Bella Azbug“I began wearing hats as a young lawyer because it helped me to establish my professional identity. Before that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee.”

- Bella Abzug: Lawyer, US Congresswoman, Social Activist, 1920-1998

Why should we care about gender?

As Bella Abzug’s experience demonstrates, gender exerts a profound influence on people’s lives.  It can define — among other things — what we wear, how and if we talk, which careers are open to us, how much money we can earn and save, and whether or not we can get and stay healthy.

Sometimes, the word “gender” is used as if it really means “women” or only applies to women.  If we look at history and around the world, women do suffer disproportionately from the effects of gender.  Abzug was asked to get coffee because those around her assumed that as a woman she was not, perhaps could not be a lawyer.

While gender may take different forms at different times and in different places, it  affects everyone — directly and indirectly.  In a report to the World Health Organization, Gita Sen and her colleagues concluded:

“Gender inequality damages they physical and mental health of millions of girls and women across the globe, and also of boys and men, despite the many tangible benefits it gives men through resources, power, authority and control.  Because of the numbers of people involved and the magnitude of the problems, taking action to improve gender equity in health and to address women’s rights in health is one of the most direct and potent ways to reduce health inequities and ensure effective use of health resources” [1]

It’s important, therefore, to understand what gender is, where ideas about gender come from, and how beliefs about gender operate.

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

Image source: Bella Azbug ; [1] Sen, G., Östlin, P., & George, A. (2007). Unequal, unfair, ineffective and inefficient gender inequity in health: Why it exists and how we can change it. Final Report to the Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Geneva: World Health Organization, p.8. Retrieved July 14, 2009, from,

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