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Stress and Health

Stress and Health 21: 2731 (2005)

Published online 26 October 2004 in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/smi.1033

Short Communication:
Gender differences in coping
with the major external stress
o f t h e Wa s h i n g t o n , D . C . s n i p e r
Ari Z. Zivotofsky1,*, and Meni Koslowsky2
The Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan,
52900 Israel
Psychology Department, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, 52900 Israel

This study examined the relationship between gender and strategies for coping for individuals
faced with a perceived major, life-threatening stressor. The focus here was the sniper(s) that ter-
rorized the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area for over 3 weeks in October 2002. A ret-
rospective survey of 144 random respondents regarding their behavior and coping mechanisms
during this period indicated that, overall, womens behavior was affected more than mens. Unex-
pectedly, most emotion-focused coping mechanisms studied here yielded no significant gender dif-
ferences. The findings are discussed in light of recent thinking in social psychology on sex-role
stereotyping and risk-taking. Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Key Words
stress and coping; gender differences; stereotyping

Introduction situation progresses, the strategies used by one

individual may change and evolve.
All people experience problems and stressors in Research has yielded conflicting evidence about
their lives and must find mechanisms with which differences in coping strategies between men and
to cope with these difficulties. These stressors women. Jordan and Revenson (1999) found that
range from the everyday, mundane to the more in coping with infertility, women were signifi-
significant and serious such as job layoffs and cantly more likely to use certain strategies, such
illnesses (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989). as seeking social support and escape-avoidance,
How people cope with stress varies from person than their partners. Similarly, Slusarcick, Ursano,
to person and from situation to situation Fullerton, and Dinneen (1999) reported different
(Ben-Zur & Zeidner, 1995; Rosario, Shinn, mechanisms of stress reduction by men and
Morch, & Huckabee, 1988). Even as a particular women even though both were performing an
identical stressful activity. Work locus of control
was a significant predictor of ill-health only for
* Correspondence to: Ari Z. Zivotofsky, The Gonda women (Muhonen & Torkelson, 2004). Silver,
Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, Bar Ilan Uni- Holman, McIntosh, Poulin, and Gil-Rivas (2002)
versity, Ramat Gan, 52900 Israel. Tel: (972)-3-531- showed that following a major stressor women
7796. Fax: (972)-3-535-2184. were significantly more likely to experience post-

E-mail: traumatic stress symptoms than men.

Received 6 June 2004
Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Revised 30 August 2004 27
Accepted 3 September 2004
A. Z. Zivotofsky and M. Koslowsky

The researchers in the field are, generally, of the targeted people at gas stations and six others
opinion that men and women choose different targeted people in large public parking lots.
coping behaviors to handle stress. Many of these
studies indicate that men are more problem-
focused while women are more emotion-focused Methods
in their coping strategies (Blanchard-Fields,
Sulsky, & Robinson-Whelen, 1991; Endler & Participants included 144 random respondents
Parker, 1990; Ptacek, Smith, & Zanas, 1992). from the Washington area, of which approxi-
Rosario et al. (1988) developed a socialization mately half were from the Silver Spring, MD area,
hypothesis that predicted more problem-focused the region of the first shootings, and half were
coping in males and more emotion-focused coping from northern Virginia, the area of the later
in females. Using daily hassles rather than a major shootings. Of the respondents, 42 per cent were
stressor, Hamilton and Fagot (1988) examined men with mean age of 29.5. No compensation
this hypothesis and found that although women was given for participation.
reported more overall stress, the methods of The survey comprised a one page anonymous
coping were not significantly different for them, questionnaire that requested basic demographic
casting some doubt on a socialization hypothesis. data and two other types of data: (a) behavioral
Hashim and Zhiliang (2003) also found only information about eight relevant activities that
minor differences in the perception of stressors. may have been considered risky, (e.g. mall
One of the main purposes of the present study shopping, driving, and gasoline fill-ups (see Table
was to examine the relationship between gender II). Changes here would be more indicative
and strategies for coping when faced with a per- of problem-focused coping. Respondents were
ceived major life threatening stressor. We hypoth- asked whether for each particular activity, they
esized that one of the factors not usually taken maintained the same level of activity during the
into account is the nature of the stressor and that period of interest, decreased their involvement in
when faced with a major life stressor there will that activity, or modified it in some manner and
be gender differences such that women will utilize (b) information relating to emotion focused
more social support than men. coping mechanisms (see Table III). Subjects were
A unique opportunity to study responses to and provided with a list of seven mechanisms that
coping with a major life stressor occurred in the people use to cope with stress and were asked if
greater Washington, D.C. area. From October 2, during the period of interest they used each
2002 through October 24, 2002, the greater coping mechanism very much, somewhat, or
Washington, D.C. metropolitan area was the not at all. These mechanisms included calling
scene for 14 random shootings that resulted in 10 or being in touch with friends or relatives, pills
deaths (see Table I). Four of the shootings or medicines, and blaming the government.

