COVID-19, Genetics, Health, Top Stories

COVID-19’s Gender Gap

When Hilary Clinton said in 1998 that “women have always been the primary victims of war,” it sent a chill down the spine of many. It is a questionable piece of emotional accounting to calculate that, even though men die in greater numbers than women—often after being drafted unwillingly into combat—the impact on women is greater because they lose male relatives, become refugees, and are left with the responsibility of raising children alone.

But if you think Clinton’s accounting was reasonable, then you will have no problem with the narrative around the gender death gap in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. You might have noticed that in the media (for example, the BBC, the Guardian), and even in the world of health (for example, the World Health Organisation and the Lancet), a commonly recurring narrative has developed around the pandemic: More men are dying, but the real victims are women. Moreover, this narrative usually implies that men’s deaths are largely due to men’s poor decisions about health behaviour.

Are men’s deaths their own fault?

The Lancet suggests men’s deaths are related to “behaviours associated with masculine norms.” What do they mean by this? Well, there is no doubt that some behaviours can impact health, and some of these behaviours show sex differences. For example, men smoke cigarettes more than women do, and wash their hands less. Both of these behaviours have been suggested as the reason why men die more from COVID-19, mainly because hand-washing reduces the chance of infection, and smoking reduces lung capacity, making it easier for the coronavirus to take hold there.

However, neither of these explanations stand up well to scrutiny. Hand-washing impacts infection rates, and roughly equal numbers of men and women are infected by the novel coronavirus. So this doesn’t explain why more men die after they have been infected. Regarding smoking, in many countries men and women smoke at more or less the same rate (for example, Denmark) but men are still more likely to die—61 percent of Danish deaths are male (data is regularly updated here). Similarly, children rarely smoke, so smoking doesn’t explain why boys are more likely to die than girls. Nevertheless, smoking is still being offered as an explanation for men’s higher rate of COVID-19 deaths, long after publication of a study on March 16th concluding that active smoking is not associated with the severity of the illness.

Future data will no doubt tell us more, but for now we don’t have reasonable grounds to blame the greater number of men’s deaths on smoking or lack of hand-washing. In fact, such explanations look increasingly like victim-blaming—that is, blaming someone for their own misfortune without taking other factors properly into account.

What explains the gender difference in mortality?

In all mammals, including humans, the female has two X chromosomes which gives their immune system an adaptive advantage compared to those of males, who have an XY chromosome pairing. In other words, men are more likely than women to die from a COVID-19 infection for genetic reasons. This has already been recognised in research on male coronavirus hospitalisation (published on January 14th) but most commentators don’t acknowledge this study, or downplay the genetic explanation in favour of behavioural explanations, such as smoking and hand-washing.

Why do we keep blaming men?

Men’s behaviour is often scapegoated as bad for their health in spite of research demonstrating that harnessing male-typical interests can facilitate physical and mental health. It is often overlooked that male-typical behaviour, such as taking risks, can be extremely beneficial to society. This is most clear in the emergency services, populated mainly by men, where risk-taking can be self-sacrificing—one person puts themselves in danger to benefit another. Indeed, men and women put themselves at risk of infection in ways that benefit others too (for example, health workers, delivery drivers, soldiers, supermarket cashiers, refuse collectors, and others) and they all deserve recognition.

This negative narrative around men risks exacerbating the gender empathy gap, part of a wider unconscious bias against men, recently identified as an aspect of gamma bias. Evolutionary psychologists understand that, by some accounting, women are indeed more important than men—for a population to thrive, 100 men and one woman won’t help much, whereas 100 women and one man is likely to be much more productive.

This leads to an important conclusion: Perhaps it is normal to value women more than men. Certainly, the media narrative would be totally different if 65 percent of COVID-19 deaths were women. And there is evidence that our views on women’s health are much more sensitive to causal factors in a way that doesn’t lead so readily to victim-blaming. It’s hard to imagine a female politician being mocked and blamed for contracting this disease while doing their job, and almost “taking one for the team” (which is to say, dying).

How can we improve this situation?

I am not saying that men should take no responsibility for their health behaviours, and I urge men to take appropriate health advice in relation to this pandemic. But I also urge influential institutions, such as the WHO, to be careful not to perpetuate a narrative that stigmatises masculinity or that encourages victim-blaming and the consequent alienation of men. After all the WHO is part of the UN, and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Focusing on unlikely causes of men’s increased coronavirus mortality at the expense of more plausible biological factors isn’t helping us to understand this disease or to find a treatment.

We don’t have sufficient evidence about the causes of COVID-19 mortality to point the finger of blame at male behaviour, but it is unsurprising that men’s health has not been dealt with in a positive way. This is the pattern we have seen for years with many of men’s issues, including male suicide, male victims of domestic violence, and boys falling behind in education.  My hope is that if we can learn to deal with the current pandemic with more empathy and humanity, we can deal with future crises more harmoniously and effectively, too.


