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'Women and children first' a myth: study

Rebecca Martin · 12 Apr 2012, 07:41

Published: 12 Apr 2012 07:41 GMT+02:00

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“It is expected that the crew should rescue passengers, but our results show that captains and crew are more likely to survive than passengers,” said Mikael Elinder at the Department of Economics, Uppsala University and at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN) in a statement.

“We also found that women and children were more inclined to die than men.”

This, the scientists think, indicates that when disaster strikes it is very much every man for himself.

For the study, researchers Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixon analyzed a database containing information about passengers and crew from 18 of the most notable shipwrecks during the period 1852 to 2011, containing information about the fates of more than 15,000 people.

Elinder and Erixon found that that the survival rate of women was substantially lower than the survival rate of men.

Children had the lowest survival rate, while the highest survival rates were observed for crew and captains.

However, there is still a widespread popular belief that in a disaster, women and children will be saved first.

This, argue the scientists, is because the foundering of the Titanic, being the most researched shipwreck, has shaped our beliefs about what happens in maritime disasters, not in the least through popular culture.

And during the evacuation of the Titanic, the men stood back while women and children were given priority to board the lifeboats.

As a consequence, the survival rate of the women and children in this particular accident was much higher than that of the men.

The scientists questioned what made the Titanic so different.

One possible explanation is how the captain acts under the circumstances, according to the researchers.

On the Titanic, the captain ordered women and children to board the lifeboats first.

Men who disobeyed the order would be shot.

Story continues below…

The scientists found that on the ships where the captain gave the order "women and children first", the difference in survival rates between men and women was lower.

But women survived to a higher extent than men only when this order was enforced by the threat of violence, the researchers found.

“The evacuation of the Titanic was exceptional, but has spurred a long-lived myth that women and children will be saved first in disasters,” said Elinder.

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Rebecca Martin (rebecca.martin@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

08:17 April 12, 2012 by mikewhite
The inquiry following this disaster, in which the survival rate overall was around 1 in 3, also led to abandoning of other conventional-at-the-time wisdom, such as lifeboats capacity being linked to the tonnage of the ship rather than number of passengers and crew; also in the face of an ice warning in clear weather it should no longer be the custom just to post a constant lookout, without reducing speed.
09:17 April 12, 2012 by entry
If you put a child, a woman and a man into the cold stormy ocean at the same time, who is most likely to survive?
10:16 April 12, 2012 by Reason abd Realism
Some witness accounts mention that the initial orders to fill the lifeboats were met with a groan, because people thought this was a pointless precaution for a ship that could not possibly sink after a scrape with an iceberg (from which some people took ice to put in their cocktails as the wall of ice slid along the railing).

Under these circumstances ('pointless precaution') chivalry would have been cheap and easy to offer to the women and children.

The real question is how many lifeboats were still available to fill, and what the proportion was of women and children in these, when the sinking had proceeded to a point where it was clear that the alternative was almost certain death in the icy Atlantic. Perhaps that was when the captain's threat of violence was needed.
10:23 April 12, 2012 by William Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha
Titanic didn't spur the myth of women and children first. HMS Birkenhead did when it sank in 1852. Get you facts right Mr Elinder.
10:28 April 12, 2012 by robban70226
In Swedish ships will be the Coffe, the dogs and cats, and then the children
10:45 April 12, 2012 by OUIJA
A Swedish study? Don't take it seriously. Researchers usually don't know what they do.
11:47 April 12, 2012 by EP
In Sweden, it should be both men and women first since it's the most equal society in the world. But first they will probably need to have a number of meetings to discuss this as the boat sinks - since after all Sweden is also the most "democratic" country in the world ;-)
12:43 April 12, 2012 by skogsbo
EP, in Sweden they might form several committees to discuss their various options, reporting back in a weeks time after consulting with the union officials. But if you have ever seen the Swedes version of queueing polietly for a seat on a ryan air flight, then it could be an all out stampede, survival of the fittest, or rather those with the sharpest elbows!
13:58 April 12, 2012 by Åskar
This has been known at least since the Estonia disaster. Studies showed that it was every man and woman for themselves, not particularly caring for their children. The rationale is that it's always possible for parents, who have lost their child, to produce a new one.
18:01 April 12, 2012 by Dinaricman
Well if I were on the boat of course my children would go first..the wife eeeeee I guess so lol.
18:03 April 12, 2012 by Swedishmyth
Heck of a "choice" to give the men on the Titanic. "Die...or die." I'm surprised those sentenced to death didn't rush and overpower the executioners. What did they have to lose?
19:03 April 12, 2012 by libertarianism
Re 7 and 8, No Swedish people would be allowed on lifeboats. The captain would airlift in new peoples and put them on the lifeboats instead. :(
19:26 April 12, 2012 by jostein
What the article does not challenge is THE IDEAL of women and children first. That people fail to live up to it in crisis, not so strange?
22:31 April 12, 2012 by mikewhite
In those days (sorry, feminists) they also required adult males to be able to row the lifeboats.
23:26 April 12, 2012 by redfish
1. How unusual was it for the captain to use the threat of violence, like happened on the Titanic? Was it regular or rare?

2. Would husbands let their wives and children go before them, or are we talking about single strangers competing for lifeboat seats?
08:20 April 13, 2012 by Ballcocks
More nonsense and bad reporting from the local. Firstly there is no evidence that on the Titanic men were forcibly restrained by the threat of violence, this is another myth fueled by Mr Camerons innaccurate but popular film. Secondly the "women and children first" tradition has its basis in historical fact.. As has been mentioned previously, please see the sinking of HMS Birkenhead.

The point is that this is a British merchant Navy tradition and clearly not one followed by the crew of Estonia and other recent sinkings of non Britsh ships.
15:31 April 13, 2012 by kwonson
The thing is, how could all the men have known the captain even decided this? What if he was Italian and was already over the side and rowing away? Besides, what right did the captain have to give those orders anyway (as a human, not as a captain, who convention pretends has ultimate power on his own boat)? His ship was sinking, it should have had enough life boats for all, it was the line's fault they didn't and his own the boat was sinking, yet he was commanding other innocents to pay for their mistakes. He himself might have felt obligated by chivalry to go down with the ship, but why should a paying customer feel obligated to die just because the captain decides. Considering that grown men not only had a better chance of survival in bad conditions, but that, once grown beyond a certain age, have a better chance of reproducing than children (given childhood mortality rates), it would have been better for the species if older women and children were left. And if more spots were needed start by throwing out the oldest guys first.

At any rate, I'm sure it was a relief to be a crew member and know that they were armed and could defend their own survival. I'm guessing they were all men.
17:21 April 14, 2012 by klubbnika


Ever thought of why this has become an ideal in the first place? Especially in a die-hard patriarchal society of the past ?

Simples. The survival of the species. From that perspective, a woman is worth more than a man.
18:38 April 15, 2012 by NumberOneSon
it shouldn't be a myth in the first place... it's women, children, elderly and handicapped first while all able men should assist in the evacuation instead of watching and wait for their turn when it comes to any rescue mission.. certainly there's cowards out there who in face of danger will try to make their way pushing women and throwing little kids and babies to gain a place in safety, those will face extreme violence and immediate termination if necessary..its not about the survival of the species cause we are not animals living in a jungle, and by the way you know what's a myth?? its equality between sex..there's no such a thing.
21:34 April 22, 2012 by planet.sweden
Quite right too, this is Sweden after all. Equality in all things, I'm sure the sisters would agree.
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