The other gender gap

Women almost never commit terrorist attacks or mass shootings - why?

9th May 2018

Terrorist attacks and mass shootings are one of the most viscerally frightening scenarios imaginable and, as we are all too often reminded, they happen all over the world. Including on our doorstep.

Only last year the Westminster Bridge, Finsbury Park Mosque, Borough Market and Manchester Arena attacks happened here in the UK. As ever, multiple mass-shootings occurred in the US, including the most deadly ever, an attack at a concert in Las Vegas where 58 died and 851 were injured. Elsewhere, numerous terrorist attacks in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, collectively claimed the lives of well over 1,000 people.

The motives for these crimes, as well as the religious or political beliefs of those behind them and the ways in which they were carried out may differ, but the one link between each is that the perpetrators were all men.

Between 1966 and 2016, 14 perpetrators out of 352 were women

On Tuesday 3 April 2018, however, three people were injured during a mass shooting at the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno near San Francisco. The suspect died by suicide afterwards and was identified as a woman named Nasim Aghdam. Aghdam is one of a very small number of women mass shooters in the US over the last century.

“[Women] account for about 4% of all mass shooting events,” says Jaclyn Schildkraut, assistant professor at the Department of Public Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego.

“Between 1966 and 2016, 14 perpetrators out of 352 were women.

“Women have always been less likely to commit homicide in general than men, so it is not surprising that they are less likely to commit acts of mass violence.”


Not only are there differences in the number of attacks carried out by men and women, but when it comes to murder, there are general differences in the patterns of these offenders, too.

“Men are more likely to use firearms but women, on the other hand, are more likely to kill with poison or suffocation,” says Schildkraut.

This is a fact also reported in a study by psychologist Elizabeth Gurian in 2017, in which women were found to have been convicted for acts involving a broader range of methods than men, including poison, suffocation and drowning. Yet, some of the most well-known historical female mass murderers took to using vehicles and arson as well.

July 1973 — A woman name Olga Hepranová drove a truck into a crowd in Prague, killing eight people.

January 1979 — 16-year-old, Brenda Spencer, killed the headteacher of her school and a custodian in San Diego, US, while injuring eight other children.

November 1980 — Priscilla Ford killed six people and injured another 23 on Thanksgiving Day by driving a vehicle onto a roadside path in Nevada, US.

January 2006 — Former US postal employee, Jennifer San Marco, shot seven people at the postal processing plant where she worked.

August 2009 — In Kuwait, a woman named Nasra Yussef Mohammed al-Enezi targeted her ex-husband’s wedding with an arson attack and killed 57 people.

The reason for the difference in method choice is not entirely clear, although ease of access to equipment appears to be a main factor. For example, fatal doses of prescribed medications were a common practice by women identified in a study in the ’90s.


Women’s victims tend to be different too.

Men are more likely to kill strangers than women [are], however, women are more likely to commit intimate partner homicide or kill their own children

“When we look at homicide more generally, there are some differences in the choice of victim,” says Schildkraut.

“Men are more likely to kill strangers than women [are], however, women are more likely to commit intimate partner homicide or kill their own children.”

men and women
Whether the perpetrator is a man or a woman, all mass killings start from a grievance

There is no obvious difference in motive between male and female mass murderers, but research that focused on killings in Chicago and Houston back in 2007 found women who kill mainly act due to emotional reasons, such as anger or revenge.

The suspect of the YouTube attack, Nasim Aghdam, is thought to have acted out of anger towards how YouTube controlled the viewings of her videos.

All mass shootings stem from a grievance and follow the same unfortunate pathway to violence

Although men have killed for similar reasons, masculinity and the fear of a man having their “rightful place” in society questioned, are additional factors behind why men kill, a study found in 2010.

This is all supposedly linked to evolution too. Dr Robert J King, psychology researcher at University College Cork, explains: “Male humans swim in a world of status like a trout swims in a world of water”.

Historically, men would kill to gain and maintain status, and to attract a mate — and these characteristics are still prevalent in many male personalities. Women, however, do not have this evolutionary need to be the top dog and therefore killing is less in their nature, he says.

But at the end of the day, when it comes to mass shooters in particular, Schildkraut says: “All mass shootings stem from a grievance and follow the same unfortunate pathway to violence.”

In terms of mass shootings, events involving female perpetrators are still rare and fortunately not becoming any more frequent.

“Did we have more mass shootings this year by females than last year? Yes, but that was one compared to zero,” she adds.

Because of the graveness of these crimes and the extensive media coverage most generate, it can sometimes feel like terrorist attacks and mass murders are happening constantly, but in the West at least, we experience these kinds of mindless crimes with far less frequency than in much of the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Whatever their frequency and however many are killed we all agree that even a single event of this nature is too many. Perhaps, rather than focusing on the differing elements like religion and race, further exploration of this gender-discrepancy between perpetrators might be a good place to start.

9th May 2018