Given the impact of gender on health, healthcare decisions, and treatments for illness, as well as the increased inequities encountered by non-white men and women, messages about health and health risks are affected by purposeful assumptions about gender identity. While the term sex denotes the biological sex of an individual, gender identity is about the psychological, cultural, and social assumptions about a person associated with that person because of his or her sex. Gender and health are intimately connected in a number of ways, and such connections can differ based on race, ethnicity, age, class, religion, region, country, and even continent. Thus, understanding the myriad ways that notions of gender affect the health of females and males is fundamental to understanding how communicating about risks and prevention may be tailored to each group.
Gender role expectations and assumptions have serious impacts on men’s health and life expectancy rates, including self-destructive behaviors associated with mental health and tobacco use, self-neglecting behaviors linked to the reluctance of men to seek treatment for ailments, reluctance to follow a physician’s instructions after finally seeking help, and risk-taking behaviors linked to drug and alcohol use, fast driving, guns, physical aggression, and other dangerous endeavors. Because gender role expectations tend to disfavor females, it is not surprising that gender generally has an even greater impact on women’s health than on men’s. Even though biological factors allow women, on average, to live longer than men worldwide, various gendered practices (social, legal, criminal, and unethical) have serious impacts on the lives and health of women. From sex discrimination in research and treatment regarding issues linked to reproductive health, depression, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, the sex trade, and normalized violence against women (such as rape, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution/trafficking, and domestic violence), women’s lives across the globe are severely affected by gender role expectations that privilege males over females.
While some general consistencies in the relationships between gender, women, and health are experienced worldwide, intersections of race, ethnicity, class, age, country, region, and religion can make for very different experiences of women globally, and even within the same country.
The recent years have seen an increasing call to reconsider the binary means by which we have defined sex and gender. Advances in our understandings of lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex, and transgendered individuals have challenged traditional notions and definitions of sex and gender in important and complex ways. Such an important shift warrants a stand-alone discussion, as well as the recognition that sexual orientation should not be automatically linked to discussions of sex and gender, given that such categorization reifies the problematic sex/gender binaries that ground sexist and homophobic attitudes in the first place.