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June 3, 2014

Hurricanes With Female Names Result In More Fatalities

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

When it comes to hurricanes, there are serious gender equality issues, according to new research which reveals that storms given feminine names tend to cause significantly more deaths than those with masculine ones.

The reason, researchers from the University of Illinois explain in a statement, is that storms with feminine names are perceived to be less threatening than those given masculine ones. Since the female name is deemed less intimidating, people in the paths of those storms make fewer preparations and are thus more vulnerable to harm.

The study authors, who analyzed over 60 years’ worth of fatality rates associated with hurricanes that made landfall in the US as part of their investigation, said the findings bring to light an unknown, unfortunate and unintended consequence of giving gender-specific names to these powerful storms.

“The problem is that a hurricane's name has nothing to do with its severity,” explained doctoral student Kiju Jung, lead author of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Names are assigned arbitrarily, based on a predetermined list of alternating male and female names. If people in the path of a severe storm are judging the risk based on the storm's name, then this is potentially very dangerous.”

[ Watch the Video: What is a Hurricane? ]

Jung and his colleagues excluded Hurricane Audrey (1957) and Hurricane Katrina (2005), since those storms were far deadlier than most storms, and found a correlation between the number of people the hurricane killed and the degree of femininity of the storm’s name.

Based on their analysis, the researchers determine that changing a severe hurricane’s name from a masculine one to a more feminine one could nearly triple the amount of fatalities resulting from the storm. They believe this discovery could have important implications for meteorologists, policymakers, the media and the general public in terms of hurricane preparedness and communication during severe storms.

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

During a series of follow-up experiments, Jung’s team looked at how the gender of the storm names directly impacted people’s judgments about them. They discovered that those who were asked to imagine being in the path of storms named something like Alexandra, Christina or Victoria tended to rate the theoretical hurricane as less intense and dangerous than those asked to picture being in the path of hurricanes named Alexander, Christopher or Victor.

“People imagining a 'female' hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” said Shavitt. “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.”

“Such gender biases are pervasive and implicit,” added co-author and University of Illinois marketing professor Madhu Viswanathan. “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.”

Prior to the late 1970s, hurricanes in the US were given only female names – a practice that meteorologists at the time deemed appropriate due to the unpredictable nature of the storms, according to the study authors. The alternating male-female system was later adopted as a result of increased anti-sexism awareness. In 2014, the storm names will alternate between masculine and feminine names starting with Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal and Dolly.

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