Table I. Summary of events.

Date Gender Location Venue Result
1 October 2, 2002 MD Store
2 October 2, 2002 M MD Parking lotgrocery Killed
3 October 3, 2002 M MD Mowing lawn Killed
4 October 3, 2002 M MD Filling station Killed
5 October 3, 2002 F MD Parking lotpost office Killed
6 October 3, 2002 F MD Filling station Killed
7 October 3, 2002 M DC Crossing street Killed
8 October 4, 2002 F VA Parking lotcraft store Injured
9 October 7, 2002 M MD Parking lotschool Injured
10 October 9, 2002 M VA Filling station Killed
11 October 11, 2002 M VA Filling station Killed
12 October 14, 2002 F VA Parking lothome depot Killed
13 October 19, 2002 M VA Parking lotrestaurant Injured
14 October 22, 2002 M MD Bus Killed
Note: M, male; F, female. MD, Silver Spring, MD area; DC, Washington, D.C. metro area; VA, northern Virginia area.

28 Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Stress and Health 21: 2731 (2005)
Gender differences in coping with stress

Table II. Gender differences in behavior for problem-focused behavioral

Male (%) Female (%) c2
1 Mall shopping 20.3 54.4 16.4**
2 Food shopping 13.8 44.9 14.9**
3 Driving 13.6 40.5 11.9**
4 Gasoline fill-ups 31.6 76.3 26.6**
5 Going to movies 6.9 41.6 20.3**
6 Taking public transportation 5.7 40.8 19.6**
7 Eating out 13.6 35.0 8.2**
8 Socializing with friends 8.5 16.0 1.8
** p < 0.01.

Table III. Gender differences for emotion-focused strategies.

Male (%) Female (%) c2
1 Call or be in touch with friends or relatives 67.7 92.4 14.12**
2 Pills, medicines 1.6 2.6 0.04
3 Watch news/obtain additional information 83.9 91.1 1.73
4 Disconnect from the surroundings 22.6 34.6 2.42
5 Blame the government 12.9 3.9 3.82
6 Blame the terrorist(s) 50.0 53.8 0.20
7 Carrying on activities but with a sense of concern 74.2 91.1 7.31**
** p < 0.01.

Several key demographics of the participants responded no (92.9 and 84.6 per cent, respec-
were compared to that of the diverse Washington, tively). Although a surprisingly high percentage
D.C. metro area. Respondents were 72.1 per cent responded that they knew someone who had been
White, 7.1 per cent African American, 10.0 per killed or injured in an act of violence (58.9
cent Asian, 7.9 per cent Hispanic, and 2.9 per cent and 72.2 per cent, respectively), that fact did not
other. Based on the 2000 census data the equiva- seem to be related to responses on the other
lent distribution is, approximately, 65 per cent questions.
White, 11 per cent African American, 9 per cent Table II shows the percentage of men and
Asian, 10 per cent Hispanic, and 5 per cent other women who showed a modification of behavior.
(Census, 2000). Our data provided a fairly close Chi square tests showed statistically significant
approximation of the three included counties. differences between men and women with respect
to seven out of eight behaviors (Table II). For
these behaviors, the percentage of women who
Results reported behavior change was considerably
greater than men. The only exception was the
In our analysis, the second and third categories question about socializing with friends, for
from the behavioral information section were which there was no observed difference; both
combined resulting in two categories: maintain- genders curtailed their social interaction during
ing the same level of activities or modifying the the crisis.
activity. For the data on emotion-focused mecha- Table III shows the percentage of men and
nisms, the first two categories were combined women who utilized the emotion-focused strate-
resulting in two categories: yes, I used it and no, gies. For most of the emotion-focused coping
I did not use it. Analysis of the results found mechanisms no significant gender differences
many similarities between men and women. For were found (Table III). Interestingly, although
example, when asked if they at any point con- many men coped through social support, a sig-
sidered leaving the area until the sniper was nificantly greater percentage of women used this
caught, both men and women overwhelmingly mechanism.

