There’s no shortage of academic research (and practical experience) to suggest that women and men perceive risk differently, and subsequently respond to risky situations with different behaviors. The results from the recent University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll reveal these gendered patterns of risk assessment in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the established gender gaps in risk assessment as well as the fact that, despite having jobs, women take on more of the at-home responsibilities like housework and childcare than men and are more likely to suffer career setbacks as a result of the coronavirus, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that attitudes about the pandemic and the response to it differ depending on one’s gender.
Although some general attitudes about the coronavirus align — majorities of both men and women do think that the pandemic is a crisis and are at least somewhat concerned about the coronavirus’ spread or someone they know contracting it — men and women differ in their assessments of the risks of COVID-19. According to June 2020 UT/TXPP polling, men, on average, believe that the coronavirus is less dangerous than women believe it is. These data reveal significant differences suggesting that men’s attitudes and behavior themselves pose a risk to the efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus:
- Men aren’t as concerned about the virus as women;
- Men aren’t making as many behavioral adjustments in response to the coronavirus as are women;
- Men assess the risk of engaging in a variety of behaviors and activities as lower risk than women in the midst of the pandemic;
- Men appear less likely than women to cooperate with public health officials if they do contract the coronavirus.
|A significant crisis||57%|
|A serious problem but not a crisis||29%|
|A minor problem||10%|
|Not a problem at all||4%|
|Don't know/No opinion||1%|
A majority of Texans believe that the coronavirus poses a serious threat, with 57% of registered voters responding that COVID-19 is “a significant crisis.” Among those who don’t believe the coronavirus is a crisis, most think that it is indeed a serious problem. Nearly a third of registered voters (29%) hold this attitude.
Men in Texas, on average, believe that the coronavirus poses a less serious threat than do women. Nearly one in five men (18%) say that the virus is only a “minor problem” or “not a problem”, 8 percentage points more than women (10%). Men are also 11 points less likely than women to say that the pandemic is a “crisis”. And while majorities of both men and women do report that COVID-19 is a significant crisis, only a bare majority of men, 51%, feel this way compared with 62% of women.
|A significant crisis||51%||62%|
|A serious problem but not a crisis||31%||27%|
|A minor problem||13%||7%|
|Not a problem at all||5%||3%|
|Don't know/No opinion||1%||2%|
Men are less concerned than women about the spread of the virus in their community, contracting the virus themselves, or someone they know getting infected with the virus. (This relationship between men and women holds across races). When asked how concerned they are about the spread of the coronavirus in their community, slightly fewer than half of Texans (47%) said that they are either “extremely” or “very concerned” about community spread and similar shares (48%) are either “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about themselves or someone they know becoming infected.
|Not very concerned||20%||14%|
|Not at all concerned||12%||6%|
|Don't know/No opinion||0%||2%|
Here, too, men and women differ in their degrees of alarm. About one in three men in Texas (32%) say that they are “not very concerned” or “not at all concerned” about the spread of coronavirus in their community, about someone they know contracting the virus, or about contracting the virus themselves. Only one in five women (20%) feel this way.
Majorities of both men and women do say that the risk posed by the pandemic is so great as to constitute a crisis and express at least some concern about the spread of the virus and themselves or someone they know potentially contracting COVID-19. But the most common attitude that men reported is “somewhat concerned” whereas the most common response among women is “extremely concerned.” In fact, men were 8% less likely than women to be “extremely concerned” about the spread of coronavirus in their community and 9% less likely than women to be “extremely concerned” about themselves or someone they know contracting the virus. A little more than two-fifths of men (43%) are either “very” or “extremely concerned” about someone they know getting infected with the coronavirus or getting infected themselves, while a majority of women (52%) report feeling this way.
|Not very concerned||19%||16%|
|Not at all concerned||13%||7%|
|Don't know/No opinion||1%||2%|
Given these patterns of concern and perceptions of the hazard posed by the coronavirus, it’s not surprising that we see similar differences in men’s and women’s behavior. Sensibly, most men and most women are changing their behaviors in response to COVID-19 by doing things such as staying away from large groups, being careful when away from home, and only leaving home when absolutely necessary. Fewer men than women in Texas, however, are taking behavioral measures to reduce the risk of contracting and/or spreading the coronavirus, such as washing hands more frequently or avoiding other people as much as possible.
