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The Name Game: Gender Bias and Perceived Hurricane Threat

Christian Pass, Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  (Andrea Booher / FEMA)

Christian Pass, Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Andrea Booher / FEMA)

In early June, researchers from University of Illinois announced that their survey of public response to hurricanes showed a clear gender bias. People perceived male-named storms to be more threatening. What’s more, they said that, inexplicably, female-named storms had in fact been more deadly. Their claims gained traction quickly in the media, but closer inspection suggested the bandwagon may have led the parade astray.

After the initial attention, their study met with a volley of criticism regarding the veracity of their analysis. In their survey of hurricanes between 1950 and 2012, the team found more feminine names were linked to more death and destruction. However, all hurricanes were given female names until 1979. Their analysis may be fatally skewed by the fact that hurricanes have been causing fewer deaths and less damage in general over the years since male names were introduced. [Incidentally, the World Meteorological Organization method for naming tropical storms in the North Atlantic and Northeastern Pacific is to alternate male and female names in alphabetical order beginning at the start of each year. The gender of the first name, beginning with “A” also alternates each year. ]

As to the societal gender bias, experts were also quick to note that the study’s methods fell far short of replicating the true decision-making process. Volunteers were given a list of hurricanes with male or female names and asked to judge the risk of, and predict their response to, each hurricane based on a written scenario. In reality, a person’s response to a given hurricane is influenced by a multitude of factors from culture and prior experience to demographics and landfall time of day. “In a real hurricane situation, people are receiving many different pieces of information over a period of hours or days,” said NCAR scientist Rebecca Morss. “It can be a very high-pressure situation, where you’re dealing with family interactions, monetary issues, and other constraints.”

While critical of the study’s bold claims, Morss and other experts agree that it’s important to maintain an open dialogue about the factors that influence people’s response to hurricane threats. “This is a very important area for further work,” she said.

Spokesman for NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, Dennis Feltgen, wouldn’t comment on the details of the study or the flack it received, “Whether the name is Sam or Samantha,” he said in a telephone interview, “the deadly impacts of the hurricane–wind, storm surge and inland flooding–must be taken seriously by everyone in the path of the storm in order to protect lives. This includes heeding evacuation orders.”

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