Sociology Gender and Health
Bridget K. Gorman, Alexa Solazzo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0227


The relationship between gender and health has received considerable research study over the last several decades, within sociology but also related fields in social sciences, public health, and medicine. This body of scholarship documents both similarity and difference between the health experience of men and women across the life course. Gender-based health patterns are dependent upon the health outcome examined, as life expectancy is shorter among men while women experience higher rates of various non-fatal functional problems and chronic medical conditions. Gender differences also exist in mental health outcomes and participation in various healthy and unhealthy behaviors, including utilization of health care services. Yet these associations are not uniform and can differ when various population subgroups are compared. As such, a growing body of scientific work argues for the need to apply an intersectional lens to the study of gender and health, and this work details how various cross-cutting identities (e.g., age, racial/ethnicity identity, social class, sexual orientation) intersect with gender to shape health outcomes. More recently, scholars have begun to assess how non-binary measures of gender identity relate to health status, and thus a small but increasing body of research explores whether and how health status varies for cisgender and transgender adults. While a substantial amount of attention has been given to describing the nuances of how gender relates to health status, the gender-health literature is also characterized by robust discussion of the factors that contribute to gender patterns in health status, including but not limited to socioeconomic status, relationships and care work, differential experiences in medical care treatment, masculinity, stress and social supports, and health behaviors. Altogether, this article introduces the reader to classic works and reviews, theoretical perspectives, and key descriptive and explanatory papers that represent the body of scholarship examining how gender relates to health status.

Classic Works and Reviews

This section is a good place to start for those unfamiliar with research on gender and health. The mid-1980s marked a time of increased attention toward health status similarities and differences between men and women, as reflected in the seminal papers published in flagship outlets for medical sociology (i.e., Verbrugge 1985) and sociology more generally (i.e., Nathanson 1984). Since then, various scholars have produced updated reviews on the growing body of scholarship surrounding gender disparities in health. This includes an edited volume by Annandale and Hunt 2000, which includes a focus on gender and health scholarship in the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America, as well as an overview of how gender relates to the social construction of several specific illnesses from Lorber and Moore 2002. Bird and Rieker 2008 argues for a constrained choice perspective to better understand established patterns of health and disease among men and women. Read and Gorman 2010 is an updated review on gender and health, including discussion of publishing trends and grant activities in the field, while Rosenfield and Smith 2010 overviews the state of knowledge regarding gender disparities in mental health. More recently Springer, et al. 2012, in a special issue of Social Science & Medicine, examined the state of the field and future directions for gender and health scholarship.

  • Annandale, E., and K. Hunt, eds. 2000. Gender inequalities in health. Buckingham, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    The authors explore nuance in the phrase “women get sicker but men die quicker.” They focus on different theoretical traditions in studying gender and health, and argue for integration of newer social theory models into this area of research. The empirical chapters pay particular attention to socioeconomic status and social change.

  • Bird, C. E., and P. P. Rieker. 2008. Gender and health: The effects of constrained choices and social policies. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Bird and Reiker argue that people make constrained choices based on national policy, communities, and individual work and family lives. These choices can directly and indirectly create health disparities between men and women.

  • Lorber, J., and L. J. Moore. 2002. Gender and the social construction of illness. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

    Lorber and Moore demonstrate how illness is gendered, from risk factors of disease to funding and treatment options. They explore how gender structures the medical institution, as well as the medical encounter. Additional attention is paid to topics including premenstrual syndrome, AIDS, menopause, and feminist health care.

  • Nathanson, C. A. 1984. Sex differences in mortality. Annual Review of Sociology 10:191–213.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Nathanson describes differences in mortality by sex in developed and developing countries. Common explanations for these differences include biology (e.g., hormonal differences which confer upon women a mortality advantage) and behavior/environment (including differences in the socialization process, health behaviors, or stress exposure that improves health).

  • Read, J. G., and B. K. Gorman. 2010. Gender and health inequality. Annual Review of Sociology 36:371–386.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102535

    Read and Gorman review research on gender differences in health and morbidity, detailing that while women live longer on average, they are more likely to be sick. Biology and generally better health behaviors help women live longer, but lower socioeconomic status and different stress experiences contribute to greater morbidity among women. They also overview trends in publishing and grant funding for gender and health research.

  • Rosenfield, S., and D. Smith. 2010. Gender and mental health: Do men and women have different amounts or types of problems? In A handbook for the study of mental health: Social contexts, theories, and systems. 2d ed. Edited by T. L. Scheid and T. N. Brown, 256–267. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Rosenfield and Smith review whether there are gender differences in mental health, and the reasons why. They find that while men and women have similar rates of mental illness, men are more likely to have substance abuse and externalizing disorders while women are more likely to have depression, anxiety, and other internalizing disorders. They discuss various reason for these differences (power, social roles, and personal characteristics).

  • Springer, K. W., O. Hankivsky, and L. M. Bates. 2012. Gender and health: Relational, intersectional, and biosocial approaches. Social Science & Medicine 74:1661–1666.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.03.001

    This is an introduction to a special issue of Social Science & Medicine on gender and health. The authors explain that the journal issue is meant to bring contemporary feminist scholarship, biosocial research, and intersectionality to the topic of gender and health. This introduction offers a brief explanation of these perspectives, as well as summaries of the articles in the issue.

  • Verbrugge L. M. 1985. Gender and health: An update on hypotheses and evidence. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 26:156–182.

    DOI: 10.2307/2136750

    Verbrugge summarizes scholarship on gender and health and discusses theoretical reasons why these differences exist. She argues that health disparities between men and women are due to differences in their health behaviors, roles, and stress exposure, and that psychosocial factors (such as symptom evaluation and treatment) play a larger role in gender differences for conditions that are prolonged and not severe.

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