A controversial new study, published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has suggested that thanks to gender bias, hurricanes with female names are more deadly than hurricanes with male names. Through statistical modeling, the University of Illinois researchers concluded that hurricanes with female names cause around three times more deaths than those with male names.
Rather than this finding being related to the severity of the storms, the team hypothesized that hurricanes with female names may be perceived as less dangerous than those with male names. According to the study, this means that people are less likely to take protective measures such as evacuation during storms with female names and are therefore more vulnerable.
Historically, hurricanes were only given female names by meteorologists to reflect certain “feminine” characteristics such as unpredictability. However, with an evolving society came an awareness of sexism and this practice changed in the 1970s, resulting in male names being added to the system. Now, there are six repeating lists which go through the alphabet and alternate between male and female names.
In order to investigate the possible role of gender bias in the perceived risk of hurricanes, the researchers analyzed decades of death rates from U.S. hurricanes and then followed this up by examining the perception of male-named or female-named hurricanes on study participants. They conclude that through associations with a given sex, natural disasters may be judged with the corresponding social roles and expectations of that particular sex. Hurricanes with male names are therefore perceived as riskier and more intense than hurricanes with female names because of perceived intensity and strength.
“Such gender biases are pervasive and implicit,” said co-author of the study Madhu Viswanathan in a press-release. “We found that people were affected by the gender of hurricane names regardless of whether they explicitly endorsed the idea that women and men have different traits. This appears to be a widespread phenomenon.”
The team used National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data to find information on the names and death rates of hurricanes in the U.S. between 1950 and 2012. They then ranked the names on a scale of very masculine to very feminine and used statistical analyses to look for trends. They found that storms with more feminine names resulted in more deaths; however, they also found that this effect of gender on death rate was only apparent in severe storms and had no effect on storms with lower death rates.
But not everyone is convinced by their analysis and arguments. Disaster expert and anthropologist Hugh Gladwin told Live Science that the results were dubious and misleading and that the study failed to produce simple correlations between death rates and hurricane names. “The male-female name predictor is not significant by itself, and only becomes so after a lot of statistical massaging,” he added.
Furthermore, it transpires that since 1979 the World Meteorological Organization have removed more male names than female names from the list used to name storms (29 vs 24, respectively). This is because these storms were so disastrous that it was decided the names should not be re-used.
Study participants were also presented with a hurricane scenario and asked to predict the intensity of the hurricanes, which had either male or female names. They found that participants presented with hurricanes with male names such as Cristobal and Marco predicted the storms to be more intense than those presented with female names such as Dolly and Hanna. This was even true for the hurricanes with similar names, for example Alexandra and Alexander, or Victor and Victoria.
“People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” said co-author Sharon Shavitt in a news-release. “The stereotypes that underlie these judgments are subtle and not necessarily hostile toward women- they may involve viewing women as warmer and less aggressive than men.”
Once again, not everyone is convinced by the data. For starters, this is a very artificial situation; the participants are imagining a hurricane in a laboratory setting, rather than being faced with real life decisions which could have dramatic consequences. “When you’re talking about natural disasters, you can’t reproduce many of the psychological elements in a non-disaster setting. A controlled experiment is absolutely contrived,” said public health researcher and clinical psychology Josh Klapow. The applicability of these experiments has therefore been called into question.
The team does not conclude that the current system for naming should be changed based on these results, but they do suggest that policymakers and media practitioners should take into account the possible unintended consequences of the gendered naming of hurricanes when preparing for and communicating hurricanes.