Gender, war, and male disadvantage

By Michael Flood and David Duriesmith[1]

Men’s rights advocates (MRAs) complain that war is an important site of male disadvantage. They describe the higher rates of sex selective conscription­­ and the large numbers of deaths and injuries among male soldiers as a powerful example of how men are disadvantaged relative to women. This claim is flawed.

Yes, large numbers of men and boys are killed and injured in war. They are sent to war largely by other men. Wars are supported more by men than women. And traditional masculinity has been central to justifications for war. It is men, not women, who have excluded women from joining men in military and combat roles. Feminist women and women’s movements have played key roles in challenging war and militarism. Finally, the overall impacts of war and conflict and their aftermath are greater for women than men.

In more detail:

1.     Men and boys overwhelmingly are sent off to war by other men, not by women, particularly as the vast majority of heads of state, political leaders, and military leaders are male.

  • While female heads of state have not been statistically less likely than male heads of state to go to war, societies which have had women’s suffrage for twice as long are almost five times more likely to resolve internationally disputes peacefully (Caprioli 2000). Similarly, states with a lower percentage of women in parliament are significantly more likely to resolve international disputes through war (Caprioli 2000) (a decrease of 5% in women’s participation in parliament makes a state almost five times as likely to resolve disputes using military violence).

2.     More generally, men are more enthusiastic supporters of war and militarism than women.

  • There is a gender gap in attitudes to war: women’s support for war is consistently lower than men’s, particularly when comparing women’s and men’s attitudes towards particular wars or military involvements (Brooks & Valentino, 2011; Eichenberg, 2003, 2007; Wilcox, Hewitt, & Allsop, 1996).
  • However, women are more likely to approve of wars when they are UN-approved or humanitarian (Brooks & Valentino, 2011).

3.     Traditional masculinity is implicated in political support for and involvements in war and conflict:

  • Those leaders and groups that are most enthusiastic about sending men off to war also are the most strongly supportive of traditional, patriarchal masculinity. Pro-war political leaders are more likely than other leaders also to subscribe to traditional gender ideologies, in which men’s ‘natural’ roles are seen as in part to dominate and defend using aggression (Maruska, 2009; Sjoberg, 2013).
  • Male political leaders draw explicitly on themes of masculinity in justifying and framing military involvement or their work more generally, as such figures as George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin have done (Coe, Domke, Bagley, Cunningham, & Van Leuven, 2007; Ducat, 2005; Riabov & Riabova, 2014).
  • More widely, there are intimate links between the histories of war and militarism and the histories of masculinity (Dudink, Hagemann, & Tosh, 2004; Duriesmith, 2016).
  • Military organizations consistently and intentionally draw on patriarchal notions of masculinity to convince men to fight and take risks in conflict. Within military organizations the valorization of risk taking as a masculine behavior is a cause of significant harm for recruits (Barrett, 1996). Feminists have consistently challenged societal attitudes that demand young men’s military service to prove they are ‘real men’ (Barry, 2010).
  • Societies that are statistically less gender equitable are significantly more likely to be affected by civil war and to resolve international disagreements with violence (Caprioli, 2005). Traditional patriarchal notions of masculinity that support other forms of violence (such as intimate partner violence) are causally implicated in the most destructive practices of war which cause the most harm to men and women (Cockburn, 2004, 2010).

4.     It is men, not women, who have excluded women from military roles.

  • Historically, women have been excluded from military and combat roles, by the male-dominated hierarchies of military institutions and political leaders (Goldstein, 2001; MacKenzie, 2015).
  • Male soldiers and military personnel themselves often have been hostile to women’s participation in the military (Mankayi, 2006; Sasson-Levy, 2011).
  • Feminists often have pushed for women to be allowed to participate in combat. Indeed, in the wake of four decades of feminism, there is growing momentum to foster women’s inclusion and participation in the military, including in combat roles (Gustavsen, 2013; Sasson-Levy & Amram-Katz, 2007).

5.     Feminist women and women’s movements have played key roles in challenging war and militarism in general (Enloe, 2000).

  • Yes, large numbers of men and boys are killed and injured in war, and feminists have been at the forefront of efforts to lesson or prevent the horrors of war.
  • Contemporary feminist groups play important roles for example in supporting male conscientious objectors (Kwon, 2012).

6.     War is an important setting for male injury and death, as US data shows (DeBruyne & Leland, 2015). But it is also an important setting for injuries and deaths among women (and children) (Jansen, 2006). As Jansen argues,

"women are much more vulnerable today than in the past because recent wars have had a higher rate of civilian casualties; for example, in World War I, 15% of the casualties were suffered by civilians, compared with 65% in World War II and 90% in recent wars, which have mainly affected women and children (Okazawa-Rey, 2002; UN, 2001; Waldman, 2005). Women are not just caught in cross-fires but are increasingly victims of violence in war situations. There are widespread atrocities; in war, women’s bodies become a battleground – rapes, forced pregnancies, kidnappings, and sexual servitude are common (Rehn & Sirleaf, 2002; Wood, 2004)." (Jansen, 2006)

Because most combatants in armed conflicts in wars are men, males also the major direct victims of military operations (Plümper & Neumayer, 2006). However, there is evidence that the *overall impacts* of war and conflict and their aftermath are greater for women than men. Studies suggest that the impacts on health and wellbeing (in terms of both illness and death) of war and civil conflict are greater for women than men;

  • An analysis of the effects of civil conflict on post-war public health finds that they are greater for women and children than for men (Ghobarah, Huth, & Russett, 2004).
  • Armed conflict has a greater impact on female life expectancy than male life expectancy, with inter-state and civil wars affecting women more adversely than men over the entire conflict period (Plümper & Neumayer, 2006).
  • A recent global analysis of war-related casualties finds, “men are more likely to die during conflicts, whereas women die more often of indirect causes after the conflict is over” (Ormhaug, Meier, & Hernes, 2009).

