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Gender and the Sustainable Brain – My Solutions Journal Piece

The following first published in the March 2011 issue of The Solutions Journal.

The crucial move toward sustainability may not come easily for either huge corporations or the average consumer, but we can hasten this evolution by identifying and nurturing the personality traits that most naturally drive sustainable living. Those qualities that we’ve long called “feminine” could be the answer.

No matter how many men also possess them, traits like empathy and a focus on communication and social connections have long been categorized as “women’s ways.” But those same traits also seem to be at the root of sustainable personal and organizational behavior. Understanding known gender differences in thinking and decision-making could provide insights and tools to move sustainability forward more quickly and productively.

Gender Differences in Thinking and Talking

The differences, however subtle, in the ways men and women tend to think and communicate may have important implications for sustainability. According to a 2003 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “women’s higher levels of empathy, altruism, and personal responsibility make them more interested in environmentalism as a way to protect not only themselves and their families, but also others.” Helen Fisher, sociologist and author of The First Sex, found that women, when compared to men, are more process-oriented and “gathering,” that is, they look to find multiple interactions and multidirectional paths. And sociolinguist Deborah Tannen notes in her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation that, as opposed to men who “speak and hear a language of status and positioning,” women “speak and hear a language of connection and intimacy.” All of the above seems to follow from brain science. For example, Fisher notes that women’s brains tend to be better integrated, right with left hemisphere. From this she suggests that “women probably have more communication between the right and left amygdalas,” which “may provide them with better access to their unconscious feelings.”

Empathy may be key to promoting sustainability. When a person is in the habit of considering the well-being of others as she makes her own decisions, she is more likely to anticipate the longer term and broader implications of each choice or opportunity. This ability to understand and feel what others might feel helps the empathetic person to, for example, connect the dots between the corporation that has been accused of environmental or social irresponsibility and her own consumer purchases. Despite being considered a “touchy feely” emotion by some, empathy can help people see through corporate or political smoke screens around environmental or social responsibility issues.

According to Tannen, women communicate by finding common ground first, while men tend to initiate communication through status comparisons or positioning. This tendency could give women a slight edge in forming the kind of support networks needed for community building and cooperation around sustainability issues.

Putting “Women’s Ways” to Work for Sustainability

How might a more relational approach (i.e., one that recognizes complex interrelationships) directly link to sustainability today? Helen Fisher’s exploration of women as civil thinkers, for one, provides some insight. Fisher finds that women tend “to enjoy making these lateral connections” and to think more contextually, with “a broad focus and long-term social goals.” This broader focus and ability to think contextually can be key to visualizing all that interconnects—and why it matters—in sustainability.

Sustainability is not a movement that can be addressed by just a handful of powerful people forcing the issue from a pedestal on high. Rather, the most powerful change agents may be the people who can connect the big thinkers with the most motivated “doers,” keeping all the players working together and motivated. Such people will certainly call on both left and right brain traits, and will require great empathy to succeed.

When organizations start to operate more along these lines, the men and women within them will be encouraged to incorporate sustainable personal values into their business decisions. When businesses and organizations appreciate and nurture these values in all employees and reward teamwork over individual success, they may come closer to achieving the crucial balance between linear and relational thinking.

Interface Inc. is an example of a company that has practiced these ideas with great success. It is the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturer and has emerged as a global leader in sustainable business. Since 1996, through the vision of the company’s founder and chairman, Ray Anderson, Interface has reduced the energy it uses to manufacture carpet by 43 percent and has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 44 percent (94 percent if you count offsets). The company’s long-term goal is to eliminate any negative impact it has on the environment by 2020. Anderson has acknowledged that “women’s ways” influenced his thinking about sustainability. Anderson writes in his book Mid-Course Correction, “I believe, too, that the ascendancy of women in business is coming just in the nick of time. It is that instinctive nurturing nature, found more frequently in women, but also present in men if they will allow it to surface, that will recognize and elevate in business the vital, indispensable role of genuine caring. Caring for human capital and natural capital (Earth) as much as we have traditionally cared for financial capital will give social equity and environmental stewardship their rightful places alongside economic progress, and move society to reinvent the means for achieving economic progress itself.”

Taking a more “feminine” perspective could mean that organizations pursuing sustainability might be more open to risking competitive vulnerability in order to form creative partnerships or share information. For the greater social good and for the responsibility of the industry, companies could tend to a broader vision, while still maintaining their focus on the all-important bottom line. The Organic Exchange (cotton) and the Green Exchange (with Nike as a founding member) are examples of unexpected and committed cooperation that has resulted in significant industry innovations.

