Surveys in many countries show very large gender differences in approval of strikes by pilot less drones. For example, in June 2013, the German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends survey asked the following question (click on any image to enlarge):
Similar results occurred in a Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted in Spring 2013; the average gender difference in support for drone strikes was 20 percentage points:
The consistency of this finding has led to speculation as to why women should be particularly negative about drone strikes and even to some disagreement as to whether gender is really a significant cleavage in public opinion on war and peace issues. Insightful analysis here, here, and here.
A frequently cited explanation for the large gender difference on drones is that women are more sensitive to civilian casualties, and there is some evidence for this in American public opinion (as in this survey by Pew from February 2013). However, this same Pew survey of the US revealed that women are also more likely to cite other reasons for opposing drones, including concerns about their legality, their effect on the US image, and concerns about retaliation by “extremists.”
Thus, it may simply be that opposition to drones among women is part of a broader pattern of greater skepticism toward the use of military force.
An additional question is why drone strikes should evoke stronger gender difference than other types of air and missile attacks. After all, press treatment of drone technologies emphasizes their technological sophistication and “last minute” target acquisition capabilities. Surely citizens have gained the impression that collateral civilian damage from such strikes, while possible and even evident, may be less than conventional air strikes from fighter or high-flying bombers? We know, for example, that the public reacted negatively to several instances of mistaken air attacks against civilian targets during the Gulf War of 1991, the war in Kosovo in 1999, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (see the excellent Rand Corporation study of public reaction to these incidents by Eric V. Larson and Bogdan Savychof here).
In this post, I provide additional insight on these questions. The analysis draws on my study of gender difference in opinions of the use of force in as many as 37 countries from 1990 through 2004. Complete details on my definitions and other methodological issues are provided in this paper. Briefly summarized, I evaluate “support for using military force” by including any survey question that seeks a positive or negative opinion on “the potential or actual use of military force [past, present, or future]… including questions that actively (if sometimes hypothetically) query approval or disapproval of an action involving military force as a means of policy and also including questions that ask if the action is justified, appropriate, or the right thing to do.”
The dataset includes survey measures of support for using military force in six historical episodes: the Gulf War of 1991; the ensuing confrontation with Iraq over weapons inspections (1991-2002); NATO’s intervention in Bosnia (1992-1995); NATO’s attack against Serbia in support of the Kosovar Albanians (1998-1999); the US war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (2001-2004); and the war against Iraq and subsequent occupation (during 2003-2004). The full dataset includes 612 survey measures of support for using force, drawn from 37 countries (for a separate analysis of American public opinion since 1984, see this paper). In the analysis below, survey questions about air or missile strikes were asked in 31 countries; most (but not all) of these occur in NATO member countries.
In this post, “gender difference” is the percentage of women who support the use of force minus the same percentage for men.
The first chart below shows that women are less supportive of any type of military action, but air and missile strikes are indeed the type of action that evokes the largest gender difference: women are less supportive by an average of 18 percentage points (note: the average for naval actions is based on only four survey questions). Note also that the gender difference of 18 percentage points is identical to the average for drone strikes in the GMF survey shown above, and it is only slightly smaller than the average in the Pew survey from Spring 2013 (20 percentage points).
Gender Difference in support for military actions
The chart shown below indicates that air or missile strikes elicited larger gender differences in four of the six episodes in my study. Although I do not show the results for individual countries here, gender difference on air or missile strikes is the largest for any military action in all but five countries (the exceptions are Greece, Japan, Poland, Portugal, and Turkey).
Gender Difference in Support for Air or Missiles Strikes Compared to Other Military Actions Combined
These results make clear that the large gender difference on the question of using drones is not unique: women dislike air and missile strikes (relative to men) by a margin that is at most only slightly lower than their dislike for drone strikes. However, what these summary results do not tell us is why drone, air, and missile strikes should evoke such a large gender difference compared to other types of military actions. As noted above, it may be that women are more sensitive to casualties, but the results here indicate that the issue is not casualties in the absolute: sending or increasing troops are actions that also risk casualties, but the gender difference for these actions is smaller. It may be that air strikes and drone strikes risk higher civilian casualties (as the Pew surveys seem to find), which might imply that women are more likely than men to feel empathy or solidarity with civilians in target countries. Finally, it may be that the sudden, unexpected nature of air strikes evokes the greater sense of vulnerability to violence that women are known to experience relative to men (see this paper for an interesting discussion of this possibility). Which of these explanations is closest to the mark is something we cannot say on the basis of aggregate percentages such as those presented here, so a fuller understanding of gender difference must await additional research that explores these hypotheses in greater detail at the individual level.