Women and men clearly ponder different things as they walk alone at night, according to new research from BYU. Women are wary and scan their surroundings, probably looking for hints of danger. Men plow forward to their destinations.

The study, led by Robbie Chaney, a professor of public health at Brigham Young University, and two then-undergraduate students, shows women scan their environment constantly as they walk in the dark. Men pay attention to where they’re walking.

The study, which involved close to 600 college students, was published in the journal Violence and Gender.

Chaney and co-authors Alyssa Baer and L. Ida Tovar showed study participants each 16 photos of different, often dark parts of campus areas at BYU and three other campuses within 40 miles: Utah Valley University, Westminster and the University of Utah.

Baer, who recently finished graduate school at George Washington University and now works in Washington, D.C., told the Deseret News the researchers wanted a mix of familiar and unfamiliar places. They asked the participants to use a Qualtrics heat map tool to click on areas that caught their eye as they imagined themselves walking through them.

Women were significantly more likely to focus on areas where danger could lurk, including unlit areas, potential hiding spots and places where they might be trapped, often off to the side of their path. While Baer said the students were asked about the areas, not why they focused on them, the researchers theorize that safety was a factor in women constantly watching what was near the path, rather than the path itself.

Gender and Violence journal

“The resulting heat maps represent perhaps what people are thinking or feeling or doing as they are moving through these spaces,” Chaney said in a written statement about the study. “Before we started the study, we expected to see some differences but we didn’t expect to see them so contrasting. It’s really visually striking.”

Low light and ‘entrapment’

In the heat map photos, women are clearly scanning significantly different areas than the men and vice versa.

“Our study really focused on trying to understand perceptions of fear or safety, but we didn’t lay out what might happen.” Baer said. “What we were asking is what do you make of this setting?”

The researchers say the study suggests what it’s like for women who find themselves walking home alone, probably informed by their own experiences and fears.

Among other things, the researchers looked at lighting and at what they referred to as “entrapment” features. That refers to whether an area is open or enclosed, Baer said. A tunnel, which can be entered only by going forward or backward, for instance, is “high entrapment.” An unedged courtyard is “low entrapment” with a lot of different pathways one could take.

A large part of Chaney’s research is commuter safety, especially active commuting, like walking, jogging and riding bikes, which are deemed valuable to public health.

Baer referred to her own experiences making decisions about running or walking alone. “As a female student myself, I was really intentional about when I commuted to campus, whether that be the time of day or if I was alone. Or if I wanted to go out on a run, just being really intentional that that was during daylight hours.”

She added, “At the end of the day, the aim of the public health field as a whole is how do we create systems in which living healthy lives is the easy option?”

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The researchers believe that those who are building campus and community environments should take into consideration “varied experiences, perceptions and safety” of both males and females as they design areas. And they should consider the ensuing public health results of their decisions, Baer said.

Fear rooted in fact

The study itself notes that the fear female participants felt is not unfounded: “Women 18-24 years old are four times more likely to experience sexual violence (three times more for 18-24 year old women who are in college) than women of other age groups.”

The researchers also looked at data from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: “To illustrate this occurrence, we will compare robbery and sexual assault. In the general population, there are roughly 1.25 robberies for every 1 sexual assault; among college women, there are 2 sexual assaults for every 1 robbery. Only 19.5% of rapes are committed by a stranger to the victim (this percentage is lower for children and teens, 7%), so this feeling of being ‘on-guard’ appears to travel with the person despite changes in risk,” they wrote.

They note, too, that feeling unsafe when commuting at night negatively impacts physical, emotional and social health, and can lead to trouble sleeping, lower academic performance and worse mental health, among other problems.

Said Chaney, “Why can’t we live in a world where women don’t have to think about these things? It’s heartbreaking to hear of things women close to me have dealt with. It would be nice to work towards a world where there is no difference between the heat maps in these sets of images. That is the hope of the public health discipline.”