Dr John Barry is a chartered psychologist, co-founder of the Male Psychology Network, and co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. His new book Perspectives in Male Psychology is published by Wiley later this year. You can follow him on Twitter @MalePsychology.

Photo by Richard Goff on Unsplash.


  1. I don’t think we counter SJW’s politics of identifying as victims by likewise identifying as victims. Like the feminists who got themselves the vote and equal pay, we men have agency and need to take responsibility for ourselves.

    There are significant physiological differences, but we can’t do anything about them, so can forget them. We can do something about our behaviour. The article mentioned a couple of things, but omitted others.

    • men smoke more often than women
    • men are more likely to be overweight or obese
    • men eat less fruit and vegetables than women
    • men eat more junk food
    • men are more likely to abuse alcohol and other intoxicating substances
    • men are less likely to hit the physical activity guidelines
    • men are less likely to wash their hands when necessary
    • men are less likely to seek medical help
    • men have smaller social circles than women

    All these things hurt men’s physical and mental health. All of them are things which a man can choose to do or not. They may or may not make a difference to the current pandemic, but they are all good things to do for your overall physical and mental health in any case.

    “I know of no more encouraging fact,” said Thoreau, “than the unquestionable ability of a man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour.”

    In the workplace there is the legal concept of a reasonable duty of care. A man has a reasonable duty of care to himself, too. We have responsibilities as well as rights. Make a conscious endeavour to elevate your life, and stop being a victim.

  2. I really appreciate Quillette for publishing articles like this! :slight_smile:

    What could more clearly demonstrate the bias of the progressive liberal media and their kindred spirits at WHO than their either complete ignorance or even victim blaming when it comes to the suffering of social groups they despise, such as men in this case?

    All over the world, men and women are trying to overcome this crisis together, while some hate-mongers obviously have nothing better to do than to set people against each other.

    And while there is hope that one day, hopefully not too far away, COVID-19 will no longer be a threat, progressive activists are a recurring plague.

  3. It is obvious to me why men die at roughly twice the rate of women from Coronavirus. We die to annoy women. It’s yet another cause of grievance for them.

  4. In all mammals, including humans, the female has two X chromosomes which gives their immune system an adaptive advantage compared to those of males, who have an XY chromosome pairing

    OMG this article is so transphobic I just… can’t…even…

  5. And yet, my waking up alive this morning seems to have greatly annoyed my wife. There’s no pleasing these people.

    Old joke: If a man says something, and there’s no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?

  6. Where is your data for these assertions about male behavior. Do you have references to back them up or are you making them up?

    The article already showed that some of your assertions are incorrect. Others can be discounted as well. For example. women are more obese then men.

    And if men have smaller social circle they would be LESS likely to catch the disease

  7. Sorry, Kyle, you are a good man, your advises are correct but ask yourself, why do we, men, have inclination to risky behavior?

    I fully agree with you but the problem is that we must have risky behaviors. That’s what we are created for! Otherwise, we will not be men.

  8. But that is the goal of the SJW - convincing people that physiological differences do not exist, genetics have no part in how we live and die, that people are free to choose their gender (or not) because gender is a ‘social construct’.

    You are correct in that most of your points are the result of poor decisions, but in most western societies, it applies equally to both men and women. If you have data to back up your statements, then please post links because I would love to see them.

  9. Shouldn’t all individuals be held responsible for their decisions? I agree with Kyle – the proper response to victim mongering is not more victim mongering. Grievance should not be met with grievance, nor should people be defined by their group identity.

  10. Taking risks has long been a way men demonstrate their value to society and women. Women prefer men who take risks, at work and elsewhere. They are often the cheerleaders who motivate risky male behavior, on the football field, at home…

    Sometimes men take impulsive risks before considering the consequences. For example, a man is more likely than a woman to impulsively enter a burning building or dive into freezing waters to save total strangers. The Carnegie Hero Fund shows an overwhelming dominance of men in rescues. That benefits society.

    The mainstream media, especially the liberal media, seldom reflect this, instead often portrays only men’s violence–a deliberately chosen bias.

  11. If 65% of the COVID deaths were female, there would be massive hand-wringing in the Western media about how the medical system is failing women, how the patriarchy is discouraging women from reporting symptoms, and who knows what else.

    But, instead, 65% of the COVID death rate is men, and people just view it as a marginally-interesting detail.

    But since I am a Man, I just sort of ignore it all and carry on.

  12. This article uncannily echoes some thoughts I was having on a long walk I just got back from. Three cheers for synchronicity. The callous one-sidedness and gender tribalism of a lot of feminist takes on this issue (and many others) is pretty evident, even when they hide behind disingenuous claims that adopting a “gender lens” is just part of getting a fuller picture.

