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Photo: South Australia SES
Photo: South Australia SES

Risk and warning communication that supports women during disasters

By Amisha Mehta, Lisa Bradley and Sophie Miller. This post first appeared on the QUT blog on 7 March 2018.

Natural hazards like bushfires and floods cause immediate and long-term damage to people, property, and businesses. Our research is aimed at enhancing risk and warning communication in partnership with 23 end-users from emergency services and related organisations.

During disasters, women play key roles in the emergency management sector and in families, businesses, and communities. In recognition of UN Women National Committee Australia’s theme for International Women’s Day this year, Leave No Woman Behind, we share findings that can encourage women to be better prepared for and evacuate safely in response to natural hazards. Women’s decision-making and social networking skills can also benefit others.

We drew data from two national surveys: one that examined small businesses and one that examined general community perspectives on risk and warning communication in the context of bushfires and floods.

Towards communication that supports women in small businesses

Recognising the vital role that businesses play in community resilience, in 2017, we surveyed 341 small business owners across Australia with the sample comprising 51 percent women and 49 percent men. Although a key way to mitigate the effect of natural disasters is through business continuity planning, we found that only 21 percent of small businesses surveyed had a business continuity plan. Of this group, 41 percent were women and 59 percent were men. The levels of business continuity planning were low for both genders and greater planning would arguably assist all business owners.

Motivated by the opportunity to tailor communication to support business outcomes, we asked participants to self-assess their anxiety about and knowledge of how to deal with the effects of natural hazards on their business. When compared to men, women reported needing more information and worrying more about the effects of flood. As a result, future flood risk communication could address information gaps, provide practical information to assist in business continuity planning, and reassure female small business owners. There were no significant gender differences around bushfires.

Our survey also showed that when it comes to evacuating from natural disasters in general, women and men are motivated by different cues. Evacuation decision-making for women in small business can be encouraged by messaging that emphasises the opportunity to meet others’ expectations, shows that others around them are evacuating, and addresses concerns about food and shelter following evacuation.

Towards communication that supports women in communities

In 2017, we also surveyed communities nationally to test “evacuation” messaging about bushfires and “prepare to evacuate” messaging about flood events. Across both hazards, of the 1,382 people surveyed, 37 percent had a bushfire survival or flood response plan with the statistic representing an equal number of women and men.

In the context of bushfires, women reported as needing more information and being more worried about bushfires. In the context of both bushfires and floods, women reported as having less confidence in their ability to respond when these events threatened their home.

Our survey also showed that when it comes to evacuating from natural disasters in general, women in community settings are motivated by an official recommendation to evacuate, concern for others’ well-being and seeing that others around them are evacuating. Future messaging could be adapted to include these cues.

Towards communication that leaves no woman behind

The purpose of community-centred risk and warning communication is to gain community and business attention to critical information, help people make safe and timely decisions, and take action in the lead up to and during natural hazards like bushfires and floods. Our research highlights a number of elements that when integrated into messaging have the potential to ensure women are not “left behind” when it comes to preparing for and evacuating during a natural hazard.

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