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Gender refers to the socially constructed roles and attributes assigned to men, women and other gender groups that extend beyond the biologically defined categories of sex. It is a multifaceted determinant of health, which encompasses the social roles, personality traits, values, attitudes, behaviours, relative power and influence ascribed to these groups in a given society. Unlike sex characteristics, aspects of gender vary greatly depending on the place, culture, and stage in life.

Gender disparities have received considerable attention in recent decades, largely due to the North American women’s health movement of the 1970’s and 80’s. This brought forth the unique health concerns of girls and women in particular, to the forefront of research. Until then, improving the health status of women meant focusing on reproductive and mental health, while emphasis was on the physical health of men, ignoring mental and reproductive health issues altogether. In addition, women were often excluded from clinical trials for new drugs and participation of women in policy-making was negligible. For these reasons, activists sought to empower women and take control of the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge to explore their own unique health concerns. It is because of this social movement that our approach to health has been broadened. It can be credited for shedding light on the importance of gendered norms on many health problems, as well as health system practices and priorities.

Confusion still exists when differentiating between biological sex and social gender, which results in the use of these terms interchangeably and inappropriately. Too often, health outcomes between men and women are thought to be the result of biological factors, when in fact gender is at play. Such is the case for HIV, where women’s heightened risk of infection is due to biological factors in combination with gender inequalities such as sexual passivity and increased aggression towards them (ICAD, 2006). Another example is cardiovascular disease. Although men generally die earlier than women after acute myocardial infarction, important factors associated with gender such as lifestyle choices, attitudes toward health, and social-support resources can serve as predictors of heart health between men and women (Davidson et al., 2006, p.732). Even when a sex difference is consistently found – as in the case with depression – biology alone cannot offer a complete explanation. Studies have reported that low self-esteem and lack of control over one’s life contribute significantly to the higher prevalence of depression in adolescent girls and women compared to their male counterparts (WHO, 2002).

The good news is that gender disparities are socially generated, therefore, can be modified. Thus, health researchers, practitioners and stakeholders can adjust their approaches to program and policy planning, implementation, and evaluation using gender-sensitive strategies to promote wellbeing. For instance, programs that recognize gender-related barriers to health care access, such as addiction and mental health services, might be more successful in treating patients than those that overlook these determinants.


Davidson, K., Trudeau, K., van Roosmalen, E., Stewart, M. & Kirkland, S. (2006). Gender as a Health Determinant and Implications for Health Education. Health Education & Behavior, 33, 731-743. doi: 10.1177/1090198106288043

Interagency Coalition on Aids and Development. (2006). HIV/AIDS and Gender Issues. Retrieved from

Kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop). (2010). Gender reveal party cupcakes [Photograph]. Retrieved from

World Health Organization. (2002). Gender and Health. Retrieved from

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Julie Boucher

Julie obtained her MSc in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the IJHS.

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