“Women and children first” was never the social norm on sinking ships, nor was the self-sacrificing captain who gives the order before going down with his vessel, a study of maritime disasters shows.
Crew members had the highest survival rates in shipwrecks, followed by captains and male passengers, according to the report today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research found that women’s survival rate on 16 maritime disasters from 1852 to 2011 was half that of men’s, and children had the worst chance of getting off the boat alive.
Men in general have better survival prospects, unless they engage in self-sacrificing, helping behavior, the authors said. The exception is the sinking of the RMS Titanic, in which the survival rate of women and children was three times higher than men’s. In that instance, the captain ordered a women-and-children-first evacuation, and officers reportedly shot men who disobeyed, according to the study.
“That women fare worse than men has also been documented for natural disasters,” wrote study authors Mikael Elinder, an economist at Uppsala University, and Oscar Erixon, an economist at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics, in Sweden. “It seems as if it is the policy of the captain, rather than the moral sentiments of men, that determines whether women are given preferential treatment in shipwrecks.”
The survival rate aboard the Titanic, which sank on her maiden voyage on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg, shaped a perception that women and children first was the unwritten law of the sea, the authors wrote. While 1,496 people died in the disaster, 712 survived, including 70 percent of the women and children on board, according to the study. What likely spurred the survival of women and children in that disaster was captain’s policy, which also helped women to survive in four other disasters, the authors said.
The research also found that nine of 16 captains sank with their ships.
On average, 60 percent of crew members survived ship disasters such as collisions, groundings, and on-board fires. That may also be because crew members are more familiar with the ships and emergency procedures, and are likelier to know how to swim, the authors said.
About 35 percent of male passengers survived, compared with about 18 percent of female passengers. Whether the ship sank slowly or quickly, women fared worse, according to documents describing the outcome of more than 15,000 people in shipwrecks.
A draft of the authors’ report was initially posted online in April this year. Today’s published data has now been reviewed by other people in the field.
The gap in survival rates between men and women began to decrease after World War I, suggesting that women’s higher status in society improved their survival rate, according to the study authors.
“On the basis of our analysis, it becomes evident that the sinking of the Titanic was exceptional in many dimensions,” the authors wrote.