Chapter 6: Spiritual Anthropologies II: Ecofeminism, Iris Murdoch, and Other Reflections on the Human Situation

6.2 Discrimination and Socialization

Today, both women and the environment face exploitation, violence and injustice. Furthermore, there are direct connections between the ecological degradation of the environment and the oppression of women. Many of these connections are found in statistics, such as the fact that women often disproportionately bear the burden of environmental crises. Scientists have estimated that 68% of all disasters are related to climate change, and women are 14 times more likely to face injury or death as a result of these disasters than men (“Why is climate change a gender issue?” 2013). Gender based violence also increases astronomically when communities face social and economic turmoil resulting from environmental disasters, as illustrated in one example by a 300% increase in domestic violence cases following an increase in tropical cyclones in the Pacific Island region (“Why is climate change a gender issue?” 2013).

Yet while women disproportionately are impacted by environmental problems, they also hold a disproportionally subdued voice in the global conversations seeking to address these problems. Only about 20% of the members of the United States Congress are female, and female political representation is typically even lower in other nations (Warner, 2014). In the business world, women are only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs (Warner, 2014). [1] In the world of academia, women are underrepresented as well. And many of the studies that created a foundation for the field of psychology and Western understandings of moral development lacked women subjects entirely (Gilligan, 1982).

A map depicting the genders of U.S. senators in 2016. Pink states have two female senators, blue states have two male senators, and purple states have one of each. Image obtained from the public domain.

In addition to lack of representation in power structures, research has shown that gender socialization plays a key role in silencing the female voice. In recent years, studies on women’s moral development have characterized girls’ initiation into womanhood as an initiation into a selflessness that pressures them to silence their needs and voices in relationships (Gilligan, 1992). This is revealed through studies showing that compared to males, females have a stronger ability to take the role of a conceptualized other (i.e., other-orientation) (Gough 1960, 1994; Zelenzy et al. 2000), and stronger levels of social responsibility (Borden and Francis, 1978).

During adolescence, women in patriarchal societies experience intense socialization to be gentle, kind, nurturing, and preserve relationships at all costs, while men are taught to be dominant, aggressive, independent, and to attain wealth at all costs. [2]  As a result, women often feel pressured to suppress their opinions and dissociate themselves from their own needs, silencing their voices and negatively impacting their self-concept. Because females are more socialized to sacrifice themselves for the sake of relationships, selflessness, a positive trait for society, can instead become an invitation for exploitation. Since gender roles implement different messages among the sexes, this imbalance is perpetuated in social hierarchies, as women are taught to be altruistic, and as a result, are often taken advantage of. A nationwide study showed that between elementary and high school, a girl’s self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than a boy’s does, a confidence gap that continues to increase with age (American Association of University Women, 1991). Since rigidly structured gender roles have taught women to be selfless and give, while men are taught to be competitive and earn, selflessness is discouraged in one half of a patriarchal society, while it exploits the other. [3]

Before attributing the cause of a disproportionate system to differences in the societal expectations of men and women, it is important to emphasize the sheer complexity of human systems, and note that making generalizations about social groups cannot always be extended to individuals based on one characteristic of their personhood, such as their gender. However, male dominated power structures and psychological tendencies influence both individual and collective human behavior, and this dynamic should be considered in the development of environmental values in America.

Defenders of environmental and social justice seek to push for and promote equality among men and women. In order to pursue equality, however, scholars have sought to identify the cultural norms that contribute to gender disparities, and identify whether elements of patriarchal societies manifest themselves in other aspects of the human experience. If gender socialization pressures women to develop an extended-other value orientation, yet female voices are disproportionately silenced within power structures, is society’s overall value altruism diminished? Will a culture that encourages women to be gracious and other-oriented but then gives women little voice, and allows men to gain power and influence through selfishness and exploitation of women, [4] be a culture that will perpetuate exploitation and injustice and be self-destructively self-centered?This question should be explored in order to inform both social and environmental justice.

  1. Dorceta Taylor’s study of diversity in environmental organizations ( takes an even closer look at these phenomena in environmental leadership. This issue could make an excellent term paper topic in ENR 3470!
  2. In relation to material we covered in chapter 4, this sounds like a culture that promotes ratio for males and intellectus for females, but then favors males/ratio on the whole.
  3. Self-esteem measures might raise additional questions. It seems that American culture ails in part because we are too focused on the “self” – on people being independent (when we’re more truly built for relationship), on “getting what we want.” The message seems to be “you’re number one!” or “you deserve a break today”… and if the Buddhists are right, that’s just false – everything is number one, and self-focus leads to suffering and discontent. So while these points about what gets reinforced with girls and women are keen, the problems of this sort of development seem more acute in a culture where people take advantage of each other. Otherwise, we might interpret this to mean that in American culture, girls and women get developed into human beings (who can learn to unself and share) while men get short-changed and taught that they should be selfish jerks to get ahead. There is an irony in using a male/independence/autonomy-favoring metric to show the imbalance of male-female roles in American culture. A corrective to this will be discussed below.
  4. Is the emergence of a MeToo movement an unsurprising but perhaps hopeful sign in such a culture?


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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.