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Social Sciences

Gender, Sociology, and the Environment

By Josh Halpren

Chenyang Xiao

Photo of Chenyang Xiao by Josh Halpren.

As people across the globe learn more about environmental sustainability and how actions can be taken to protect the Earth’s fragile ecosystems, it becomes imperative for policy makers to comprehensively understand the wide range of views among their constituents. Sociology professor Chenyang Xiao has spent years working to understand the differences that gender makes when it comes to perceptions of environmental issues. “Gender is a fundamental, structural dimension of our society,” says Xiao. “Everything is gendered in our society.” 

Xiao, a professor at AU for four years, says that a variety of studies have indicated that women are more concerned about the environment than men. “After controlling for factors such as age, race, etc., we were able to discover that women are in general more concerned about safety and health, which many women see as threatened by things such as pollution,” he says. “Examining what creates these gender-based differences can shed light on structural reasons for varying environmental attitudes and beliefs, which can ultimately help environmental policymaking and decision-making.” Xiao points out that, on average, women were more concerned than men when it came to issues like mercury or DDT pollution in food—issues that ultimately posed risks to their families.  

However, Xiao emphasizes that this concern is only partially responsible for the disparity between men and women when it comes to environmental concern. “Women have a significant ability to perceive risk and are much more likely to focus on the possible consequences of threats to health and safety,” he says. According to Xiao, women are especially more likely to perceive technological risks, like nuclear power and genetically modified food. The women he interviewed in both the U.S. and China were very wary of industrial dominance and the threat that it posed to both their own families and to society. “Many women are already working a double shift,” says Xiao, in reference to the fact that in many cases, women who work outside the home continue to carry the additional burden of housework. “They don’t want to see anything jeopardize the safety of their families.”  

Xiao points out that women are also more likely to be involved and active in environmental grassroots projects. He specifically cites Lois Gibbs, the leader of the Love Canal social justice movement, who got involved when she discovered her 7-year-old son’s school in Niagara Falls, New York, had been built on a toxic waste dump. Xiao also cites the ecofeminism movement, which claims that because men significantly outnumber women in government, the importance of solving environmental problems can sometimes be ignored.  

Xiao says that understanding environmental sociology is key to understanding how environmental factors can play roles in societal development. According to Xiao, “Whether it is a person’s access to natural resources or how affected they are by various types of environmental degradation, interaction with the environment and attitudes towards things like climate change can tell us a great deal about social situations and social inequality.”