Mileah Kromer: The Semi-Concerned State of the Maryland Woman

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By: Mileah Kromer 

Our recent poll of Maryland residents indicates that two-thirds of all Marylanders are concerned over a potential outbreak of a disease like Ebola (see full results). As an avid hand washer, a connoisseur of all pandemic-related movies and television, and the pollster to boot, this result was of immediate interest to me.

Here is the thing about public opinion:  Public opinion polls do not tell us what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, or rational and irrational. Polls simply tell us what is on the public’s mind at that particular time. Sometimes what the public thinks is inconsistent with the facts, and sometimes expressed concerns are simply not rational. This does not make these opinions, concerns, or perceptions any less important; case in point, if the public is concerned, those who are in charge of managing that concern should move to figure out why. And, knowing what demographic is most concerned can help to develop the actions needed to most effectively address public concern.

The Goucher Poll surveys Maryland residents about a variety of different issues facing the state. We are a fully in-house operation at The Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center — Goucher students conduct the interviews, help run our operations, and even help design the survey instrument. This particular poll of 708 Marylanders was conducted from September 28 to October 2 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percent.

The results of our fall Goucher Poll, recent media stories, conversations with friends, family, and students in my course on American political behavior — as well as some serious self-reflection (admittedly, I’d be a “somewhat” concerned if I was given the survey) — lead me to wonder if women are the driving force behind the high levels of concern about an outbreak we find among Marylanders. Thankfully, an easy cross-tabulation of the Goucher Poll data can provide the answer. It turns out, there is a sizable gender gap in concern toward an outbreak of a disease like Ebola; 73 percent of Maryland women indicate they are “somewhat” or “very” concerned compared to 59 percent of Maryland men. 

Table 1: Concern about an Outbreak by Gender

 

Male

Female

Total

"Not at all" or "a little" concerned

40

26

33

 

(138)

(92)

(230)

"Somewhat" or "very" concerned

59

73

66

 

(207)

(260)

(467)

Total

100.0

100.0

100.0

 

349

+/-  

358

+/-

707

+/-

Number of responses in parentheses; Percent in bold; Don’t know and refused responses are not included — and total less than 5% of total responses.

What about other threatening or concerning issues? Is the concerned state of Maryland women limited to disease outbreak or does it expand to other issues? Our fall poll contained three other questions that gauged feelings of concern or threat — concern about pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, whether climate change is a threat to the well-being of Maryland residents, and whether hydraulic fracturing or fracking pose an environmental threat in the state.

Does the gender gap in concern or threat perception persist across these other issue areas? The answer is no. Across all three questions, any gendered differences are within the margin of error; i.e. Maryland women and men are not statistically different from each other in their concern or threat perceptions on these issues.

Then why do Maryland women demonstrate such raised levels of concern about disease outbreak? 

To answer this question, I turned to my friend Dr. Dena Smith, who teaches medical sociology at UMBC. She explained that gender roles derived from socialization are likely a significant force in women’s greater expressed concerns over an outbreak of a disease like Ebola. Women are taught from a young age to be more in touch with their emotions, seek help when they have a problem, and express concern about potential problems. Unlike their male counterparts, they are less likely to feel pressure to exhibit strength or be stoic in the face of danger.

Most germane to concerns over an Ebola outbreak, research also shows that women are more likely to encourage their partners to seek medical help for a range of symptoms and practice preventative care in various forms; for example, according to the CDC women are more likely to get flu vaccine than men. In other words, women think and plan ahead to prevent sickness from happening and are more comfortable expressing concerns over the possibility of sickness. It’s not that Maryland women are irrationally fearful or worried about an outbreak, rather more cautious over the health and well-being of themselves and their family.

And, in the very, very unlikely event that an outbreak does happen — please keep in mind that Maryland women told you to get checked out at the first sign of sickness and you should have listened. 

Mileah Kromer, Ph.D., is Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Goucher College.

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