Women and children first? Not on your life

Abstract of a paper “Gender, social norms, and survival in maritime disasters” by Mikael Elindera and Oscar Erixsona [h/t Tyler Cowen]

Since the sinking of the Titanic, there has been a widespread belief that the social norm of “women and children first” (WCF) gives women a survival advantage over men in maritime disasters, and that captains and crew members give priority to passengers. We analyze a database of 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries, covering the fate of over 15,000 individuals of more than 30 nationalities. Our results provide a unique picture of maritime disasters.

Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared with men.

Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers.

We also find that:

  • the captain has the power to enforce normative behavior;
  • there seems to be no association between duration of a disaster and the impact of social norms;
  • women fare no better when they constitute a small share of the ship’s complement;
  • the length of the voyage before the disaster appears to have no impact on women’s relative survival rate;
  • the sex gap in survival rates has declined since World War I;
  • and women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks.

Taken together, our findings show that human behavior in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression “every man for himself.”

Man up, chaps.

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