AUSTRALIA – Women play key and overlapping roles in families, communities and businesses. Women collaborate, connect, and plan ahead. But when it comes to disaster preparedness, women, and the people who depend on them, are at a potential disadvantage.
Through national surveys, funded by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, we found 79 per cent of 341 small businesses surveyed did not have a business continuity plan and 63 per cent of community members surveyed did not have either a flood-response or bushfire-survival plan.
For women in small businesses, the problem was greater as they planned less than small businesses run by men.
The absence of planned processes and systems means women in business and community settings are more likely to rely on quality information and guidance during disasters.
But do we all go far enough to support safe and timely action in the lead-up to and during disasters?
Our research identifies ways we can better encourage women to take appropriate action, and argues their decision-making and social networking capabilities can be utilised to benefit the broader community.
We draw insights from two national surveys administered in 2017:
small business data from 341 small business owners; and
community data from 1,382 community members from urban and non-urban settings.
Both surveys comprised 51 per cent women and 49 per cent men.
The planning paradox
Planning ahead for the impacts of disasters can better channel resources to support community and business resilience. Through flood response, bushfire survival, and business continuity plans, individuals, families, and businesses assess risk, devise measures to control for risk, and identify steps to reduce the impact of and support recovery from natural disasters.
Governments provide information about disaster preparedness often via online materials. For community members, disaster preparedness planning processes such as bushfire survival plans and flood response plans are a key part of the emergency sector’s preparedness strategy.
During the response phase for natural hazards, risk and warning communication often emphasises actions based on the assumption that communities have prepared appropriately for events and their immediate and short-term impact.
While there is information to support community responses to disasters, there is little to no official information targeted to support small businesses.
This factor is further complicated when planning levels are low.
The information needs of women during disasters
Motivated by the opportunity to tailor communication to support community and business outcomes, we asked participants to self-assess their anxiety about hazards, information needs, and confidence in their ability to deal with natural hazards.
In the context of bushfires, women in community settings reported needing more information and being more worried about bushfires than men.
In the context of both bushfires and floods, women in community settings reported having less confidence in their ability to respond when these events threatened their home.
When compared to men in small businesses, women reported needing more information and worrying more about the effects of flood.
There were no significant gender differences around bushfires.
Our survey also showed when it comes to evacuating during natural disasters in general, women and men are motivated by different cues.
Women in community settings are motivated by an official recommendation to evacuate, concern for others’ wellbeing and seeing that others around them are evacuating.
Women in small business settings can be encouraged by messaging that emphasises the opportunity to meet others’ expectations, shows others around them are evacuating, and addresses concerns about food and shelter following evacuation.
Engaging women in natural disasters
Our work with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre adopts a community-centred approach to risk and warning communication.
By putting people at the start and heart of communication design, we have a greater chance to gain attention to critical information, help people make safe and timely decisions, and take action in the lead-up to and during natural hazards.
To address the problems and opportunities highlighted for women in our surveys, emergency management agencies, governments, media, businesses and communities need to work in partnership to ensure there is better preparation for and response to future natural hazards.
To encourage continuing conversations within the sector, we argue for:
messages tailored to women in community settings that, for example, show images of people evacuating their homes and address concerns about food and shelter following evacuation;
messages that include checklists to help women in small businesses prioritise achievable tasks in the lead-up to disasters;
information that is easy to find and implement to support women in communities and businesses; and
programs designed to build response capabilities in small business owners before, during and following events.
The responsibility to communicate does not fall on one agency alone.
By working across organisations, we have the opportunity to support women who, in turn, can utilise their social networks to spread the word and normalise behaviours to support positive community and business outcomes in the context of disasters.
QUT Business School associate professor Amisha Mehta specialises in risk and crises management and organisational change; Professor Lisa Bradley works in the areas of human resource management and risk communication; and Sophie A Miller’s research focuses on associations between socioeconomic position, neighbourhood disadvantage, and mental health and wellbeing in a natural disaster.