This is a piece I wrote earlier this semester. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a place to publish it, and well, its shelf life waned. I think this is a fascinating study, by the way.
Women More Likely To Believe In Climate Change Than Men
By Marianne English
Political ideology and religion aren’t the only influences that affect public opinion on global warming. A recent Michigan State University study suggests gender should also be included in the demographic medley of factors that shapes personal beliefs on climate change.
The study — one of the first of its kind to explore gender and public opinion on this contentious issue — highlights the need to consider the general public as diverse individuals when relaying scientific information. Although the research reinforces the idea that social influences guide each gender’s involvement in science, climate change groups say they don’t give much thought to the male-female divide when creating strategic messages for the public.
“Gender differences are more subtle — men and women have different trusts in science,” said Aaron McCright, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University and author of the study. “We need to understand that average men and women hear the same message differently. You can’t assume that everyone is the same — the American public isn’t monolithic.”
Using Gallup Poll data from 2001 to 2008, McCright examined scientific beliefs and levels of concern surrounding global warming for both genders in the United States. Each year’s sample size ranged from 1,000 to 1,060 people.
From the data, McCright found that women are not only more likely than men to agree with scientists that climate change exists, but they also possess the scientific knowledge to back it up, too.
Men, on the other hand, express greater confidence in their knowledge of science, but didn’t agree with scientists as much as women did. During the time both groups were polled, men were less likely to agree that global warming was happening and less likely to agree that human activities were to blame.
McCright thinks a larger phenomenon is at play — a concept called gender socialization.
“It’s not genetic, but rather reinforcement from teachers, parents and the media,” he said. “Boys get more consistent signals that science is something they will be good at. Girls don’t get the same message that science is for them or that they can be good at it.”
Even female teachers are sometimes guilty of reinforcing this trend, he said. Unconsciously internalizing these attitudes is fairly easy to do and hard to get rid of, he added.
Consistent with previous studies measuring gender and environmental issues, data from the polls revealed that women underestimated their knowledge of global warming, even though it was more accurately aligned with that of scientists.
“Women are doubting themselves more than men,” McCright said, “which might be a major factor why women are deterred from the science pipeline.”
Despite their lack of confidence, women were more concerned about global warming and its effects on their lives — a finding that is uniform with previous studies. In general, women tend to express more concern because they view environmental risks as realistic, possible threats to their families and communities.
Conversely, men are more likely to frame environmental risks on a larger scale, expressing concern for how climate change might stifle other realms — such as the economy and environmental landscape, McCright said.
He also emphasized the need for scientists to understand that factors such as gender affect how a message is perceived, suggesting that additional media training for climate researchers might help.
The study — featured in the September issue of the journal Population and Environment — emerged during a controversial shift for public opinion and climate change. In light of a 2010 Gallup Poll stating that 48 percent of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated, McCright said gender differences in the data remain.
Moving forward, the study’s larger importance for global warming groups remains unclear.
Lacking tactics to market content based on gender, climate change groups admit they are unsure of how to inject McCright’s findings into their agendas.
“I don’t think there’s been a concerted effort to direct [science information] to any one portion of the public,” said Jenna Jadin, science communications manager at the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). The program creates coordinated responses to climate change issues with the support of 13 governmental departments and agencies.
Generally speaking, Jadin said, the group directs most of its efforts toward making science easier to understand for lay audiences.
“We can’t hope to transform all the public,” Jadin said. “Our goal is to get to the people who are already informed to give them reasons [to take action]. If we can make people see how climate change is affecting their lives on a daily level, we will get them to act on or believe in climate change policies.”
One step to remedy the situation would be to train scientists to better communicate their work, Jadin said. Reevaluating the traditional academic tenure system to consider outreach efforts in addition to research would help as well, she added.
Though the USGCRP does not directly acknowledge gender when creating messages for the public, Jadin noted that perhaps the program might already reach women in more nuanced ways.
“For women who have the traditional roles of primary care takers for families,” she said, “one way to continue reaching them is by showing them how climate change affects their lives and their children’s lives.”
A representative at another climate change initiative said the group doesn’t cater to gender because it doesn’t focus on persuading people that climate change is actually happening — it instead accepts the phenomenon as fact already.
“We have working groups that are looking at [the possible impacts on] wildlife, forestry and human health,” said Alison Coulson, program manager at the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI). “We’re just not finished doing the science aspect of it.”
WICCI, a state-wide initiative encompassing state agencies and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will release a scientific report this year to share scientific findings in the state. Only then will the group tackle any form of outreach, she added.
Coulson said the group will rely on existing working groups and an outreach advisory committee to provide accurate information to decision makers at the local, regional and state level — not at the general public directly.
Because of the initiative’s focus in providing scientific information to policy makers, Coulson doesn’t foresee gender playing a role in the WICCI’s approach anytime soon, she said.