May 15, 2020 - 7:00am

Researchers at Middlesex and Berkeley universities have found that American men are less likely to wear a mask to protect against the spread of Covid-19, and have more negative attitudes towards wearing them than women. In the belief that they are less likely to catch the virus, the study says men are more likely than women to see masks as ‘shameful, not cool and a sign of weakness’.

So it looks as though — wherever they are — women have internalised the memo to wear masks better than men. But why are we more obliging, and better able, seemingly, to put the wellbeing of the group ahead of our immediate convenience? Perhaps the answer lies in deeply encoded social differences.

Right from early childhood, girls follow rules better. Claire Cameron from the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia is an expert on American kindergarteners. In one study of around 600 five- and six-year-olds, she found that girls were significantly better than boys at ‘self regulation’ —  indeed when it came to following directions, paying attention, finishing assignments, and being organised, girls were a whole year ahead of boys. This capacity for self-regulation extends right through the educational system, landing a higher percentage of female than male school-leavers in college.

Mask-wearing, of course, is about more than scientific guidance and best-practice rule adherence. It’s about social judgement: do you want to be seen as someone who’s considerate and able to take responsibility, or are you too selfish to care?

It’s no surprise that women care more about the answer — regardless of what they really think of the effectiveness of facemasks. From girlhood we are more worried about how we are perceived than boys. It’s built in; partly because of the extraordinary emphasis on female physical appearance from the start, and partly because the dynamics between girls, which involve lots of in-depth, sometimes exacting, and cruel talk about other girls means that the social equilibrium is more precarious, and more subject to slips in perception. Studies have shown, for example, that girls have more to lose by being gossiped about than boys.

Girls are also more likely to be expected to do housework and chores than their brothers; just as wives do more housework and childcare. No wonder then that by the time we’ve all grown up, it’s women — prone to follow rules, act for the group rather than their own immediate comfort, and more unsettled than men by social derision or judgement — who are better at lumping the sweaty lip and donning a home-altered sock around their face in the spring sunshine.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)