Polyandry, by elevating sexual conflict and selecting for reduced male care relative to monandry, may exacerbate the cost of sex and thereby seriously impact population fitness. On the other hand, polyandry has a number of possible population-level benefits over monandry, such as increased sexual selection leading to faster adaptation and a reduced mutation load. Here, we review existing information on how female fitness evolves under polyandry and how this influences population dynamics. In balance, it is far from clear whether polyandry has a net positive or negative effect on female fitness, but we also stress that its effects on individuals may not have visible demographic consequences. In populations that produce many more offspring than can possibly survive and breed, offspring gained or lost as a result of polyandry may not affect population size. Such ecological ‘masking’ of changes in population fitness could hide a response that only manifests under adverse environmental conditions (e.g. anthropogenic change). Surprisingly few studies have attempted to link mating system variation to population dynamics, and in general we urge researchers to consider the ecological consequences of evolutionary processes.