It is the unwritten law of the sea but the idea of women and children first when a ship is sinking is a myth, according to a study of 18 maritime disasters where the prevailing attitude is best summarised as "every man for himself".
With the notable exception of the Titanic disaster in 1912, women and children were far less likely to survive a sinking ship than men, and the male members of a ship's crew almost invariably had the best chances of survival compared with male and female passengers, the study found.
Although the idea of "women and children first" is a common assumption about disasters at sea, there is no evidence to support it other than the highly unusual circumstances of the Titanic where the captain, Edward Smith, ordered his crew to give priority to women and children, said Mikael Elinder, an economist at Uppsala University north of Stockholm.
"In the majority of shipwrecks, women have a much lower survival rate than men, which is consistent with the idea of every man for himself. Male chivalry seems to be completely unimportant or non-existent in reality when it comes to maritime disasters," Dr Elinder said.
"Even the Titanic story may not be to do with chivalry but with the order of the captain to rescue women and children first, which was enforced with the threat of violence against those men who resisted the order," he said.
The study of 18 maritime disasters from 1852 to 2011, involving some 15,000 passengers from more than 30 nations, found that the survival rate of women was on average about half that of men, and children had the lowest survival rate of all.
However, the Titanic disaster was an exception to the general rule. In this case, the survival rate of women was more than three times that of men, with accounts documenting many instances where men stood back to give women and children priority when boarding lifeboats.
About 70 per cent of the women and children on the Titanic survived compared with about 20 per cent of the men. But there were reports of officers using guns in the mêlée to uphold Captain Smith's order to save women and children first.
Nevertheless, Dr Elinder and his colleague Oscar Erixon found when they surveyed a subset of 16 shipwrecks that had not been analysed previously, that women and children were at a significant disadvantage to men, which fits into the general pattern of poorer survival chances of women and children in natural disasters, they said.
"We also find that crew members have a higher survival rate than passengers and that only nine of 16 captains went down with their ships. Children appear to have the lowest survival rate," they write in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study found there was no evidence to suggest that the length of time spent at sea before the disaster, where bonds could have been formed between passengers and crew, affected subsequent male-female survival rates.
Nor did the time it took for the ship to sink affect differences in survival, which has sometimes been used to explain why there was no difference in survival rates between male and female passengers on the Lusitania, which took just 20 minutes to sink compared with the 160 minutes of the Titanic.
The study also failed to find any support for the idea that male gallantry is greater on British ships. Women on British-registered ships were just as likely to drown as those on foreign-operated ships, the researchers found.
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