Sinking Myths: Men Actually Most Likely to Survive Shipwrecks, Not Women

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Tony Gentile / Reuters

A half-submerged Costa Concordia.

It’s really “every man for himself” on shipwrecks, a Swedish research team has proven. This polite view of “women and children first” that we gained from the Titanic tragedy, says Uppsala University economist Mikael Elinder, doesn’t hold up compared to other ship tragedies. Elinder and Oscar Erixson, both in Uppsala’s economics department, researched the last three centuries of shipwrecks to see if women and children really were the first ones saved.

They weren’t.

The team studied a database of 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries, covering the fate of over 15,000 individuals of more than 30 nationalities. Their study found that not only do captains and crew survive wrecks at a “significantly higher rate than passengers,” but that women actually have a “distinct survival disadvantage compared to men.”

(PHOTOS: A Snapshot of Life on the Titanic)

While the Titanic may have given us a false impression that women and children were always saved first in harrowing sea events — women survived at a 3:1 rate versus men because they were selected first to load the lifeboats, before they ran out of room, during the Titanic evacuation — that’s more of an adage now than an enforced rule.

In all reality, women are only half as likely to survive as men, though since World War I that gender gap has started to narrow. And the captain and crew, the group responsible for ensuring the safety of the passengers and, theoretically, the last ones off the sinking ship, were actually 18.7 percent more likely to survive a shipwreck than any of the passengers, even the male ones. (Despite the unwritten rule, only seven out of 16 captains went down with the ship.)

The study, which looked at shipwrecks of at least 100 passengers each from 1852 to 2011 that also included gender data, found that the “policy of the captain, rather than the moral sentiments of men,” determine if women get a helping hand during the evacuation of shipwrecks, thus dictating the survival patterns. In an unexplainable nugget, the rate of survival for women aboard British ships was the worst.

It seems the evacuation method on the Titanic was beyond “exceptional,” far outpacing the norm for even today.

PHOTOS: Titanic: 100 Years Later