    In practice, adopting a ‘gender lens’ typically means narrowing one’s focal point so that women’s interests (as construed by certain feminists) are the sole object of concern and women alone are worthy of compassion. The very type of ‘behavioural’ explanations for male mortality with respect to COVID-19 (eg. smoking rates) are totally discounted by social justice types when it comes to other issues where demographic disparities are evident (the ‘pay gap’; incarceration rates; etc). In the latter case, elaborate sociological theories are brought forth to explain the systemic origins of these gaps and a range of societal changes are proposed to overcome them. In the former case, all we get is simple moralism, self-help bromides and victim blaming. The same goes with feminist discussions now underway about job-related risks associated with COVID-19 - which focus on the allegedly elevated risks that woman are facing in care professions. This not only neglects all of the comparable male-majority sectors in which men are also currently at risk, the the fact that men routinely face much greater workplace injury and fatality outside of ‘once-in-a-generation’ pandemics. Once again, all compassion is cut off here - presumably on the grounds that male life is cheap, men are at fault, or that male-dominated sectors of the economy are only so because they somehow illegitimately exclude women.

    Christina Hoff Sommers has a good line about men and women in affluent countries today having a different ‘mix of burdens and benefits’ - as opposed to a binary model which portrays ‘women’ in general as oppressed and ‘men’ in general as privileged in all situations. Adopting a ‘gender lens’ should mean accounting honestly and compassionately for the complexities and challenges on both sides. It is hard to see mainstream liberal feminists, who know monopolize the discussion over gender in most institutional arenas, doing this willingly - although failing to do so will definitely discredit them among a larger and larger group of people in the long term (including among reasonable feminists who still shy away from generalized contempt or indifference towards men, care about their husbands / sons / brothers / etc).

  13. Last weekend I heard back-to-back stories on NPR (possibly BBC via NPR). First was about how higher mortality among people of color is the result of institutional racism. Second was about how higher mortality among men is the result of women’s genetic advantages.

  14. It is simple. The Gender empathy gap, as shown in 2 minutes with real life examples:

    Mens suffering was literally LAUGHED at while the womans was rightly, taken seriously, extremely so

    Gender empathy? How does this affect health? Look at the language in articles. Women are “denied access to” or “not taken seriously” vs men just bloody well dont see their doctor instead of seeing any reason (well for one men are more likley to work full time, overtime, and virtually no gender targetted healthcare and have far less oppurtunistic health contact e.g. women will go to for a contraception check up, or a UTI and while there will mention something else). Global health indexes look at gender equality but oddly ALL the focus is on females and they even rank these countries as sexist to males even though men have upto 11 years less life expectancy, more cancer, heart disease, see their GP less etc.

    93% of the circa 7000 work place deaths are male, yet interestingly often we see an extreme focus on the 7% female ones. Men do the dirty dangerou jobs, traditionally the had to work 5 years longer than women before retiing, they also have forced conscription in many countires, they work outside, in dirty, horrible conditions, inhaling junk, working in jobs that smoking and drinking are common in and of course over the years have destroyed their health, then they get Corona.

    In UK, Shockingly ICU beds for Covid are being discriminated against by gender with women systematically (by design) and automatically preferred over men by giving them 1 point less on the acceptnace of a bed scale (get too many points, no ICU bed, you gonna die bro). How do people feel about this? I personally think these countries would lose their minds if women were automtically being discriminated life saving treatment:

    Note this is throughout Europe and not just Ireland. What is actually worying though, is this is being picked up on by the media and people are calling it out but ONLY on AGE with not a single mention of gender!

    Throughout the world we have seen women ONLY allowed out for supplies in quaratine (asia), women only receiving emergency universal income (India) and most

  15. Hold my beer…:grinning:

    My son volunteered repeatedly to deploy to Afghanistan. In fact he told me he nagged his superiors until they relented and let him go (Grin). My brother, who is a retired pulmonary physician, volunteered to go to New York to help out with Covid-19. Part of the reason is altruistic. But another big part is the excitement. As my brother pointed out: “I have never worked a pandemic before.”

    Men do seek excitement in greater numbers than women. That relates to our historical role as hunters and defenders of the tribe. In tribes in which the men did not want to take risks everyone ended up as lion food. In contrast, in tribes in which men took risks the only ones who ended up as lion food were some of the men. Evolution favored men who enjoyed risk taking, just as evolution favored women who were more attentive to their children. You can’t take risks if you are primarily responsible for the well-being of your children. Women who took risks also ended up as lion food, followed shortly thereafter by their children. Quite frankly, in primitive societies, men are more dispensable. Anyone who thinks that sexually dimorphic behaviour patterns are not evolutionarily defined is denying science. We see similar patterns in most mammals.

    We still need people who WANT to defend our country and put themselves on the front line of a pandemic. We need people who want to take risks. Men do this in greater numbers than women because we are predisposed to enjoy it.

    C’mon, don’t tell me you never took your bike over a jump when you were a kid :grinning:

    Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result: Winston Churchill

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