Copyright 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Stress and Health 21: 2731 (2005) 29
A. Z. Zivotofsky and M. Koslowsky

To see if the findings were related to key demo- stated circumstances, several of the activities dis-
graphic variables, cross-tabulation analyses using cussed, such as gasoline fill-ups, could be viewed
ethnicity (collapsed into two categories, White as necessary but risky activities. The threshold
and non-white) and religion by each of the behav- for engaging in risky behavior is significantly
ioral changes were performed. Also, age was higher for men than for women (Browne, 2002;
correlated with each of the behavioral variables. LaBrie, Schiffman, & Earleywine, 2002; Murphy,
Only in one case was a significant relationship Rotheram-Borus, & Reid, 1998). This is one pos-
observed (religion public transportation, sible explanation for the significantly fewer men
p < 0.05). This one finding could very well be who decreased or modified their behavior.
attributed to chance. An additional factor in explaining our findings
may be societal sex-role stereotypes and expecta-
tions. Gender differences can be attributed to cul-
Discussion tural factors. In most societies, men are assigned
to roles that bestow them with greater power
Although the profile of behavior and coping (Eagly, 1987). Men are usually viewed as more
strategies as a function of gender has yielded independent, active, and venturous, whereas
some inconsistent findings in the literature, women are expected to be more sensitive, obedi-
researchers such as Ptacek et al. (1992) report a ent, and conforming (Diekman & Eagly, 2000;
clear preference for problem-focused coping Eagly, 1987). Departures from these expectations
among men and support-seeking and emotion- are viewed as violating gender-related social
focused coping among women. The gender dif- patterns of behavior (Eagly, 1987, 1995).
ferences in coping mechanisms that we found If the car must be filled with gas and such an
were generally consistent with our expectations. activity is perceived as dangerous and in the realm
Although no gender differences were seen in the of defending the family, it becomes the job of
use of emotion-focused strategies for five of the the man. Thus, several female respondents replied
seven items, we did find a significant difference that they modified the activity of gasoline fill-
between men and women in seeking and utiliza- ups and when asked to specify, noted that their
tion of social support. Social support is consid- husband or boyfriend was now doing it. Indeed,
ered an effective coping strategy in moderating Rosario et al. (1988) developed a role constraint
the effect of stressors in both men and women, theory that argues that gender differences in
and it is used by both genders (Bellmank, Forster, coping are less likely when men and women
Still, & Cooper, 2003). exhibit the same social roles. We contend that in
What seems most surprising is our finding of extreme circumstances the expected societal roles
greater use of what is considered problem- still differ and thus lead to the observed
focused methods among the women. They were differences.
significantly more likely to modify their behavior Future research into stress coping needs to
so as to reduce stress. We propose that the dif- factor in stress type and should endeavor to cor-
ference in our findings can be explained by the relate it with the coping mechanisms utilized by
nature of the stressor. Despite being told numer- men and women and examine its prediction of
ous times that the statistical danger based on the subsequent physical and psychological health.
population size of the area of concern was essen-
tially negligible, people continued to perceive the
situation as one of imminent danger (Stolberg, Acknowledgments
2002). Effective coping behavior must be effec-
tual in dealing with both major stressful events The authors appreciate the assistance of Miriam Fried-
and minor, daily hassles. But that does not imply man, Jeffrey Aftel, and Anna Schneider in collecting the
that an individual must utilize the same mecha- data. We thank Dr Shulamit Epstein for bibliographic
nisms in all scenarios. The majority of the prior
findings of male/female differences in coping were
found under conditions of everyday stress, not
major stressors.
Faced with a life-threatening stressful situation, Bellman, S., Forster, N., Still, L., & Cooper, C.L. (2003).
additional factors enter the picture in conjunction Gender differences in the use of social support as a moder-
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