National Women's Health Policy

Sex and gender

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Sex and gender are key social determinants of health, they can influence a person’s access to key resources such as income and workforce participation, education and social inclusion and social support 346 which in turn impact on health outcomes.


Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define women and men. Biological differences in body composition, metabolism and hormones among women and men can create differences in susceptibility to disease, disease progression and response to treatment.


The World Health Orgainisation defines gender as ‘the socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate for men and women’. 347 Gender is present, although not always visible, in all social institutions, and can result in different social, economic and political opportunities for women and men.

Gender is a key social determinant of health and wellbeing. Gender roles and gender relations can affect women’s capacity to access resources such as income, education and employment, which themselves promote health. These inequalities can create, maintain or exacerbate exposure to risk factors that endanger health. For example, gender can contribute to differences between and among women and men in financial security, paid and unpaid caring work and experiences of violence. This can result in different and sometimes inequitable patterns of exposure to health risk, in unequal access to and use of health information, care and services, different help-seeking behaviour and, ultimately, different health outcomes.348

Gender health equity strives for equitable opportunity and access to the social and economic resources required for good health. As the World Health Orgainization Commission on Social Determinants of Health argues, ‘taking action to improve gender equity in health and to address women’s rights to health is one of the most direct and potent ways to reduce health inequities and ensure effective use of health resources’.