Women Scan For Danger When Walking at Night

Summary: A new study highlights the stark differences in how men and women perceive safety while walking at night.

Through an innovative use of heat maps generated by participants’ focus on photographs of campus areas, the study found women were significantly more likely to scan for potential safety hazards in their surroundings, unlike men who focused on direct paths or specific objects.

This research, involving nearly 600 participants, underscores the gender-specific experiences of navigating public spaces after dark, calling for inclusive urban planning that addresses these distinct safety perceptions.

Key Facts:

  1. Women participants consistently scanned for potential safety hazards around the periphery of images, indicating a unique concern for safety while walking at night.
  2. Men’s attention was primarily directed towards paths and fixed objects, showing a different approach to navigating public spaces.
  3. The study’s findings suggest the need for urban and campus planning to consider the diverse safety needs and perceptions of all genders to create more inclusive environments.

Source: Brigham Young University

An eye-catching new study shows just how different the experience of walking home at night is for women versus men.

The study, led by Brigham Young University public health professor Robbie Chaney, provides clear visual evidence of the constant environmental scanning women conduct as they walk in the dark, a safety consideration the study shows is unique to their experience.

Chaney and co-authors Alyssa Baer and Ida Tovar showed pictures of campus areas at four Utah universities — Utah Valley University, Westminster, Brigham Young University and University of Utah — to participants and asked them to click on areas in the photos that caught their attention.

Women focused significantly more on potential safety hazards — the periphery of the images — while men looked directly at focal points or their intended destination.

This shows a woman walking at night.
While men tended to focus on the path or a fixed object (like a light, the walking path or a garbage can), the women’s visual pattern represented a scanning of the perimeter (bushes, dark areas next to a path). Credit: Neuroscience News

“The resulting heat maps represent perhaps what people are thinking or feeling or doing as they are moving through these spaces,” Chaney said. “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.”

Nearly 600 individuals took part in the study, published recently in the journal Violence and Gender, with 56% of participants being female and 44% being male. Each participant looked at 16 images and were told to imagine themselves walking through those areas. They used a Qualtrics heat map tool to click on the areas of the image that stood out the most to them.

While men tended to focus on the path or a fixed object (like a light, the walking path or a garbage can), the women’s visual pattern represented a scanning of the perimeter (bushes, dark areas next to a path).

Chaney, along with Baer and Tovar — both BYU undergrads at the time of the study’s inception — say the findings provide some insight into what it is like to walk home as a woman, which could be multiplied through years or a lifetime of experiences.

“This project has been a fantastic conversation starter to bring awareness to lived experiences, particularly of women in this case,” said Baer, who recently finished graduate school at George Washington University and now works in Washington, D.C. “My hope is that in having concrete data we are able to start conversations that lead to meaningful action.”

Authors said the data suggests that because environment is perceived and experienced differently by women and men, decision makers in building campus and community environments should consider the varied experiences, perceptions and safety of both.

“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,” Chaney said. “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.”

About this visual neuroscience research news

Author: Todd Hollingshead
Source: Brigham Young University
Contact: Todd Hollingshead – Brigham Young University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Gender-Based Heat Map Images of Campus Walking Settings: A Reflection of Lived Experience” by Robbie Chaney et al. Violence and Gender


Gender-Based Heat Map Images of Campus Walking Settings: A Reflection of Lived Experience

Fear of crime can influence our view of and experience with the world around us. This can be problematic for individuals seeking physical activity, including from walk commuting.

Prior work shows fear is especially evident among women, who report fear of rape and sexual abuse by men as a primary concern.

We present the results of a cross-sectional survey (n = 571) where participants were shown images from college campus (n = 4 campuses) depicting different lighting (daytime, nighttime), and entrapment levels (high, low; i.e., able to easily escape if needed, with high entrapment being difficult and low being easy), and using the Qualtrics heat map tool, selected features that stood out to them most.

Data were segregated by gender and analyzed to determine similarity of heat maps for the same base image. Heat map images were analyzed using canonical correlation (Rc) to determine the relationship between the two groups; dispersion testing to decipher spatial uniformity within the images; the Structural Similarity Index (SSIM) to characterize the nature of image patterns differences; and, the Breslow–Day Test to specify pattern locations within images. Several heat map images are also presented in the results.

Overall, female and male participants appear to “see” different things when imagining walk-commuting (as seen by poor Rc values) and the nature of what they were looking at were different (as seen by poor SSIM values).

Female participants tended to focus on areas outside the walking path, such as bushes and dark areas, whereas men’s focus was on the path ahead [χ2(1) = 4.29, p = 0.04]. Furthermore, women were more likely to select areas outside the walking path during high entrapment settings [χ2(1) = 15.49, p < 0.001] and at nighttime [χ2(1) = 4.98, p = 0.02].

Our study demonstrates point-of-view differences in female–male walking space assessments. Viewing walking safety through the lens of lived experience could be productive for holistic community walking safety.

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