Go ask ‘Gladys’: Why gender matters in energy consumption research

Go ask ‘Gladys’: Why gender matters in energy consumption research

Sherilyn MacGregor

In spring 2013, amid growing public discontent with energy companies, news broke that British retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) was guilty of miss-selling energy plans to consumers.  Sales agents were found to be falsely inflating their competitors’ prices and exaggerating the amount of savings to be made by switching tariffs.  According to an unnamed whistle-blower, agents were encouraged during sales training sessions to target older women, which were profiled as being more trusting and therefore more likely to switch to the M&S plan.  The code name for this ideal customer was ‘Gladys’.

This news story illustrates several things: the dishonesty of profit-making companies, the lack of effective market regulation, and the vulnerability of consumers in a privatized system of provision.  It also highlights an issue that seems to fly under the radar of most energy researchers: that gender matters in energy consumption.  Understanding how the gender of consumers shapes their energy use is important, not just for producing accurate analyses, but also for developing workable policies for more efficient, less un-sustainable ways of living.  Household consumption accounts for a significant percentage of national energy consumption and CO2 emissions (in the UK 27% and 15% respectively) (DECC 2015).  Reducing energy consumption is an important part of the transition to a low carbon, sustainable society and targeting domestic demand is widely considered to be the most effective strategy for speeding up the process (Dietz et al 2009).  Researching how people use, save and think about energy therefore seems an important piece of the sustainable transitions puzzle.  Yet, gender has not been systematically analysed as a factor in energy consumption in affluent, industrialised societies. This lacuna requires attention. What is known about the gender dimension of energy consumption? Why is gender analysis absent from the literature and how might it be included in a systematic way?

What is known about gender and energy consumption has to be patched together from a small body of empirical research.  Those working in the field generally agree that there is a lack of sex-disaggregated data on domestic energy-related attitudes and practices (Clancy and Roehr 2003).  From data that are available, it is evident that women and men have different consumption patterns (Raty and Carlsson-Kanyama 2010).  Differences in gendered practices lead to different levels of energy use.  In virtually every country in the world, women spend more time doing unpaid work in the household than men (OECD 2014).  The types of domestic work women tend to engage in are energy intensive (e.g. laundry and cooking).  However, research conducted in Europe and North America suggests that, overall, men consume more energy than women.  Men have more disposable income, spend more time engaged in leisure pursuits, and own/ use electronic appliances more than women.  They eat more meat than women, resulting in 14–21% higher energy use from food consumption, according to one Swedish study (Carlsson-Kanyama et al.2003).

In addition to differences in levels and types of energy consumption, data also suggest that gender norms and traits shape people’s decisions to reduce their environmental impacts, such as by adopting energy saving habits and using lower energy technologies.  Women are believed to make the majority of household consumption decisions, and are more likely than men to make decisions for pro-social and pro-environmental reasons.  Much of the available research indicates that women have higher levels of participation in ‘pro-environmental behaviour’ than men at the household-level.  For example, one recent US study found that women are more willing to pay a higher price for energy-efficient light sources and are more likely to engage in energy saving practices than men (Lee et all 2013).

These findings are interesting viewed alongside the results of a Swedish study showing that the extra workload created by energy saving practices (such as not using a tumble dryer) tends disproportionally to fall upon women (Carlsson-Kanyama and Linden 2007). In my own UK research ,on energy demand reduction, more women than men reported adopting ‘low-tech’ saving strategies such as using slow cookers and ironing during the day, whereas the men showed much more interest than the women in energy monitors and solar panels.  The women expressed more interest in reducing energy for environmental reasons while the men expressed little concern about CO2 reduction but were keenly interested in reducing their costs.  Consumer psychologists have explained this ‘gender effect’ with reference to data that link certain personality traits  – ‘agreeableness’, altruism, ethics-based decision making – to pro-environmental behaviour and, in turn, to feminized gender identity (Luchs and Moordian 2012).

In the light of such findings it is odd that the majority of energy consumption research in the global north is gender blind.  Perhaps it is due to an assumption that we are ‘post-gender’, that patterns of daily life in affluent societies are less shaped by gender roles than in the past. There is no shortage of research on gender and (lack of) energy in developing countries of the global south where inequalities and injustices are more obvious.  But, given that gender differences are evident to corporations like M&S, which play on feminized traits and stereotypes to sell products, it is hard to sustain a post-gender stance.

Until recently, energy policy research was dominated by a focus on reducing energy demand by changing the behaviour of individuals by, for example, education and incentives.  Criticism of this top-down, behavioural approach has led to a shift away from focusing on individual actors to communities and social practices.  The aims are now to place energy demand in the context of communities and peer networks and to understand domestic energy use as part of daily practices such as feeding, washing, cleaning.  While these shifts have succeeded in complicating assumptions and reframing research, scope for analysing gender arguably has diminished: the analytical lens has either been ‘zoomed out’ to the meso-level of communities or ‘zoomed in’ to the micro-level of practices.  There is more work to do to redress the persistent invisibility of gender in energy research if the ultimate goal is to generate more inclusive understanding and better policies.

From a gender perspective it is impossible to examine energy consumption practices without considering the gendered relations and embodied subjects that perform them.  Admittedly, gender is complex to analyse because it is multi-dimensional.  It has at least three dimensions: individual identity (i.e. traits and values), structural relations (i.e., of power) and cultural norms and symbolic representations.  But a systemic gender analysis of any social phenomenon needs to consider these three dimensions, as well as how gender intersects with other social categories such as ethnicity, class, age and dis/ability.  It is significant that M&S’s target customer is female.  But Gladys is not just a woman, she is also an older person, probably living on a fixed pension; her body is likely to suffer in the cold and she quite possibly lives alone.  Cultural norms of femininity mark her out as easy prey for sellers. Internalized feminine traits make her proud to be a prudent shopper.  Economic inequality may mean she lives in energy poverty. Unequal power relations may stop her from playing an active role in political change.  All of these aspects of gender are ripe for analysis.

Gender norms and relations should be a core concern for energy researchers and policy-makers because they mediate access to resources, adoption of values and practices, capacity to make choices, and opportunities for participation in all aspects of society (from markets to politics).  Understanding how gender norms and identities influence both energy consumption decisions and willingness to adopt pro-environmental practices is important for many reasons. It is time to consider how the gender of the consumer shapes their choices and practices.  We could start by asking the Gladyses (and the Gordons) about how they use, save and think about energy in their everyday lives.


Further Reading
Carlsson-Kanyama, A. and Linden, A. (2007) ‘Energy efficiency in residences—Challenges for women and men in the North’ Energy Policy 35:2163–2172.
Clancy J. and Roehr, U. (2003) ‘Gender and energy: is there a Northern perspective?’ Energy for Sustainable Development 7 (3), 16-22.
Lee, E., Nam-Kuy Park and Ju Hyoung Han (2013) ‘Gender difference in environmental attitude and behaviors in adoption of energy-efficient lighting at home’ Journal of Sustainable Development 6 (9):36-50.
Luchs, M. G. and Moordian, T.A. (2012). ‘Sex, personality, and sustainable consumer behaviour: elucidating the gender effect’. Journal of Consumer Policy 35: 127-144.


Sherilyn MacGregor is Reader in Environmental Politics in the Sustainable Consumption Institute. [http://www.sci.manchester.ac.uk/people/dr-sherilyn-macgregor ]. She is a member of Energy, Climate and Gender working group of GenderSTE (a COST-funded European policy network). Her recent research on energy consumption, Reducing Energy Consumption through Community Knowledge Networks was funded by an ESRC-EPSRC Energy and Communities grant (2011-2013). See also Energia: International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy.