When Sexism Kills: Deadly Hurricane Edition

When Sexism Kills: Deadly Hurricane Edition June 2, 2014

So it seems that hurricanes with female names kill more people than hurricanes with more male names, and that even within female names those that are more feminine tend to be the deadliest. Or so found an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But don’t take my word for it! Read on!

People are more afraid of a Hurricane Victor than a Hurricane Victoria, says a study out today from researchers at the University of Illinois.

“People may be dying as a result of the femininity of a hurricane (name),” says Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at Illinois and a co-author of the study, which appears in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers examined more than 60 years of death tolls from the 94 hurricanes that hit the USA from 1950 to 2012 and found that hurricanes with a feminine name killed more people than those with male names. The scientists put the masculinity and femininity of some storm names on a rating scale.

The paper claimed that a masculine-named storm would kill about 15 people, but a hurricane of the same strength with a female name would kill about 42.

One reason for the discrepancy, according to the authors: A storm with a feminine name is seen as less threatening than one with a more masculine name.

“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” Shavitt says. “This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent.”

. . .

In follow-up experiments, the researchers analyzed how the gender of names affected people’s judgments about storms. They found that people (such as undergraduate students at Illinois) who were asked to imagine being in the path of “Hurricane Alexandra” (or “Christina” or “Victoria”) rated the storm as less risky and intense compared with those asked to imagine being in the path of “Hurricane Alexander” (or “Christopher” or “Victor”).

“People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” Shavitt says.

Do read the whole article, as it gets to details, criticism and responses to criticism.

Personally, I’m finding this utterly fascinating. It speaks to the way the sexist lens affects how we act in our day-to-day lives, in ways we don’t even realize. Do you think anyone actually follows a line of thought like this consciously? “This hurricane has a female name, that doesn’t sound all that dangerous, I won’t evacuate this time.” I should say not! But sexism (like racism) doesn’t have to be conscious for it to affect your choices.

Mind blowing, isn’t it?

Note: The study has received some criticism in the comments section here. Feel free to criticize and discuss away!

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