Should Animal Welfare Remain A Woman’s World?

Look through the list of people who form the backbone of animal welfare groups, especially that of rescue, and you’ll likely discover the majority are women. Is there anything wrong with this imbalance? And if so, what’s the solution?

Are Women Really the Majority?

This past year I noticed that most my articles on animal welfare were about women. I wondered about why this was Seeking answers, I asked local animal welfare group volunteers whether they thought men or women formed the majority in the field. Everyone said women. I broadened my coverage to national groups and asked members of Best Friends Animal Society Network Partners and members of Blog Paws the same question. Those who responded also unequivocally said women.

That’s when I began to dig into statistics. According to the Data USA, in 2016, 74% of non-farm animal caretakers (or those who “feed, water, groom, bathe, exercise or otherwise care for non-farm animals in an animal welfare setting such as kennel, shelter, zoo) were women. In addition, a paper written by Emily Gaarder and published by the John Hopkins University states, “A striking characteristic of the animal rights movement is that women constitute the majority of its activists.” There’s also a case study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health that reveals, “Across countries female students had greater concern for animal welfare and rights than males, but especially so in more gender empowered countries.”

Why are Women the Majority?

During my interviews, a few opinions cropped up repeatedly for why women form the majority in the animal welfare world. Most boiled down to a belief traditional gender roles.

  • Women are more strongly drawn to the field because it fulfills their need to be caretakers and nurturers; whereas men, as hunters and gatherers, are not as strongly drawn to the field
  • Women more often stay at home and so have more time to volunteer; men more often are the bread-winners and so have less time to volunteer.
  • Women view pets as living creatures; men view pets as objects to be used.
  • Girls are taught to be kind and compassionate; boys are pressured to succeed whether at school or on the job
  • Girls are shown the merits of making a difference and being volunteers; boys are encouraged to seek accolades
  • Girls learn to care about health and behavior; boys learn to be manly

Professional literature echoes these opinions. In her paper published by John Hopkins University, Emily Gaarder discussed predominant theories behind women forming the majority in the animal welfare world. She began with the theory of “gendered economic structures,” which proposes that women have more free time to devote to social causes and volunteering. Gaarder did note criticisms of the theory, number one being that women actually have less free time than men because they bear dual burdens as both family providers and caregivers. She also suggested that “the socialization aspects of gendered economic structures are the more enduring parts of this theory. Women are still more likely to be the primary caretakers of animals within households, which might increase their bond with animals; they are also the likely candidates to bring their animals to veterinary clinics, where donation cans or literature about animal welfare groups may be displayed.”

Gaarder also referred to a social learning explanation “which suggests that gender-role socialization influences emotional response.” For example, women’s high level of involvement in animal issues “reflects the persistence of traditional gender expectations: women are supposed to be sensitive to the feelings of others; and they are asked to be gentle rather than aggressive.” In contrast, “men may be less willing to pursue animal activism for fear of being associated with a movement stereotyped as being overly emotional. Masculinity is associated with strength and emotional distance, and showing compassion for animals can be viewed as a sign of weakness.”

Statistics also show the grip that traditional roles have on society. Consider a 2018 study by Pew Social Trends on the topic of how Americans describe what they value (and don’t) in each gender. Men were valued for being powerful, strong, ambitious, and protective. They were held in esteem for being leaders and providers. In contrast, women were valued for being responsible, kind, compassionate, caring, and beautiful. Conversely, describing women and men using any term associated with the other gender was viewed as negative.

In an article published by the ASPCA, Claire Sterling offers a different perspective. She raised the question of whether the dominance of women in animal welfare could point to a continuing disparity in economic opportunities between genders. According to Sterling, “animal welfare as a whole is woefully underfunded relative to other programmatic areas such as education, health, human services and the arts.” To support her case, Sterling shares a statistic from Giving USA, which reveals that 2014 charitable contributions to nonprofits working in animal welfare received the smallest share of total giving across all program areas—only 3%. “It stands to reason,” said Sterling, “that the people working in this under-resourced field are likely to receive relatively lower pay on average than their counterparts in more generously funded fields. Given that women’s income across professions still lags behind men’s, could animal welfare be an area in which this issue is especially pronounced?

