By - Wayne Linklater 31/10/2014


220px-Keep_New_Zealand_Beautiful_logoChances are you have heard it said: ‘Women care more about the environment’. Perhaps you have even heard someone say that ‘women are more environmentally aware’ or ‘women are more likely to act to protect the environment’?

The idea appears to originate from the argument that women have a more substantive or direct relationship with the environment because they are our species nurturers. The assumption is that the sex which nurtures the next generation – invests most and is most vulnerable – will be overwhelmingly more sensitive to the future and its environment and so behave accordingly.

The ideas seems intuitive to me. Some of my own motivations for working in environmental science and biodiversity conservation are that I want my two daughters to live in a world as least as good as the one I was raised in. It should be a healthy environment for them and provide a wealth of natural resources and values. But, I am a father.

Could women really be better environmentalists than men?

There is very much to debate about the argument that women might be more ‘environmentally friendly’ than men. But let us put the philosophical, theoretical and political discussion aside for the moment and, instead, subject the idea to direct testing and begin by calling it an hypothesis. Then, we should consider how our hypothesis could be tested.

A group of male and female students taking a course in Behaviour & Conservation Ecology at my university conducted an experimental test of the idea. I suggested to the students that they might measure a person’s environmental behaviour by whether or not they would pick up litter on a public walkway (mall, street, path) and dispose of it in a nearby public rubbish tin (garbage bin).

Litter disposal seems a good test of environmentalism to me because litter is an environmental hazard, and picking it up requires that a person make an environmental decision and behave environmentally. The environmental behaviour – litter pick up and disposal – can also be observed from a distance in a public place without interaction or influence, and with anonymity for observers and passers-by.

Surreptitiously when they would not be seen, one of the students placed an open and empty cereal box on the ground near (around 2-3 metres from) a rubbish tin. The students then sat, nonchalantly, in the distance recording the sex, male or female, of all the people who walked within an arms-length of the cereal box and whether or not they picked it up and disposed of it. The rationale of including only those who passed within an arms length of the cereal box is to exclude, as much as possible, the large number of people who may have passed but been unaware of the cereal box. If the cereal box was picked up and trashed, the students replaced it with another, and waited again.

The students, over several sit-and-watch sessions when not in class or finishing other assignments, recorded 2786 people walk within an arms-length of the cereal box – it was a busy street: 1300 were men and the remainder, 1486, were women. Just 108 (3.9%) passers-by picked up and disposed of the cereal box in the rubbish tin.

Get this…

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Men were almost twice as likely to pick up the litter as women. Sixty-six men (5.1%) picked up the litter, but only 42 women (2.8%) did. This is a statistically significant difference between the sexes (Chi-square test: df=1, P<0.001). Men were more likely to pick up litter than women.

Are women more ‘environmentally friendly’ than men? In so much as environmental decisions and behaviour can be measured by picking up litter, the idea appears not to be true. The hypothesis was not supported.

I would not have been surprised by a neutral outcome of our little experiment – men and women being equally likely to pick up litter. But, unexpectedly, the evidence is that the opposite of the original hypothesis is true. It is wonderful how sometimes our investigations throws us surprises. Why are men more likely to pick up litter? Perhaps the answer to my question lies in the other characteristics of the people observed.

The students who conducted the experiment recorded many other characteristics of the people who passed by that litter: their relative age, whether or not they were in family groups, and in groups of different size. They even duplicated the work in different environments such as parks – reasoning that people might be more inclined to pick up litter in parks than on city streets. Those results and more might be the subject of a future post.