You’re Killing Me, Smalls: Why Men More than Women Are Spreading COVID-19

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Photos by the author, Brett Pelham

On December 5th, 2020, I performed my twice-monthly trial by fire and bravely traveled to my local Giant Grocery Store. I had no choice. I was out of bacon and Breyer’s ice cream. I knew all too well that grocery shopping can be a harrowing experience. After all, many shoppers in my densely populated Maryland suburb fail to follow basic COVID safety rules. You know who I’m talking about. They brush by you from behind, and they sometimes have a couple handsy, unmasked eight-year-olds in tow. These are the shoppers who are in COVID-denial. They are the reason I try so hard to shop at 7 a.m.

But the reason I became irate this morning — and asked to speak with the store manager — was not my fellow shoppers. It was the White male employees who were not wearing their masks properly. As you can see from the photos above, the two employees whose pictures I was able to snap wore their masks so that they covered their mouths but not their noses. I was unable to get a photo of the White male employee working behind the meat counter. He was not wearing a mask at all. There was one other White male employee whose mask barely covered his mouth. And he pulled it down completely to talk to a co-worker. That left only one in five White male Giant employees who was following the most basic rule of COVID safety: Wear a mask, and wear it so that it covers your mouth and nose.

I was angry but not surprised. After all, decades of research show that, relative to women, men are more likely to feel entitled to do what they wish when they wish, and more overconfident that their poor decisions are correct. Research by psychologist J. David Smith even shows that male monkeys are more overconfident of their same-different decisions than are female monkeys. But whether male overconfidence and entitlement are a product of biology or culture, they are very dangerous during a pandemic.

This sense of male entitlement and overconfidence is magnified in White men relative to men of color, and my harrowing shopping experience confirmed this. None of the five or six ethnic minority male Giant employees failed to wear their masks properly. Likewise, I did not see a single female Giant employee (there’re were at least 10) who failed to wear her mask properly.

Of course, this is merely an anecdote. But a study published this summer in the prestigious journal PLOSOne showed that women were about 50% more likely to wear masks than men were. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that as of November 28, 2020, the CDC reported that more American men than women had died of COIVD-19. This gender differences is especially true when accounting for age. Older people die of COVID at a much higher rate than do younger people. And there are many, many more 90-year old women than 90-year-old men in the United States. In fact, if you compare people in their 30s, more than twice as many American men (more than 10,000) than women (less than 5,000) have died of COVID-19. The same 2:1 death ratio applies to middle-aged Americans, and to men and women in their 20s. Among children (those aged 0–17) this 2:1 ratio is closer to 3:2 — with boys, of course, dying at a higher rate than girls.

Why the gender gap? There is no single reason. As research on overconfidence would suggest, boys and men do seem to take fewer COVID-19 precautions than girls and women. But it looks like the wimpier male immune system — and the inferior health choices of men — also play important roles in men’s higher COVID death rates. To be a little fairer to men, men are also more likely to be out and about than are women, often because their work requires this. But wouldn’t you hope that if men are the weaker sex when it comes to COVID, they’d be even more careful than women to protect themselves?

I hope it goes without saying that all men and women are different. I am male, and I always wear a tight-fitting, double-layer mask when I shop. But the gender dfference I noted here is worrisome and real. If we are to save tens of thousands of U.S. lives before COVID vaccines become widely available in 2021, we are going to have to convince more men, especially more overconfident, entitled men, that it’s time to wear a damn mask when you are out and about, especially when you have to be indoors. Even if you don’t care enough to protect others, care enough to protect yourself.

Brett is a social psychologist at Montgomery College, MD. Brett studies health, gender, culture, religion, identity, and stereotypes.

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