Adult sex ratio (ASR) is a central concept in population biology and a key factor in sexual selection, yet why do most demographic models ignore sex-biases? Vital rates often vary between the sexes and across life history, but their relative contributions to ASR variation remain poorly understood--an essential step to evaluate sex ratio theories in the wild and inform conservation. Here we combine structured two-sex population models with individual-based mark-recapture data from an intensively monitored polygamous population of snowy plovers. We show that a strongly male-biased ASR is primarily driven by sex-specific survival of juveniles, rather than adults or dependent offspring. This provides empirical support for theories of unbiased sex allocation when sex-differences in survival arise after the period of parental investment. Importantly, a conventional model ignoring sex-biases significantly overestimated population viability. We suggest that sex-specific population models are essential to understand the population dynamics of sexual organisms: reproduction and population growth is most sensitive to perturbations in survival of the limiting sex. Overall, our study suggests that sex-biased early survival may contribute towards mating system evolution and population persistence, with implications for both sexual selection theory and biodiversity conservation.