Social psychology finds that social norms will determine helping behaviors, but social norms certainly vary across genders in Western society. Dangerous situations or those involving strangers are more likely to elicit help from men than women, for instance (Eagly and Crowley 1986). This is not only a result of men and women’s different socialization experiences, but also due to the reality that women are disproportionately victimized by violence, which necessitates that they be wary in many situations.
In less dangerous situations, however, women are slightly more likely to help and to act selflessly (Becker and Eagly 2004). Women tend to respond with greater empathy and to devote more time to helping (George et al. 1998). These tendencies relate to longheld social expectations that women be care-takers and highly relational.
Gendered helping is clearly evident in activism for other animals. Activism that is seen as dangerous, risky, and heroic–namely illegal direct action–is disproportionately undertaken by men. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF), for instance, is dominated by men and engages in activity that risks severe legal sanctions (Hall 2006). The necessary and practical groundwork of Nonhuman Animal advocacy, however, that which requires prolonged helping, is largely undertaken by women.
As much as 80% of the animal rights movement today is female (Gaarder 2011), and this feminization is rooted in a conscious effort by earlier activists to embed gender into social norms about helping. Traditionally confined to the domestic sphere, Victorian women were actually able to exploit the “natural nurturer” stereotypes attached to them as justification for their involvement in animal rights advocacy. This concession was necessary in a time when social activism was deemed unladylike.
Unfortunately, prevailing gender inequality has ensured that masculine helping tends to garner more prestige than feminine helping. ALF enjoys a certain celebrity in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, and if not outright condoned, their actions are at least tolerated. Meanwhile, the everyday drudgery work undertaken by the female majority goes largely unappreciated despite women’s more enduring contributions. Masculine gender norms, while favorable to an activist’s status in a patriarchal world, can be particularly detrimental to men as well. Not only does engaging in illegal activity leave men susceptible to enormous restitution fees or prison sentences, but the violence celebrated within the militant movement is also toxic for men’s mental and physical well-being.
For the Vegan Toolkit
- Acknowledge that women’s ability to help can be inhibited by sexism and misogyny
- Celebrate and acknowledge women’s contributions
- Challenge hypermasculine tactics
Becker, S. and A. Eagly. 2004. “The Heroism of Women and Men.” American Psychologist 59: 163-178.
Eagly, A. and M. Crowley. 1986. “Gender and Helping Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Social Psychological Literature.” Psychological Bulletin 100: 283-308.
Gaarder, E. 2011. Women and the Animal Rights Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
George, D., P. Carroll, R. Kersnick, K. Calderon. 1998. “Gender-Related Patterns of Helping Among Friends.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 22: 685-704.
Hall, L. 2006. Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror. Nectar Bat Press.
Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.
This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.