Lagging COVID-19 vaccination rates for police and firefighters have repeatedly made headlines in Long Beach and across the region, but beyond their occupation, there may be another factor in those departments that’s dragging down the likelihood someone will get inoculated: gender.

Five of the six city departments with the lowest vaccination rates, including Long Beach Police and Fire, all have workforces and management that are majority-men, newly released demographic data shows.

The inverse is also largely true. Of the 12 city departments with vaccination rates greater than 90%, five have women over-represented in both management and non-management positions, three have a nearly equitable split between men and women and two have achieved an equitable split, according to the city’s demographic data.

Jennifer Reich, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, who has studied vaccination decision-making for 15 years, wasn’t surprised when presented with this data.

“Women pretty consistently have higher vaccination rates than men,” Reich said.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that 65.9% of women in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, while 61.7% of men are.

A similar pattern was revealed among Long Beach municipal employees when the city manager’s office on Feb. 3 released data on the ethnic and gender breakdowns of each city department as of 2019 and 2020, the most recent available years.

The most striking finding in the newly released data concerns the six city departments that have vaccination rates lower than 80%, according to the city manager’s latest vaccination rate update, which was released on Dec. 28, 2021. Of those departments—Police, Water, Public Works, Fire and Energy—five have men over-represented in both management and non-management roles.

At none of these departments do women make up more than 40% of either management or non-management positions, according to the city.

This division is most visible at Fire, which employs 696 people and has a 78% vaccination rate. There, women made up just 12% of management and non-management jobs, respectively, in 2020.

This represented both an increase and decrease over the prior year, when women accounted for 11% of non-mangement jobs and 18% of the non-management jobs, according to the city’s demographic data.

Of course, aggregate data doesn’t explain choices made on an individual level, so it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions on why some departments are lagging.

When asked for comment, the City Manager’s office said that 85% of all city employees have been vaccinated, and that city officials do not currently track the demographics or job classification of vaccinated or unvaccinated employees, or the reasons why the remaining 15% of employees have not become vaccinated.

There is currently no vaccination mandate for city employees, though a city spokesperson said officials are continuing to negotiate with labor organizations over the terms of a possible mandate.

There are also a few exceptions to these trends.

At the Harbor Department, which employs 541 people and has a vaccination rate of 87%, men hold 60% of management roles and 65% of non-management positions.

The relatively small Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications office (78 employees) has a 77% vaccination rate. While the department’s management is made up of 75% men, women account for 78% of the non-management side of the department women.

The Legislative department, which boasts a 100% vaccination rate, doesn’t quite have perfect equity in employment, though it is one of the smaller departments in the city, with just 56 employees. There, women make up 45% of management and 38% of non-management roles.

Development Services, which employs 172 people and has a 91% vaccination rate, also has an inequitable workforce. There, woman account for 44% of the non-management jobs and 39% of the management positions.

In any case, there are a variety of factors involved in explaining data like this, said Reich.

Historically, women often make health care decisions for the whole family, “which is a ton of extra work for women,” said Reich. Women often handle nutrition decisions. Partly for this reason, married men live longer than unmarried men, according to Reich.

While that helps explain why women have higher vaccination rates than men, Reich said additional group behaviors also play a role.

“It’s the ‘birds of a feather’ phenomenon,” she said, referring to how entering a community can change a person’s thinking and opinions. If people are consistently around others who are not vaccinated, they’re not likely to get vaccinated, Reich said.

“People are always sharing health care information with each other,” she said.

Reich also noted that there are very few vaccines typically given to adults, outside those who work in health care or the military. “Most workers aren’t accustomed to participating in an adult vaccination program,” Reich said.

Gender also heavily influences perceptions of risk, Reich said.

Though workers are at the greatest risk of getting infected by those they work closely with, people historically fear exposure from strangers and immigrants, Reich said.

It’s also true that men, who statistically have higher mortality rates following COVID infection than women, nonetheless are less fearful of getting infecting than women, according to Reich.

“Men can resent being told what to do in regards to their health,” said Reich. “When we talk about vaccines, we’re also talking about people’s perception of risk, of community, and gender absolutely plays a part in that.”

Amid omicron wave, Long Beach has yet to impose vaccine mandate for employees

Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.