Note: Also see the Men's Bibliography references on gender, war, and militarism, including its section on men, masculinity, and war, available here:

References cited

Barrett, F. J. (1996). The organizational construction of hegemonic masculinity: The case of the US Navy. Gender, Work & Organization, 3(3), 129-142.

Barry, K. (2010). Unmaking War, Remaking Men: How Empathy can Reshape our politics, our soldiers and ourselves: Spinifex Press Melbourne.

Brooks, D. J., & Valentino, B. A. (2011). A war of one's own: Understanding the gender gap in support for war. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(2), 270-286.

Caprioli, M. (2005). Primed for violence: The role of gender inequality in predicting internal conflict. International Studies Quarterly, 49(2), 161-178.

Cockburn, C. (2004). The continuum of violence: A gender perspective on war and peace Sites of Violence: Gender and Conflict Zones (pp. 24-44): University of California Press.

Cockburn, C. (2010). Gender relations as causal in militarization and war: A feminist standpoint. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12(2), 139-157.

Coe, K., Domke, D., Bagley, M. M., Cunningham, S., & Van Leuven, N. (2007). Masculinity as Political Strategy: George W. Bush, the “War on Terrorism,” and an Echoing Press. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 29(1), 31-55. doi:10.1300/J501v29n01_03

DeBruyne, N. F., & Leland, A. (2015). American war and military operations casualties: Lists and statistics. Retrieved from

Ducat, S. (2005). The wimp factor: Gender gaps, holy wars, and the politics of anxious masculinity: Beacon Press.

Dudink, S., Hagemann, K., & Tosh, J. (2004). Masculinities in politics and war: Gendering modern history: Manchester University Press.

Duriesmith, D. (2016). Masculinity and New War: The Gendered Dynamics of Contemporary Armed Conflict: Taylor & Francis.

Eichenberg, R. C. (2003). Gender differences in public attitudes toward the use of force by the United States, 1990–2003. International Security, 28(1), 110-141.

Eichenberg, R. C. (2007). Gender differences in support for the use of military force in cross-national perspective: The war system, modernization, and the universal logics of military action.

Enloe, C. (2000). Maneuvers: The international politics of militarizing women's lives: Univ of California Press.

Ghobarah, H. A., Huth, P., & Russett, B. (2004). The post-war public health effects of civil conflict. Social Science & Medicine, 59(4), 869-884. doi:

Goldstein, J. S. (2001). War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice-Versa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gustavsen, E. (2013). Equal treatment or equal opportunity? Male attitudes towards women in the Norwegian and US armed forces. Acta Sociologica, 56(4), 361-374.

Jansen, G. G. (2006). Gender and War. Affilia, 21(2), 134-145. doi:doi:10.1177/0886109905285760

Kwon, I. (2012). Gender, Feminism and Masculinity in Anti-Militarism. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 15(2), 213-233. doi:10.1080/14616742.2012.724209

MacKenzie, M. (2015). Beyond the band of brothers: the US military and the myth that women can't fight: Cambridge University Press.

Mankayi, N. (2006). Male constructions and resistance to women in the military. Scientia Militaria: South African Journal of Military Studies, 34(2).

Maruska, J. H. (2009). When are states hypermasculine? In L. Sjoberg (Ed.), Gender and International Security: Feminist Perspectives (pp. 235-255): Routledge.

Ormhaug, C., Meier, P., & Hernes, H. (2009). Armed conflict deaths disaggregated by gender. PRIO Paper, 23.

Plümper, T., & Neumayer, E. (2006). The unequal burden of war: The effect of armed conflict on the gender gap in life expectancy. International organization, 60(3), 723-754.

Riabov, O., & Riabova, T. (2014). The remasculinization of Russia? Gender, nationalism, and the legitimation of power under Vladimir Putin. Problems of Post-communism, 61(2), 23-35.

Sasson-Levy, O. (2011). The military in a globalized environment: Perpetuating an ‘extremely gendered’organization. Handbook of gender, work and organization, 391-411.

Sasson-Levy, O., & Amram-Katz, S. (2007). Gender integration in Israeli officer training: Degendering and regendering the military. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 33(1), 105-133.

Sjoberg, L. (2013). Gendering global conflict: toward a feminist theory of war: Columbia University Press.

Wilcox, C., Hewitt, L., & Allsop, D. (1996). The gender gap in attitudes toward the Gulf War: A cross-national perspective. Journal of Peace Research, 33(1), 67-82.

[1] Dr Michael Flood is an Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Dr David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the University of Queensland (UQ).