Gad Saad Ph.D.

Homo Consumericus

Sex Differences in Hand Washing Rates After Using a Public Restroom

Men are less likely to wash hands after bathroom use.

Posted Oct 06, 2011

Childcare centers constitute another environment in which stringent hand washing practices are de rigueur. The likelihood of having children transmit illnesses to one another, to teachers, and/or to their parents and siblings is greatly diminished if the appropriate hand washing standards are adhered to. I should know...I have a germ factory at home (almost three-year old daughter)!

In today's post, I'd like to discuss the hand washing practice in yet another context, namely the washing of one's hand post-bathroom use. Of course, this is particularly important for those who handle food. The most assured way to trigger disgust in me at a restaurant is if I were to see a chef or cook come out of the bathroom. My gluttony is superseded by my sheer repulsion at the possibility that I might be eating some bodily fluids or fecal matter. It turns out that my fear is well founded. A 2003 article coauthored by H. Durell Johnson, Danielle Sholcosky, Karen Gabello, Robert Ragni, and Nicole Ogonosky explored sex differences in handwashing rates subsequent to the use a public bathroom (they also looked at handrinsing rates but these will not be discussed here; of note, some of those findings are difficult to reconcile with the handwashing results). Furthermore, the researchers investigated whether the presence or absence of a visible sign "Please Wash Hands" would alter individuals' behaviors. Here are the key findings:

Without the sign:

Men's handwashing rates: 37%
Women's handwashing rates: 61%

With the sign:

Men's handwashing rates: 35%
Women's handwashing rates: 97%

Men's behaviors remain equally revolting (!) irrespective of whether a sign was present or not. Women's compliance rates increased drastically when the sign was present. Additionally, women's handwashing rates were greater than those of men in both conditions.

Two more recent studies (see here and here) have replicated this sex difference albeit the overall rates of handwashing were generally greater that those reported by Johnson et al.  Let's hope that the great majority of food handlers fall within the handwashing camp.

Bottom line: If you eat regularly at a restaurant, pray that the kitchen staff is largely composed of women! Let us for a moment imagine that men had been found to be more hygienic than women. If I would have accordingly made the exact same statement but in the opposite direction, it is almost guaranteed that I would have been accused of rabid sexism. Findings that demonstrate that men perform worse off than women on some metric are part of normal science. The opposite pattern of findings could only imply patriarchal oppression. ☺

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