Why gender and health?

The distinct roles and behaviors of men and women in a given culture, dictated by that culture's gender norms and values, give rise to gender differences. Not all such differences between men and women imply inequity - for example, the fact that in many western societies, men generally wear trousers while women often wear skirts and dresses is a gender difference which does not, in itself, favor either group.

Gender norms and values, however, also give rise to gender inequalities - that is, differences between men and women which systematically empower o­ne group to the detriment of the other. The fact that, throughout the world, women o­n average have lower cash incomes than men is an example of a gender inequality.

Both gender differences and gender inequalities can give rise to inequities between men and women in health status and access to health care. For example:

  • A woman cannot receive needed health services because norms in her community prevent her from travelling alone to a clinic.
  • A teenage boy dies in a accident because of trying to live up to peers’ expectations that young men should be "bold" risk-takers.
  • A married woman contracts HIV because societal standards encourage her husband’s promiscuity while simultaneously preventing her from insisting o­n condom use.
  • A country's lung cancer mortality rate for men far outstrips the corresponding rate for women because smoking is considered an attractive marker of masculinity, while it is frowned upon as unfeminine in women.

In each of these cases, gender norms and values, and resulting behaviors, are negatively affecting health. In fact, the gender picture in a given time and place can be o­ne of the major obstacles - sometimes the single most important obstacle - standing between men and women and the achievement of well-being.

The good news is that gender norms and values are not fixed. They evolve over time, vary substantially from place to place, and are subject to change. Thus, the poor health consequences resulting from gender differences and gender inequalities are not fixed, either. They can be changed.

The goals of the Gender and Women's Health Department are to increase health professionals' awareness of the role of gender norms, values, and inequality in perpetuating disease, disability, and death, and to promote societal change with a view to eliminating gender as a barrier to good health.

Information sheets: gender and health