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Scientists discover new source of hurricane danger: Sexism

A new study finds people are more likely to fear a hurricane named Victor than one named Victoria
A lingering subconscious cultural sexism may be influencing our response to hurricanes, a study finds

Sexism may be getting in the way of hurricane safety.

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University looked at 63 years of hurricane fatality data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and found that powerful hurricanes with feminine names were more deadly than hurricanes of the same strength with masculine names.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said the researchers looked at 90 years of hurricane fatality data. It was 63 years.

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The reason, they say, is tied up with a lingering and subconscious sexism that continues to permeate our society.

"The femininity of the name influences the degree to which people feel the storm is dangerous, and that affects how they respond to it," said Sharon Shavitt, a behavioral scientist at the university and a coauthor of the paper. "We had a hunch that there would be some gender biases, but we were quite stunned by the degree of this effect."

Their model suggests that simply changing the name of a powerful, hypothetical hurricane from “Charlie” to “Eloise” would cause the death toll to triple, the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(And that was without factoring in the 1,833 deaths caused by 2005's Hurricane Katrina or the 416 deaths caused by 1957's Hurricane Audrey. The researchers removed those hurricanes from the data set because they were outliers.)

"We were not comparing apples and oranges," Shavitt said. "What we are saying is that over and above the qualities of the storm itself, a severe hurricane with a feminine name kills more people than a storm with a masculine name. That is what the archival data shows."

If this all sounds crazy to you, you are not alone. 

A big sticking point for critics is that all hurricanes were given female names from 1953 through 1978 because they were considered to be "unpredictable," a trait that at the time was considered to be female.

It wasn't until 1979 that hurricane names started to alternate between female names and male names. Considering there are so many more hurricanes with girl names than boy names, wouldn't this skew the data set?

The researchers say it doesn't. Their study looks not just at whether a hurricane has a female name or a male name, but at how feminine or masculine the name is. For example, the name Bertha sounds less feminine than Laura.

In a response to critics, the authors explain that using only hurricanes since 1979 was too small a sample to obtain a significant result.  However, when they modeled the fatalities of all hurricanes since 1950 using the degree of femininity of their names, the interaction between name-femininity and damage was statistically significant after they controlled for storm characteristics like minimum pressure, which influences a hurricane's severity, as well as the amount of damage a hurricane leaves.

Another point that has been raised by some critics is that more people died on average in hurricanes before they were given male names. The researchers say that is simply not accurate, according to their data set. 

It may be hard to believe that anyone would judge a hurricane by its name alone, but Shavitt said that people constantly apply gender biases without realizing it. For example, previous studies have shown that a résumé with a man's name on top is perceived differently than the same résumé with a woman's name on top.

"It now appears that gender biases apply not only to people, but also to things," she said.

After analyzing the NOAA data, the researchers ran six follow-up experiments to test their hypothesis that hurricanes with male and female names are perceived differently.

In one experiment, volunteers were given the names of 10 hurricanes and asked to predict their intensity based on nothing but the name. "Omar" was predicted to be the most intense. "Dolly" was expected to be the least intense.

In another experiment, volunteers were given a weather map and a written scenario describing a storm that was known either as Hurricane Danny or Hurricane Kate. The scenario also included a voluntary evacuation order. Participants who read about Hurricane Danny were more likely to say they would evacuate their homes than those who had read about Hurricane Kate, even though the information was exactly the same.

The researchers also found that women were just as likely as men to think hurricanes with male names were more daunting than those with female names.

The study, which was led by Kiju Jung, a doctoral student in marketing at the University of Illinois college of business, may have implications for hurricane communications specialists.

"This is just some more data for them to consider," Shavitt said. "We want to make them aware that in addition to all the good relevant information they provide, people are also drawing information from something totally irrelevant - the gender of the name."

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

June 6, 9:22 p.m.: This post has been corrected

June 3, 10:48 a.m.: This post has been updated with the researchers' response to critics of the study.

The first version of this post was published June 2 at 5:23 p.m.

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