Note: This article acknowledges its reliance on binary gender classification in order to address a pattern. We hope this post can raise awareness of this issue and help foster more nuanced analyses in the future.
While doing some recent analysis for BrightSide Produce, we came across an interesting pattern. BrightSide Produce is a non-profit business model that aims to end food insecurity in low-income communities. The model works by delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to urban corner stores, allowing store owners to pick and choose their inventory. The model is financially sustainable because leftover produce from store deliveries is sold to a Buyers’ Club composed mainly of university students, faculty, and staff who want to eat healthfully and be involved in their community. We analyzed membership data from the Buyers’ Club to determine how many and what sorts of people have been involved and how much produce they have been buying each week. According to the data analysis, since 2015, 80% of the students and faculty involved in the Buyers’ Club have been women, while only 20% have been men. It’s great that the amazing participation by women has been the backbone of BrightSide’s success. However, it made us wonder–where are all the men?
This noticeable gap in gender engagement reflects broader trends across college communities. According to the 2012 National Survey of Student Engagement, students spend their time outside of class in vastly different ways. For instance, women tend to spend more of their free time preparing for class each week, building personal relationships with professors, and participating in service projects while men spend more of their free time socializing and getting involved in recreational and intramural sports (Sander 2012). Women in college are also more likely than men to seek out activities that strengthen social relationships, such as volunteering (Kinzie 2007). On average, men are more likely than women to say that work commitments prevent them from getting involved in social projects (Tilby-Price 2017).
Why does this gender gap exist? One commonly acknowledged barrier in getting men to engage in social projects is a lack of male role models (Johal 2012). This lack of visibility can negatively impact the engagement of men within volunteer opportunities. In addition, the traditional masculine gender stereotypes of power and invulnerability can make men less likely to get involved in social projects. Some men perceive volunteering to be an act reserved for those in “care” roles, which are commonly women-dominated. This is definitely not an excuse or a justification, but understanding the underlying reason for the gender gap may help us come up with ways to reduce it.
It is noteworthy that the gender gap in social engagement is opposite of the well-documented gender gap in important economic measures. Men in the United States make on average 21% more than what their female counterparts make, and college majors with the highest median earnings tend to have higher percentages of male students. It could be that by investing less in community work than women do, men are able to spend more time on activities that make more money. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our system could be restructured so that doing community work allows people to earn more money than more individualistic work.
The fact that men have more economic advantages than women does not mean that we should not be striving to make men more socially engaged. If the number of men invested in community engagement could be increased, an unprecedented amount of good could be achieved. However, the gender gap in social engagement is rarely emphasized and approaches for narrowing this gap still need to be developed.
So, what can we do to get more men involved in community work? First, we need more male role models in service positions to encourage greater male enrollment. College-aged men specifically are more susceptible to peer influence and would benefit from other young men in community leadership positions to make lasting connections (Tilby-Price 2017). Though there has been some research in getting men more involved in service projects, it is important to note that it is not an exact science. If we begin by engaging folks in a dialogue on the noticeably gendered participation in community engagement, more ideas and new suggestions can arise with the power to make a lasting difference.
Johal et al. (2012) Invisible Men: Engaging More Men in Social Projects. The Young Foundation.
Kinzie et al. (2007) The Relationship between Gender and Student Engagement in College. University of Indiana.
Sander, Libby. (2012) Colleges Confront a Gender Gap in Student Engagement. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sheth, Sonam (2017) 5 charts that illustrate the current US gender gap. World Economic Forum.
Tilby-Price, Kerri. (2017) Men in Social Service Volunteering: Where Have All the Good Men Gone? Exult: Helping Nonprofits Grow.