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COVID-19 lockdowns revealed significant, cliche gender differences

COVID-19 lockdowns revealed significant, cliche gender differences
Researchers say women were more likely than men to follow pandemic lockdown policies, and that women spent more time on the phone than men while doing so. File Photo by Skylines/Shutterstock

Sept. 28 (UPI) -- The pandemic's earliest lockdowns offered social scientists a rare opportunity to study the impacts of an emergency on behavior across large populations.

According to a new study, published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports, women made longer phone calls and more faithfully abided by lockdown orders during the spring of 2020.

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Men, however, were less willing to stay home and quicker to return to normal mobility patterns after the lockdowns ended, researchers found.

Researchers at Complexity Science Hub Vienna, CSH, identified the rather cliche-sounding behavioral gender differences after analyzing mobile phone data from 1.2 million Austrians collected during February and June of last year.

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"The total shutdown of public life was like a population-wide live experiment," Tobias Reisch, study co-author and CSH researcher, said in a press release.

The anonymized mobile phone data, shared with researchers by a major Austrian internet service provider, allowed scientists to analyze the movement patterns of men and women during lockdown.

"We were interested in the extent to which people supported the anti-COVID-19 measures imposed by the government," said Reisch. "When we analyzed the data by gender, we found surprisingly strong behavioral differences between men and women."

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For technical reasons, mobile phone users were only able to self-report gender as male or female, the researchers said.

The mobile data showed both men and women made much longer phone calls during the initial lockdown, with the length of each call dependent on who was calling whom -- and women's calls were generally longer.

Post-lockdown women-to-women calls were 1.5 times longer than those before the pandemic. When men called women, the conversations lasted twice as long. Women-to-men calls also lasted 80 percent longer, while men-to-men calls lasted just 66 percent longer.

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Interestingly, men and women called fewer people during lockdown, but stayed on the phone with those they did call for much longer than normal.

"Of course, we don't know the content or purpose of these calls," said co-author Georg Heiler, researcher at CSH and TU Wien.

"Yet, literature from the social sciences provides evidence -- mostly from small surveys, polls, or interviews -- that women tend to choose more active strategies to cope with stress, such as talking with others. Our study would confirm that," Heiler said.

Studies have shown that men generally move around more than women. The lockdown amplified gender mobility differences, with men moving around a lot more than women, who were more likely to follow stay-at-home orders.

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"This study shows once again that data -- in this case telecommunication data -- allows us to gain social insights quickly and at low costs, without violating the anonymity of individuals," said co-author Stefan Thurner, president of CSH.

"We see people's behavior in the here and now without the need for large surveys of thousands of people," Thurner said.

In addition to providing psychologists and sociologists unique insights into a variety of social phenomena, the latest analysis can also be used by governments and public health officials.

"We are providing concrete information for policymakers which can either be used for planning in an acute crisis, or flow into a more targeted health planning, or could even lead to considerations on how to achieve a more gender-equitable society," Thurner said.

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