Men in Texas are 9 points more likely than women to say that they are not adjusting their behavior due to covid-19 — living normally, coming and going in the community as usual — despite the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, about one quarter of men in Texas (24%) say that, as of the end of June, they are “living normally, coming and going as usual” in the midst of the pandemic, compared to only 15% of women. Men are also somewhat less likely than women to say that they are only leaving their home when absolutely necessary and that they are being careful when they do.
|Living normally, coming and going as usual||24%||15%|
|Still leaving my residence, but being careful when I do||39%||42%|
|Only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to||35%||39%|
|Not leaving home||2%||3%|
Similarly, 25% of Texas’ men say that they are not avoiding other people or wearing a mask when in close contact with people outside their household, compared to 15% of women. The largest gender gaps in reported behavior lie in washing hands more frequently and avoiding touching one’s face, with men 11% less likely than women to say that they are doing either to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Across a variety of behaviors, men are consistently making fewer behavioral adjustments in response to the coronavirus than women are making, and when they leave home they’re more likely to engage in a wider variety of activities.
|Washing hands more frequently||84%||95%|
|Staying away from large groups||83%||92%|
|Wearing a mask when outside your household||76%||84%|
|Avoiding other people||75%||85%|
|Avoiding touching your face||69%||80%|
Men evaluate all manner of activities as less risky than do women in the midst of the pandemic, even activities deemed to carry the highest risk by the Texas Medical Association, such as going to a bar/club and going to a gym. In the poll, for each activity respondents were asked to evaluate as either safe or unsafe, consistently and without exception, a higher share of men than women report that the activity is safe. At the higher and lower ends of Texans’ assessments of risk, men and women look largely similar with respect to grocery shopping and attending protests or demonstrations.
|Go grocery shopping||72%||71%|
|Get a haircut||61%||57%|
|Go to work||59%||52%|
|Vote in person||59%||50%|
|Stay in a hotel||55%||46%|
|Eat at a restaurant||53%||45%|
|Go to a shopping mall||43%||31%|
|Send child to school||39%||31%|
|Attend an outdoor event||33%||27%|
|Go to a gym||35%||25%|
|Fly on an airplane||31%||24%|
|Go to a movie theater||32%||23%|
|Go to a bar or club||29%||17%|
|Attend an indoor event||24%||18%|
|Go to protests||17%||15%|
The largest gender gaps in risk assessment include activities like going to a bar/club (12% difference), going to a shopping mall (12% difference), going to a gym (10% difference), going to a movie theater (9% difference), staying in a hotel (9% difference), voting in person (9% difference), and eating in a restaurant (8% difference).
Even though women continue to bear the relative brunt of the increased child-care load and are much more likely than men with children at home to suffer disruptions to their careers as a result of the coronavirus, they are more likely than men to think that COVID-19 poses a serious enough threat that it would be unsafe to send a child to school (8% difference). While moderate-size gender gaps exist for flying on an airplane, going to work, and attending a sporting event or concert, it bears repeating that in all cases, men were more likely, on average, than women to deem an activity safe.
Notably, men are more reluctant than women, on average, to say that they would make behavioral adjustments in the hypothetical event that they come into close contact with an infected person (while at a bar/restaurant, gym, or shopping mall) and less likely to cooperate with public health officials in such an event. When asked about this, men are 13% less likely than women to say that they would agree to a 14-day self-quarantine, with 82% of women agreeing to self-quarantine if they were to come in contact with an infected person compared to only 69% of men.
