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Women do better at mask wearing and other measures to stop spread of Covid-19

CNN logo CNN 10/8/2020 By Katie Hunt, CNN
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 09:A woman sanitizes her hands at the mall at Hudson Yards on the first day of the reopening of malls to the public for shopping since the outbreak of COVID-19 in mid-March on September 09, 2020 in New York City. New York City, which has seen a sharp drop in the numbers of COVID-19 cases over the last month, is gradually lifting restrictions on shopping, casinos, and restaurants but with strict safety measures including enforcement of face coverings and social distancing. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) © Spencer Platt/Getty Images NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 09:A woman sanitizes her hands at the mall at Hudson Yards on the first day of the reopening of malls to the public for shopping since the outbreak of COVID-19 in mid-March on September 09, 2020 in New York City. New York City, which has seen a sharp drop in the numbers of COVID-19 cases over the last month, is gradually lifting restrictions on shopping, casinos, and restaurants but with strict safety measures including enforcement of face coverings and social distancing. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands regularly are the best ways we have to stop the spread of Covid-19.

But when it comes to these crucial habits, it appears that women are more likely to be following these steps to a greater degree than men, according to a new study.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers at New York University and Yale University examined survey data, street observations and analysis of smartphone movements.

Women aren't just better at taking preventative measures, researchers said. They also found that women were also more likely to listen to experts and express alarm and anxiety in response to Covid-19, the study, which was published this week in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy, said.

Their survey of 800 people found that women were more likely than men to say they maintained social distance, stayed at home, washed hands frequently and mixed less with family and friends. The only measure that didn't have a gender difference was the frequency of contact with people other than friends or family.

However, self-reported behavior doesn't always accurately represent actual behavior, so the researchers also looked at pedestrians and mask wearing in three different US locations -- New York City, New Haven, Connecticut and New Brunswick, New Jersey -- to see how many people wore masks.

They found that 55% of women wore masks properly compared with 38% of men -- even though gender distribution in these zip codes was roughly equal. They observed 127 women and 173 men on May 4-5 this year.

In the third part of their study, to measure social distancing among the wider US population, the researchers used GPS data from 15 million smart phones to track overall movement and visits to non-essential stores like spas, florists and fitness facilities between March 9 and May 29.

The results showed that counties with a higher percentage of males showed comparatively less social distancing. These differences, the researchers said, remained even after accounting for Covid-19 cases per capita in these counties, the presence of stay-at-home orders and other demographic characteristics -- such as income, education and profession -- that could influence whether people worked from home or were more likely to work in sectors deemed essential.

In many senses, the researchers said the findings weren't surprising -- it's long been known that women are better hand washers than men. And a 2016 review that looked at research from dozens of different countries found that women were 50% more likely than men to practice, or increase, protective behavior like proper hand-washing, mask-wearing and surface cleaning in the context of an epidemic, like flu.

"Previous research before the pandemic shows that women had been visiting doctors more frequently in their daily lives and following their recommendations more so than men," said Irmak Olcaysoy Okten, a postdoctoral researcher in New York University's Department of Psychology and the paper's lead author, in a press statement.

"They also pay more attention to the health-related needs of others," Okten said. "So it's not surprising that these tendencies would translate into greater efforts on behalf of women to prevent the spread of the pandemic."

She added that fine-tuning health messages to better target men could be an effective strategy to reduce the spread of the virus.

"Policymakers might target men's illusions of invulnerability ... and remind them of their responsibilities to others and themselves during this critical period. Disseminating prevention messages particularly in places where men frequently get together can be an effective strategy," the study suggested.

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