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A Study of Stairway Falls Says Lots About Gender Differences

Women in their 20s fall on stairs 80% more often than men.

Key points

  • Young women fall on stairwars far more often than men.
  • As a result of their falls, women suffer more inuries than men.
  • Shoes, clothing, sociability, and hygiene have a lot to do with it.

I read five to ten studies a day, and I never would have thought that one of the most interesting studies I’ve read in months is about how we go down stairs.

People fall and injure themselves when walking down stairs far more often than you might think. Some of their falls are serious enough to result in death, and not just among those who are old. So it makes sense that there would be a study on the topic. But who knew that looking into the how’s and why’s of stairway falls would end up revealing so much about the differences between young women and men?

If you are going to study something like stairway falls, it makes sense to begin by finding out which age groups are most likely to fall. While there is nothing surprising in learning that children under the age of 3 and adults over the age of 85 are two of the three age groups experiencing the greatest number of injuries while going down stairs, I was blown away to learn that running a clear third as the age group experiencing injuries while going down stairs are men and women in their 20s. Wait—isn't that when we as human beings are at our most robust?

Even more surprising is the finding that it’s women who experience the most injuries—80% of those that occur—among people in their 20s who fall while going down stairs.

Why is it that young women are injured far more often than young men? Wearing heels does contribute some, but it’s not nearly as big a factor as you might think. Only 7% of the young adults wore sandals, sliders, or high heels—shoes known to increase the risk of falls and injuries. While most of the iffy-shoe-wearers were women, that still does not explain the huge difference in number of injuries between young women and men when going down stairs. In fact, the shoe issue is somewhat offset by the fact that young men are far more likely than women to go down stairs with their hands in their pockets, which is another risk factor.

To study this phenomena, a group of researchers at Purdue University hooked up cameras on well-traveled stairways and observed the behaviors of students as they went down the stairs. They kept watch on a short staircase, with two stairs, and a longer one, with 17 stairs. Interestingly, falls are more likely to occur on shorter staircases with five or fewer steps, but injuries from falls are more likely to occur on longer staircases.

The researchers found that women were less likely to use handrails than men. The reasons were that women were more likely to be holding something, such as a purse or a phone. They were also more likely to be talking to someone they are walking with, which proves to be particularly problematic for the woman furthest from the handrail. And women touched the handrails less, most likely due to concerns about hygiene.

When women are talking to a friend while walking, they tend to stand closer to each other than men do, and they might make more eye-to-eye contact when talking rather than looking ahead.

Women also had more co-occurring risk behaviors, such as wearing sandals while talking to a friend and not holding onto the handrail.

About 15% to 20% of men had their hands in their pockets, which is a risk factor for falls. And men tended to skip stairs and not look at the stairs ahead of them, also risk factors. (Women tend to think we men put our hands in our pockets because are playing with our ourselves., but that is not usually the case. The pockets in jeans go straight down, not toward the middle. We usually put our hands in our pockets just because they are there, sometimes due to awkwardness, and maybe due to some primal instinct to protect our genitals, futile as that might be.) Whatever the reasons, putting one's hands in one's pockets is not a good idea when going down stairs.

If you had never read a single study about differences in behaviors between men and women, you could clearly learn a lot about gender differences by studying how young adults go down stairs. You’d see that women tend to be more social, that they are more handicapped by cultural expectations that the pockets in their clothes should be for appearance only, so they have no choice but to carry a purse, and that women are expected to wear shoes (heels and sandals) that are not as safe or comfortable or sturdy as the lace-ups men more often wear.

You would also see in action gender differences in hygiene that exemplify what other studies show, that women tend to be more concerned about germs and dirt than men. And that concern leads them to not do the most important thing a person can do to ensure safety when going down stairs—hold the handrail.

You would also see that men tend to be less social, and while they are more aggressive when going down stairs (skipping stairs), they overestimate their abilities. As a result, they fail to look at the steps ahead to carefully gauge where their feet need to go.


Cho H, Arnold AJ, Cui C, Yang Z, Becker T, Kulkarni A, et al. (2023) Risky behavior during stair descent for young adults: Differences in men versus women. PLoS ONE 18(7): e0288438.

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