If a contract tracing system were established by local health officials, men are 10 points less likely than women to say that they would be willing to cooperate by providing a list of all the people they’ve recently come into contact with in the event they test positive for COVID-19.
|Control the virus||48%||58%|
|Help the economy||45%||32%|
|Don't know/No opinion||7%||10%|
Men’s lower assessment of the danger posed by the coronavirus, the risk of engaging in various behaviors and activities during the pandemic, and reduced likelihood of making personal behavioral adjustments in response to the virus foreshadow men’s attitude about whether it is more important to control the spread of the virus or to help the economy. Compared to women, men in Texas are much more likely to say that the relative importance of helping the economy outweighs efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus. A majority of women in Texas (58%) believe that it is more important to try to help control the spread of the virus, even if it hurts the economy, but less than a majority of men in Texas hold this belief. Men were nearly evenly split between the attitude that controlling the virus is more important (48%) and the attitude that trying to help the economy is more important, even if it hurts efforts to control the spread of the virus (45%).
The fact that men are more likely than women to say that it is more important to help the economy, even if it hurts efforts to control the spread of the virus, cannot be explained by men’s self-reported personal financial situation, nor the impact that the virus has had on that situation. Men were no more likely than women to have experienced financial hardships as a direct result of the pandemic, according to the poll, and were about 5% more likely than women to report their financial situation as either better or about the same compared to a year ago.
|Interruption of education||34%||33%|
|Loss of savings or retirement funds||27%||30%|
|Unable to pay bills||14%||17%|
|Unable to pay your rent or house payment||12%||12%|
|Unable to find childcare you can afford||7%||7%|
|A lot better off||6%||6%|
|Somewhat better off||19%||16%|
|About the same||44%||42%|
|Somewhat worse off||19%||21%|
|A lot worse off||11%||11%|
Furthermore, men’s comparatively lower assessment of the risk posed by the coronavirus, the risk of engaging in various behaviors and activities during the pandemic, and reduced likelihood of making personal behavioral adjustments in response to the virus is particularly notable in light of the fact that men infected with COVID-19 are more likely than women to have severe complications or die as a result. In Texas, the infection rate and mortality rate for men is significantly higher than for women, with men accounting for 58% of COVID-19 deaths at this writing. Of course, mortality rates as well as COVID-19 outcomes are results of many factors — both social and biological — beyond gender/sex, including but not limited to race/ethnicity, age, class, location, and pre-existing health conditions. These factors affect COVID-19 infection rates and outcomes by combining to interact with each other and with gender/sex in ways not yet fully understood and in a context of pre-existing gender disparities in health outcomes and mortality.
Majorities of women assess the risk posed by covid-19 as great enough that they think it is more important to try to help control the spread of the virus, even if it hurts the economy. More than two thirds of women in Texas, especially women with children at home, say that it is unsafe to send a child to school.
Policy and Political Risks
Gender differences in risk perception are well-known, and, in this case, represent a deadly fact of life about how men and women behave. Until medical science catches up with the head start COVID-19 has had in the United States, men’s lower sensitivity to risk can be expected to manifest not only as a source of harm to individual men, but as a public health hazard. Given that men’s attitudes about the dangers posed by the coronavirus make them more likely to behave in ways that hinder and imperil efforts to contain the virus’ spread, perhaps elected and public health officials should incorporate these differences in attitudes and behavior in their policy attempts to control the pandemic in the United States. For example, when it comes to risky activities that men are more likely to engage in, like going to a bar/club or a sporting event, more targeted messaging to men may be prudent.
As the official start of the 2020 election campaign approaches, differing assessments of the risks of COVID-19 among men and women should also be expected to shape an increasingly polarized, election-year policy debate about the country’s pandemic response. The gender gap in partisan identification is already well-documented, including in Texas. The manifestation of significant gender differences in risk assessment in the context of the pandemic, which is likely to be one of the central issues in the 2020 presidential campaign, also has potential implications for the election’s outcome. If men’s and women’s attitudes toward risks become politically salient – and there is ample reason to expect they will, given the comparatively high salience of the issue to Texas women – these differences in sensitivity to risk could also result in changes in voting behavior.
Megan Moeller is Senior Project Manager for Data Science for Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Michigan and an M.S. in statistics from the University of Texas at Austin.