Men and Women Respond Differently When Natural Disasters Strike, Researchers Say

Women are quicker to take cover or prepare to evacuate during an emergency, but often have trouble convincing the men in their life to do so, suggests a new University of Colorado Boulder study of how gender influences natural disaster response.

The research also found that traditional gender roles tend to resurface in the aftermath of disasters, with women relegated to the important but isolating role of homemaker while men focus on finances and lead community efforts.

Even agencies charged with providing assistance still, at times, ask to speak to the “man of the house,” the researchers found.

“We found that there are many barriers that disadvantage women in the event of a disaster, leaving them behind when it comes to decision-making and potentially slowing down their recovery,” said lead author Melissa Villarreal, a PhD student in the Department of Sociology and research assistant at the Natural Hazards Center.

The study — Women’s Experiences Across Disasters: A Study of Two Towns in Texas— was co-authored by Texas A&M University Assistant Professor Michelle Meyer and published in the journal Disaster. The researchers analyzed interviews with 33 women and 10 men across two Texas towns. Some were from Granbury, which in 2013 was hit by an EF-4 tornado that killed six and cut a mile-wide swath of destruction, damaging 600 homes. Others were from West, where an explosion at a fertilizer company that same year killed 15 and destroyed 100 homes.

Residents were asked about their experiences in the midst of and the year after the disaster. While the circumstances surrounding the events were very different, common gender-influenced patterns emerged, according to the researchers.

“We often assume that men and women are going to respond the same way to these kinds of external stimuli but we are finding that’s not really the case,” said Meyer, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M.

In one interview, a Granbury woman recounted hunkering down in the closet with her children, pleading with her husband who was looking out the window at the tornado to come in and join them. In another case, a woman resisted her husband’s plan to get in the car and drive away from the storm, preferring to shelter in place. She ultimately deferred, and they ended up stuck in the car, the children in the back seat, being jostled by the wind as the tornado whipped through.

“Women seemed to have a different risk perception and desire for protective action than the men in their lives, but men often determined when and what type of action families took,” Villareal wrote. “In some cases, this put women and their families in greater danger.”

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