Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Dave Contreras/Unsplash
Girls & Women

Women Really Are Tougher Than Men. Science Just Confirmed It

Women are tougher than men.


Don’t take it from us — this is not an op-ed. It’s official: science has spoken.

Women are more likely to survive famine and epidemics, according to a study from Duke University in North Carolina that describes women as “life expectancy champions.”

Take Action: Show the World That Girls Can Keep Going #LikeAGirl

The study concludes that, “even when mortality was very high, women lived longer on average than men.”

It draws its conclusions from hospital records from the last 250 years, including during severe humanitarian crises. The investigation included seven specific groups of people experiencing hardship, famine, and disease, and who had a resulting life expectancy of less than 20 — but almost always there was one sex that seemed better suited to survive.

Slave plantations in Trinidad and the US in the early 1800s? Women.

Famines in Sweden, Ireland, and the Ukraine in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries? Women, women, women.

Measles outbreaks in Iceland between 1846 and 1882? Men. No, wait, just kidding — it was definitely women.

Why? It’s complicated — and comes down to a variety of biological and social factors. But the data is significantly influenced by infant mortality rates: as the report suggests that “baby girls were able to survive harsh conditions better than baby boys.”

Take the outbreak of the 1993 famine in Ukraine, for example. Girls, on average, lived to the age of 10.85, while boys lived to just 7.3.

It’s already well known that women live longer than men. Indeed, when you contemplate the list updated by the Gerontology Research Group that tracks all living supercentenarians — the awesome superhero name given to humans over the age of 110 — only one out of every 40 are male.

Across the planet the average life expectancy for women is 72 years and eight months, and just 68 years and four months for men. In the UK the gap is marginally smaller: women live on average to 82.9, and men to 79.2. But for the first time in a decade, the gap is no longer closing.

Embed from Getty Images

“To find the female advantage so marked and consistent among all the populations was surprising,” said lead researcher Virginia Zarulli from the University of Southern Denmark’s Institute of Public Health. “Even more surprising was to find that the biggest part of the sex difference in life expectancy during these crises was determined by striking differences in survival among infants. This is the most interesting result.”

Zarulli says that biology plays an important role, with differing chromosomes and hormones providing different kinds of defences. Oestrogen protects from disease, while testosterone can increase the risk of fatal conditions, and increase the likelihood of reckless behaviour that can lead to a violent death, according to the Guardian. Chromosomally, women have a double X, while men have an X and a Y — a difference that adds a crucial buffer zone.

“In simple words, it is easy to see that if by chance a bad mutation takes place on the X chromosome, women have another X that can partly – or totally – compensate for it, while men don’t have this possibility,” Zarulli explains.

And in non-scientific terms? It seems you don’t need a latex suit and a film franchise to be superhuman anymore — you just need to be female.

Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals, including Goal No.5 for gender equality. Take action with us here.