Hurricanes with female names seen as less risky, says study

BY Sarah Sheffer  June 2, 2014 at 6:17 PM EDT
Hurricane Danielle photographed by an Expedition 24 crew member on the International Space Station. Photo by NASA

Hurricane Danielle photographed by an Expedition 24 crew member on the International Space Station. Photo by NASA

You may have a sweet old Aunt Bonnie, but a hurricane by the same name won’t be as kind.

A new study from a team of researchers at the University of Illinois says Americans elicit gender-based expectations about hurricane severity, and perceive hurricanes with female names as less threatening than those with male names that may sound more foreboding.

The research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday looked at death tolls from 94 hurricanes in the United States over the last six decades. The numbers showed that storms with feminine names had significantly higher death tolls than those with masculine names. Perceiving the female-named storms as less threatening, those in the path of an oncoming “feminine” hurricane took fewer precautions and were more vulnerable to Mother Nature. The more feminine the storm’s name, the more people it killed, say the researchers.

The naming of storms by the World Meteorological Organization each year is a strict practice intended to give scientists, the media and the public a distinctive, catchy way of identifying storms and disseminating information. Hurricanes are named by an alternating male-female system adopted in the late 1970s. The list of names is pre-determined before hurricane season each year, and storm systems are assigned names as they come through. The perceived gender-bias is an unintended consequence of the system, researchers say.

“The problem is that a hurricane’s name has nothing to do with its severity,” explained Kiju Jung, the lead author on the study. “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.”

In a series of follow up experiments, the researchers asked participants how they would respond to a hypothetical storm Alexandra, Christina or Victoria, versus the male Alexander, Christopher or Victor. The storms with female names were reportedly perceived as less risky. The gendered risk-perception was observed in both men and women, according to the study.

“People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” said co-author Sharon 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.”

Hurricanes kill more than 200 people in the U.S. each year.