Finally, it is worth noting that, within sustainable development, the values that serve or inspire an organization’s employees or members also attract and serve today’s consumer market. Relational, or more “feminine,” thinking balances out the long-rewarded, linear strengths of successful businesses, and brings them to a more holistic and consumer-connected level of operation.

Women as Sustainable Consumers

In recent years, Ford has been greening its automobile models, perhaps due to recent findings that point to a growing demand for green products among female consumers. A 2009 Synovate study, for example, found that “more American women than men say that their dream car is a green car” (20 percent women versus 17 percent men).  And “The Green Mom Eco-Cosm Revisited,” a 2010 poll of green mom bloggers conducted by the Social Studies Group, found household cleaning brands are under more scrutiny than ever. The study reports, “Regardless of income, respondents were equally likely to buy organic, buy local, seek out alternative energy sources, buy green toys, and choose greener transportation sources. Respondents who identified themselves in lower income brackets were more likely to minimize their overall purchasing than give up buying more costly, but environmentally safe products.”

It’s worth noting that parenthood seems to be a key indicator with regard to how consumers respond to sustainability messages or green brands. The Social Studies Group, in fact, found that family health, not the environment, seemed to be the biggest driver for going green. This is likely true for car purchasing decisions as well; the safety and quality of the vehicle come first, before sustainability. As one mom quoted in the study says, “My consciousness changed a great deal when I became a parent. Those of you who are blessed with children can relate—suddenly every electrical outlet, every strange chemical smell, every dog running down the sidewalk gives you pause: could this harm my child?”

It would seem that many women are receptive to environmentalism and sustainability not necessarily for “green” reasons so much as for the well-being of their families. And if parenthood, not gender, is a critical factor encouraging sustainable choices, then certain progressive policies, such as guaranteed parental leave for both men and women, might have positive implications for sustainability.

Sustainability Traits Worth Nurturing

While not a lot of significant gender-difference research has been done related to sustainability-promoting traits and characteristics, a study published in late 2010 on climate change belief seems telling. Using data from 2001–2008 Gallup Polls focusing specifically on environmental issues, Michigan State University sociologist Aaron M. McCright found that women were more likely to accept climate change science than men. A greater percentage of women than men worry about global warming a great deal (35 percent to 29 percent), believe global warming will threaten their way of life during their lifetime (37 percent to 28 percent), and believe the seriousness of global warming is underestimated in the news (35 percent to 28 percent).7

But, the story is not simply “women get it,” and “men don’t,” when it comes to climate change. In my opinion, McCright’s work suggests something that demands more attention in the sustainability movement. His results largely confirm an earlier account by Paul Mohai of gender differences in environmental concern. Mohai concludes that “Background characteristics, including homemaker and parental status, appear to have little, if any, effect on these [gender] differences [in environmental concern]. This suggests that, to the extent that gender differences in environmental concern do exist, the differing socialization experiences of men and women may account for the differences, rather than the roles they occupy or other structural factors.”

What if, despite the fact that the female gender seems most naturally suited for sustainable thinking and decision-making, it is actually socialization—not sex—that forms the basis for the incredible opportunity our culture has today? Being born a man should not preclude a person from being able to understand or engage with sustainability in productive, and passionate, ways. Rather, the traits and characteristics that are typically seen in women likely exist in most people. If women drive sustainability, naturally, then men—or any person who does not easily default to empathy and relational thinking—can be socialized or taught to think in new ways. Sustainable thinking does not have to come naturally in order to be worth nurturing.

Feminine Traits, Genderless Potential

Given what we know about the traits and characteristics that seem to be behind interest and engagement in sustainability, businesses, organizations, and universities can now lead the charge to ensure that this sort of “feminine” thinking becomes more natural for everyone.

The truth is that a lot of people are capable of bringing more empathy or relational thinking into their work decisions. To the extent that these abilities can be taught and can become the behavioral norm, they can provide the foundation for an overarching sustainable movement in the United States. They are not simply “women’s ways.” To be sure, any gender differences along these lines may give us a template for what to encourage and nurture, but we still have to see the possibilities as inclusive, not exclusive. Women may access such traits more naturally, but men can acquire them.

Sustainability—taking what we need now, while providing for life, human and otherwise, in the future—is in essence an exercise in empathy. The competitive, stereotypically masculine approach likely helped get us into the scary environmental state in which we currently find ourselves. I believe that encouraging the relational and empathetic aspects of human thinking—and better balancing that which has been perceived as masculine and feminine—will lead us to a more sustainable, enduring, and productive global community.


Please visit the full March issue on The Solutions Journal site to read many other articles demonstrating why everyone’s so-labeled feminine traits may be worth a second and third look in pursuit of global sustainability.