sustainable lifestyles – in both women and men

How unpaid domestic and care work is organised affects transport patterns, for example. Those who work part-time and who are responsible for dropping off and picking up children, and making the daily purchases for the household, travel in ways that are quite different to full-time workers who tend to travel more directly between home and work.

Women as a group are more involved with sustainability issues and also more oriented towards care values than men as a group, the research overview shows. Based on the research carried out in this field, sustainability and consideration for the climate seem to be more important to individuals, regardless of gender, who are engaged in domestic and care work and see this work as important.

“In studies where men are shown as driving sustainability, these are men who are taking the main care responsibilities in their households,” says Jimmy Sand.

Key takeaways

  • Gender, understood as social norms, is often more important than sex as a statistical variable. Individuals oriented towards caregiving – an ideal often associated with femininity, regardless of sex – are more engaged with sustainability and show more sustainable behaviour patterns.
  • The uneven distribution of unpaid domestic and care work, for which women as a group take a greater share of the responsibility than men as a group, and the normative coding of technology as a male domain, have consequences for the different impacts of individuals on the climate; and consequently for what efforts should be made to reduce this impact.
  • Women as a group are ascribed a greater responsibility for the environment as consumers than men as a group due to social norms concerning fashion consumption, but also because women more often than men are responsible for cooking the meals in households and for washing and buying clothes for the family members.
  • Traffic planners, vehicle manufacturers, food producers, energy companies, the fashion industry, etc., all have great power to influence the climate impact in their spheres, and thus bear a great responsibility for the green transition. When responsibility is placed on consumers instead, it risks being individualised. Due to norms of femininity and masculinity, the unequal distribution of unpaid domestic and care work and the feminisation of consumption, where men’s behaviour patterns in this space are rendered invisible, may entail a particular burden of responsibility on women as a group.
  • If reducing working hours with associated changes in consumption is to be used as a strategy to achieve more sustainable lifestyles, it should be based on efforts to influence the preferences of men as a group, and to support the ideal of caring among men.

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