Karen observed recently that despite our passion for our cause, most of the people in the population activist line of work are men. She noted that most of the people who follow her website or have reached out to praise her efforts are men. She wondered why an issue about which we cared so deeply had relatively few female activists. To see whether Karen’s seemingly accurate observation fit the data as far as PIC supporters was concerned, Madeline checked the sex ratio of PIC members (i.e., people who have paid membership fees) and PIC followers (people who have opted on our website to get our mailings for free – of course we hope this entices them to become members eventually).
It turns out that among PIC membership, the ratio of men to women was 2.5 to 1. Among the followers, it was 1.6 to 1. So, it seems that when it comes to having some interest in the subject, men outnumber women by 60%. And when it comes to backing up that interest with financial support, they outnumber women by 150%. We recognize that this little survey is not necessarily representative of overpopulation activists in general. However, it does align with our observations regarding fellow activists in other population organizations and also with the relative numbers of male and female PIC directors over the decades (founded 1992 by retired engineer Whitman Wright). So, notwithstanding the authors of this article and many other committed female activists we could name (including PIC member Val Allen, who last year published 8 Billion Reasons Population Matters and US population activist Linda Huhn who works on immigration issues), organizations whose primary focus is population don’t seem to be a big draw for women.
And it does seem to be specifically the issue of population itself that women don’t favour, not for example reproductive health and rights. For a few years in the early 2000s, Madeline sat on the board of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, and the board was mostly, sometimes entirely, female. Female preponderance on the boards of reproductive health organizations still seems to be the case when one checks online. So why does the critical issue of overpopulation not attract more women?
Population control and reproductive rights
The efforts and concerns of population activists substantially align with those of reproductive rights activists. PIC’s website promotes improving the status of women and girls where inequality exists, the education of girls and employment opportunities for women, and universal access to family planning and reproductive health services. It’s possible that women are more likely to support organizations that do the hands-on work of providing services and products rather than the more abstract educational and advocacy work about human numbers that PIC does. But it could also be that more women than men have accepted the negative narratives around population control and reject the very concept of deliberately striving to reduce the size of the human population.
Toxic ideas that hurt our cause
There has been a substantial amount of negative messaging about being concerned about overpopulation. It has been equated with supporting China’s brutal one-child policy (while ignoring successful, non-coercive programs that were implemented in many countries). Concerns about overpopulation have been associated with colonialism and racism and described as blaming poor brown and black women for the overconsumption of the rich. Then there is the concept that if you say the world is overpopulated, you want to eliminate some of the people on it. The term “neo-Malthusian” is applied in a derogatory way – as if Malthus hadn’t been right that every time the food supply increases, the human population does too, and “eats up” the gains of an expanded food supply with the consequence that poverty and hunger persist.