Some of my interviewees offered a couple final reasons for why women form the majority in the animal welfare world. One local male volunteer noted, “There is a decent percentage of men who volunteer with their wives, but I see a very small percentage of people like me who are just single guys volunteering for the dogs.” Another reason is that men prefer to solve problems, but animal rescue puts them in a no-win situation. Billy Penick explained, “there is always going to be one more animal to save, one more abuse case, one more rescuer who became a hoarder, one more irresponsible breeder, one more feral that can only be adopted after years of work. Men want to fix it and move on.”

Does the Majority Matter?

If women form the majority, should there be more men in animal welfare? Among those I interviewed, some voiced the opinion that our society has evolved to the point that there should no longer be any such thing as women’s work or men’s work. Others pointed out that a more equal mix of genders could bring a greater variety of skills and mindsets to any organization. If nothing else, some felt that involving more men would mean there were more people available to support the cause. Finally, Matt Yank brought up a point that I found described in professional literature: men in animal welfare would serve as good role models for boys who would benefit from seeing that it’s acceptable for boys to embrace humility, respect, compassion, and empathy.

In Harold Herzog’s paper on the gender differences in human-animal interactions, Herzog concluded that while there were some areas where the genders were fairly equal such as the proportions that live with companion animals, grieve at the loss of a pet, and visit zoos, there were other areas where men did not fare well. For example, far more men than women support animal research, hunt animals for recreation, and engage in animal cruelty. Therefore, society would benefit from men viewing animals less as objects, and more as living creatures deserving of humane treatment.

A recent article in the Vancouver Sun refers to Herzog’s research and to several other examples where men vastly outnumber women across most types of abuse including that of animals. Consider the examination of 268 prosecutions for physical animal cruelty by the Massachusetts SPCA between 1975 and 1996. Two hundred and fifty-nine of those cases involved men; only nine involved women. Then there is a 2000 survey of women’s shelters conducted by the Ontario SPCA. Sixty-one percent of women who responded reported that their pets were harmed and/or killed by an abusive partner, and 48% confirmed that they had delayed leaving an abusive situation for fear of leaving pets behind. Finally, a 2004 analysis of press reports that men outnumber women as perpetrators of animal abuse somewhere between eight to one and twenty to one, with only cases of animal hoarding and neglect/abandonment being more characteristic of women. The Vancouver Sun article concludes, “While there is no clear evidence for a link between men’s casual disinterest in animal welfare issues and cases of male violence toward animals or people the consistent gender difference in attitudes toward animals is an unpleasant fact that needs to be considered.”

How Do We Change the Dynamics?

How can the animal welfare world attract more men? The most ideal way would be a shift in societal attitude. Parents, teachers, and any adult in a mentorship role should teach boys that being kind and compassionate shouldn’t be restricted to women; they’re part of what makes everyone a better human. Animal welfare groups also play a role by not neglecting the role of humane educators. Of course, changing societal attitudes can take years and even decades. An immediate way to attract more men to animal welfare would be for animal welfare groups to look closer at what men’s interests are. Billy Penick suggested appealing to men by offering opportunities to “fix things”. For example, seeking volunteers to help with photography, web design, data management, and anything technical. This said, he stressed that, “If you have a positive atmosphere and make sure people know what they are supposed to do and enforce it on everyone then the team runs well no matter who is in charge.”

Other Issues

My research into the gender demographics of animal welfare educated me but also raised more questions. For example, I’d like to hear from more men about what would attract them to animal welfare. In addition, interviewees wanted to know how many minorities (Data USA says only 15% of minorities are non-farm caretakers) and/or people with special needs are involved, and how do we increase those numbers? If you’d like to sound off on these issues, please post your comment below.

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