Giving hurricanes female names can cost lives, according to a new study.
Researchers from The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University found that because of “implicit bias,” people in the paths of female-named hurricanes are less likely to take cover than those in the path of male-named storms.
The study looked at statistics from the 47 most violent U.S. hurricanes between 1950 and 2012, not counting Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Audrey — two extremely severe storms.
The researchers found that storms with a relatively masculine name would have an expected death toll of around 15. Storms with relatively feminine names would be estimated to cost 42 lives.
“Our model suggests that changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll,” the authors wrote in the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The cause? Sexism.
“Research shows that women and men are socialized to have different social roles and self-schemas, in turn generating descriptive and prescriptive expectancies about women and men,” the study explains.
“Men are often expected to be strong, competent and aggressive whereas women are often expected to be weak, warm and passive.”
The researchers also asked college students to rate how likely they would be to take precaution in male-named and female-named storms. The respondents rated hypothetical female-named storms as less intense and dangerous than male-named storms.
“These results suggest that individuals assess their vulnerabilities to hurricanes and take actions based not only on objective indicators of hurricane severity but also on the “gender” of hurricanes,” the authors wrote.
“This may be because individuals systematically underestimate their vulnerability to hurricanes with more feminine names, avoiding or delaying protective measures.”
While naming hurricanes has served a historical purpose, the authors claim that deeply ingrained social bias may cost lives.
“Although using human names for hurricanes has been thought by meteorologists to enhance the clarity and recall of storm information, this practice also taps into well-developed and widely held gender stereotypes, with unanticipated and potentially deadly consequences.”
The researchers offer several suggestions.
Policymakers should consider “a new system for hurricane naming in order to reduce the influence of biases on hurricane risk assessments and to motivate optimal preparedness,” the researchers write.
They also have suggestions for the media.
“The pervasive media practice of giving gendered descriptions of hurricanes should prompt a reconsideration of the use of ‘he’ or ‘she’ when communicating about hurricanes.”
From the early 1950s until 1979, hurricanes were given only female names. As the authors note, naming conventions changed to include masculine names because it was perceived as sexist to give storms only female names.
The study did not consider whether or not increased emergency preparedness and stronger building structures have helped lower death tolls for storms named after both males and females since that time.
Not all scientists are buying the findings.