Gender: definitions


Gender is used to describe the characteristics of women and men that are socially constructed, while sex refers to those that are biologically determined. People are born female or male, but learn to be girls and boys who grow into women and men. This learned behaviour makes up gender identity and determines gender roles. The WHO gender policy 2002 defines the terms below.

Gender analysis identifies, analyses and informs action to address inequalities that arise from the different roles of women and men, or the unequal power relations between them, and the consequences of these inequalities on their lives, their health and well-being. The way power is distributed in most societies means that women have less access to and control over resources to protect their health, and are less likely to take part in decision-making. Gender analysis in health often highlights how inequalities disadvantage women's health, the constraints women face to attain health and ways to address and overcome these. It also reveals health risks and problems which men face as a result of the social construction of their roles.

Gender equality is the absence of discrimination on the basis of a person's sex in opportunities, the allocation of resources and benefits, or access to services.

Gender equity refers to the fairness and justice in the distribution of benefits and responsibilities between women and men. The concept recognizes that women and men have different needs and power, and that these differences should be identified and addressed in a manner that rectifies the imbalance between the sexes.

A United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution defines gender mainstreaming as:

“... the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in any area and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and social spheres, such that inequality between men and women is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.”

“Mainstreaming gender is both a technical and a political process which requires shifts in organizational cultures and ways of thinking, as well as in the goals, structures and resource allocations.... Mainstreaming requires changes at different levels within institutions, in agenda setting, policy-making, planning, implementation and evaluation. Instruments for the mainstreaming effort include new staffing and budgeting practices, training programmes, policy procedures and guidelines.”

In 2009 the WHO headquarters gender web site added:

“If health care systems are to respond adequately to problems caused by gender inequality, it is not enough to simply ‘add in’ a gender component late in a given project’s development. Research, interventions, health system reforms, health education, health outreach, and health policies and programmes must consider gender from the beginning.”

“Gender is thus not something that can be consigned to ‘watchdogs’ in a single office, since no one office can possibly involve itself in all phases of an organization’s activities. All health professionals must have knowledge and awareness of the ways in which gender affects health, so that they may address gender issues wherever appropriate thus rendering their work more effective.”

“The process of creating this knowledge and awareness of – and responsibility for – gender among all health professionals is called ‘gender mainstreaming’.”