“We need to make sure men don’t feel too macho to worry about germs.”
— Rosie Frasso, program director of public health at Thomas Jefferson University
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With the spread of the coronavirus, more people around the globe are not only examining their hand-washing habits, but also wondering about those of the people around them. Personal hygiene habits have far-ranging consequences.
There are some things we’ve long suspected about how men and women approach hygiene in the past, said Rosie Frasso, program director of public health at Thomas Jefferson University.
“Traditionally women were more engaged in meal prep and house cleaning and were more likely to do the diaper changing,” she said. “My guess is that these roles made women think about hand washing differently.”
She also points out that women and men have different experiences in the bathroom, making women more conscious of germs. “Women are dealing with seats,” she said.
Past scientific surveys back up the idea that women are the superior hand-washers.
In 2010 a study by the American Cleaning Institute and the American Microbiology Society found that men are less likely to wash their hands even after petting an animal, handling food, coughing or sneezing.
The market research company Ipsos found in 2018 that more women than men agreed that washing their hands after using the toilet is “very important” (91 percent vs. 84 percent). More women also agreed it was “a crucial behavior” after taking public transportation (74 percent vs. 66 percent).
A 2016 paper by the Los Alamos National Laboratory analyzed the results of dozens of studies from around the world to determine what factors influence the adoption of protective behaviors, specifically within the context of pandemics.
“Women are more likely — about 50 percent more likely — than men to practice non-pharmaceutical behaviors, things like hand washing, face mask use and avoiding crowds,” said Kelly Moran, one of the authors of the study. Even when the researchers tested their findings against factors such as culture or a country’s level of development, they found that the gender gap persisted.
All of this goes hand-in-hand with a broader gender gap in risk perception. A 2006 research paper by the sociology department at Sweden’s Götoborg University that reviewed a number of studies on the perception of risk found that men consistently “express less concern” for a range of threats. “Women are more oriented toward home and family, mainly perceiving risks as threats to their family and their home,” the study states. “Men’s concerns were to a higher degree related to their working life, e.g., risks of unemployment, and economic problems.”
Of course so much is changing so rapidly that data collected even last month seems outdated, let alone that from two or 10 years ago. It will take experts time to perform new studies. In the meantime we are left with conflicting, mostly anecdotal evidence about how coronavirus is changing these trends.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has determined that this bright blue, bubble-filled poster will teach both men and women how to more effectively clean their hands. “Our guidance does not differ between genders,” said Michael Lanza, the assistant press secretary for the department.
But Frasso said, “We need tailored messaging for a lot of things, so it would be logical that this is no different. For one thing, we know men are less likely to seek health care than women.”
“We need to make sure men don’t feel too macho to worry about germs,” she added.
Some casual observers seem more optimistic about the progress of men.
Sheona Gillespie, a sales and marketing manager in Düsseldorf, Germany, said she saw something new at a soccer match just two weeks ago: a wait for the men’s bathroom.
“There was a long line coming out of the men’s, snaking around the beer garden. I guess I saw about 40 to 50 men waiting,” she said. “Usually if we go to the loo my husband manages to go to the toilet and then get us a beer in the time it takes me to go.”
Men she spoke to, including her husband, attributed the wait to the sinks, not the urinals.
And during the first week of March, Cathal Mac Coille, a columnist with the Irish newspaper Business Post, casually observed the hand-washing behaviors of men in Dublin and London, as he went about his daily life, in office buildings, restaurants, cafes, movie theaters, airports and museums. It wasn’t scientific, but he concluded that two-thirds of the men he observed washed their hands carefully, an improvement on the 40 percent he estimates he usually sees doing so.
Of course, not all dirty hands can be pinned on men. While Frasso believes women are more hygiene-conscious than men, she has encountered women that need work, too.
In an airport on March 8, she said, she saw two college-age women coming out of the bathroom without washing their hands. Only after she called them out did they return for a proper, 20-second cleanse.
Just the fact that people, both men and women, are closely watching their neighbors in the bathroom can make a difference. After all, “social norms change behavior,” she said.
But with schools, restaurants, cafes, cinemas and museums closing their doors around the U.S. and the world, the opportunities to observe others in public are dwindling.
Still, if the run on soap and sanitizer is anything to go by, the good intentions are there.
Readers: How are you holding up in the time of coronavirus? Share your stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alisha Haridasani Gupta contributed reporting.
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