By Liliana Shymanska, Corporate Communications Officer at the British Science Association


Until this year, I was under the impression that everyone was doing their bit to be “more green”. Where I live (London), councils and companies have made changes to show they’re putting the environment higher on their agenda. Santander cycles and Mobikes are often sprawled across pavements. There’s a rainbow of colour-coded recycling bins on every street corner. And it’d be weird for a barista to not ask you which alternative milk you’d prefer in your daily coffee (coconut, please).

Picture of reusable canvas bag

But in the last few months, I started to notice a pattern. The women* in my life seemed to be much more interested in changing their behaviours and considering eco-friendly choices. In WhatsApp chats with female friends, we regularly discuss sustainable fashion brands, there’s talk of eco-friendly period products and pledges to “never eat a fish again” after watching Netflix’s Seaspiracy.

Beyond the whispers of WhatsApp, earlier this month I stood by a ballot box placing my vote for the Mayor of London. I couldn’t help but notice candidates representing The Green Party and Animal Welfare Party (inherently ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ parties) were, you guessed it, women.

Searching the hashtag #EcoFriendlyLiving on Instagram, I saw more evidence of women actively and openly doing their bit for the environment. This is actually backed up by research demonstrating women outperform men in several eco-friendly behaviours. Women litter less and recycle more. They’re more likely to eat a plant-based diet, own an electric car, and are more likely to support environmental policies. But why is this?

Trashy ideas

In the earlier days of the movement, environmentalism was perceived to be more feminine. This is thought to stem from harmful stereotypes of women being selfless, nurturing and caring, making them more likely to help protect the planet. Men, however, reject eco-friendly behaviour as being perceived as selfless by caring about the environment may make them seem less **“masculine”.

In a 2016 study, both men and women described using a reusable canvas bag as less masculine than a single-use, plastic bag.

 This research also indicated that men were more likely to donate to an environmental charity with a more masculine logo. In this case, “Friends of Wilderness” (below, left) featuring a howling wolf, rather than a charity called “Friends of Nature”, accompanied by tree imagery (below, right).


I spoke with one of the study’s authors, Professor James Wilkie. He described the most important component of this work as identifying a barrier that some men face when they are deciding if they want to engage in eco-friendly behaviours.

James explains “by identifying this ‘pain point’, we were able to develop strategies to make it easier for men to feel more comfortable choosing more sustainable options, for example, incorporating a ‘more masculine’ product design.”

He theorises that if the study were to be repeated today, the results would depend on “the degree to which environmentalism is still perceived as feminine and secondly, whether some men still feel pressure to maintain a masculine identity.” He reckons greater political polarisation (in the US), with different views towards environmentalism on both sides, could play a factor but ultimately, this would need to be tested empirically to get a definite answer.

James is currently working with the same team of researchers to examine how to best frame the language used in environmental causes moving forward.

An interesting real-life example of this can be seen in Texas back in the 1980s. The Texas Department for Transportation noticed that men aged 18-35 littered the most. In attempts to combat this, they put up signs along roads that ended up reducing the total amount of litter by 72% in just four years. 
That slogan? “Don’t mess with Texas”.

By framing eco-friendly actions as “manly”, Texas was decades ahead of the research. This shows there are ways of changing the behaviours of ordinary individuals regarding the environment, how about in the world of research?   

Women in environmental science

Though women seem more interested in saving the planet than men, women account for just 33% of the authors on recent reports for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading scientific body on climate change. Although this is an improvement from 5% of IPCC female authors in 1990, the numbers fall far short of an equal footing.

The percentage of women inventors for environment-related technologies also remains low (13%), especially for power generation technologies (10%).

The Reuters Hot List identifies and ranks the world’s top 1,000 climate scientists according to how influential they are. Of the scientists on the Reuters List, fewer than one in seven are women.

A recent study asking participants specifically about the role of gender in being a climate scientist, revealed 41% of women see gender as a barrier to their success and 43% believed that female climate researchers are not well represented in the climate community.

The disparity in women’s involvement leads us to a wider problem - their traditionally low participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Women make up just over a quarter (27%) of the core STEM workforce in the UK.

Many studies have documented the well-known story of underrepresentation of women in the STEM workforce, exploring barriers such as family responsibilities, poor representation in journals and funding disparities.

In attempts to combat this, The Women in Climate (WiC) network, a joint University of Exeter and Met Office initiative, was set up in 2018 to support the retention of women in climate science and promote diversity. “Women are underrepresented in scientific leadership positions, so as well as discussing topical issues, the network hosts skills-based sessions to help people achieve success in their careers,” says Dr Freya Garry, the network’s co-founder.

Freya believes that “organisations should engage with their staff, including networks and unions, to determine how organisational culture can change to better support women and other minorities in science.”

“There needs to be clear mechanisms in place for people to honestly provide feedback to their organisations about how current processes affect them”.

Freya also raised the important issue of intersectionality. Diversity and representation of women in environmental science are not only impacted in terms of single characteristics. “The intersectional nature of biases means that some women are even less likely to reach senior positions in climate science”.

Hence, when comparing gender and other characteristics, such as disability, only a third of the STEM workforce who are disabled is female. This ‘double underrepresentation’ means that just 4% of the STEM workforce is female and disabled, compared to 8% of the rest of the workforce.

Even though many women in wider society feel strongly about creating a sustainable future, perhaps the reason men are overrepresented in environmental science are the same reasons they are overrepresented in STEM overall.

Amongst other policy and cultural changes, we need to harness creative solutions, like those shown by the State of Texas, to support underrepresented groups into this field.

The UK STEM workforce

As part of the British Science Association’s (BSA) work on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, the BSA acts as secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM.

The current inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM is investigating equity in the UK STEM workforce. This inquiry will examine barriers for women (as well as other underrepresented demographics) in STEM and why they continue to outweigh their sustained interest in science, including environmental and climate science.

Increasing the rates of women’s participation in environmental science and green innovation is vital to help solve one of the most complex challenges of our time. We must draw from the largest pool of talent; forgetting women means ignoring the innovative capacity of half of the population.

We must set aside gender stereotypes and address the gender gap in the environmental science sector. Ultimately, we all have a role as human beings to look after our planet.

The APPG on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM report on equity in the UK STEM workforce will launch in Summer 2021. Sign up here for updates.

*Gender is the cultural meanings assigned to biological sexes within specific historical and geographic ways of being. It is a social construct and not the same as biological sex.

**Masculinity is a set of qualities or attributes considered characteristic of men. Masculinity is not the same thing as gender and is not exclusively owned by cisgender men.