Definitions & concepts

Definitions & concepts

On this page, you will find a list of definitions and concepts to help better understand and inform efforts to applying a gender and equity lens to everything we do. The listed definitions and concepts are not exhaustive, but will be added to periodically as we move forward.

Source: WHO, Gender mainstreaming for health managers: a practical approach, 2011



  • Sex: refers to the different biological and physiological characteristics of males and females, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormones.
  • Equity: the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people, whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically, or geographically.
  • Gender: refers to socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a society considers appropriate for men and women. These socially constructed characteristics, which are commonly referred to as norms, roles and relations men and women, are taught, vary from society to society and can include how women and men should interact with others of the same or opposite sex in the household, community and workplace2. These socially constructed characteristics can also lead to differences in things such as exposure to disease and injury, access to essential health services and/or participation in the labour force, to name a few.
  • Gender analysis: refers to a process to identify, assss and inform actions to address inequality that come from: 1) different gender norms, roles and relations; 2) unequal power relations between and among groups of men and women, and 3) the interaction of contextual factors with gender such as sexual orientation, ethnicity, education or employment status.
  • Gender analysis in health: Examines how biological and sociocultural factors interact to influence health behaviour, outcomes and services. It also uncovers how gender inequality affects health and well-being
  • Gender-based discrimination: Any distinction, exclusion or restriction (such as unfair or unequal treatment) made based on gender norms, roles and relations that prevents women and men of different groups and ages from enjoying their human rights. It perpetuates gender inequality by legitimizing stereotypes about men and women of different ages and groups.
  • Gender blind: Level 2 of the WHO Gender Responsive Assessment Scale: Ignores gender norms, roles and relations and very often reinforces gender-based discrimination. By ignoring differences in opportunities and resource allocation for women and men, such policies are often assumed to be “fair” as they claim to treat everyone the same.
  • Gender equality: also known as “equality of opportunity”, is not for women and men to become the same but refers to equal chances or opportunities for groups of women and men to access and control resources and protection.
  • Gender equity: refers to more than formal equality of opportunity. It refers to the different needs, preferences and interests of women and men. This may mean that different treatment is needed to ensure equality of opportunity. This is often referred to as substantive equality (or equality of results) and requires considering the realities of women’s and men’s lives.
  • Gender equality in health: refers to when women and men have equal conditions to realize their full rights and potential to be healthy, contribute to health development and benefit from the results”2. For example, gender equality in health means equal access to health services and information, like prevention and treatment programmes and good quality health care.
  • Gender equality and gender equality in health are both reinforcing of one another, in that both are important in reducing gender-based health inequities.Gender mainstreaming: the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral part of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes (WHO 2011).
  • Gender relations: Refers to social relations between and among women and men that are based on gender norms and roles. Gender relations often create to hierarchies between and among groups of men and women that can lead to unequal power relations, disadvantaging one group over another.
  • Gender responsive: A policy or programme that considers gender norms, roles and inequality with measures taken to actively reduce their harmful effects.
  • Gender roles: Refers to what males and females are expected to do (in the household, community and workplace) in a given society.
  • Gender sensitive: Level 3 of the WHO Gender Responsive Assessment Scale: Indicates gender awareness, although no remedial action is developed.
  • Gender specific: Level 4 of the WHO Gender Responsive Assessment Scale: Considers women’s and men’s specific needs and intentionally targets and benefits a specific group of women or men to achieve certain policy or programme goals or meet certain needs. Such policies often make it easier for women and men to fulfil duties that are ascribed to them based on their gender roles, but do not address underlying causes of gender differences.
  • Gender stereotypes: Images, beliefs, attitudes or assumptions about certain groups of women and men. Stereotypes are usually negative and based on assumed gender norms, roles and relations.
  • Gender transformative: Level 5 of the WHO Gender Responsive Assessment Scale: Addresses the causes of gender-based health inequities by including ways to transform harmful gender norms, roles and relations. The objective of such programmes is often to promote gender equality and foster progressive changes in power relationships between women and men.
  • Health equity: refers to fair opportunity for everyone to attain their full health potential regardless of demographic, social, economic or geographic strata.
  • Health inequities: involve more than inequality with respect to health determinants, and include access to the resources needed to improve and maintain health or health outcomes. They also entail a failure to avoid or overcome inequalities that infringe on fairness and human rights norms.
  • Health seeking behavior: Health-seeking behaviour is any action carried out by a person who perceives a need for health services with the purpose of addressing a given health problem. This includes seeking help from allopathic and alternative health services. Both sex and gender influence health-seeking behaviour.
  • Institutional mainstreaming: the process for applying gender analysis methods to institutional and organizational practices, processes and policies, such as ensuring that gender is considered during recruitment processes, or paid parental leave is ensured for both sexes, or establishing zero-tolerance policies on sexual harassment within an institution. Both programmatic and institutional gender mainstreaming are important to addressing gender equality within the health system, as well as to improving gender equality in health.
  • Programmatic mainstreaming: a process for examining at the systematic application of gender analysis methods, which help us understand gender-based health differences between and among groups of women and men, and apply that knowledge to improve health programmes, policy-making and service delivery.
  • Risk factors: Elements associated with the development of disease or illness that are not sufficient to cause it. Examples include age, tobacco consumption or poverty.
  • Social resources: Community resources, social support networks, transport and other social services; Education or training (formal or informal), information.
  • Vulnerability: Refers to the degree to which individuals, communities and systems are susceptible to or have diminished capacity to cope with exposure to risk factors.
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