It has been proposed that the gender difference in sleep apnea prevalence is related to gender differences in upper airway structure and function. We hypothesized that men would have smaller retropalatal cross-sectional area and higher compliance during sleep compared with women. Using upper airway imaging, we measured upper airway cross-sectional area and retropalatal compliance in wakefulness and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep in 15 men and 15 women without sleep-disordered breathing. Cross-sectional area at the beginning of inspiration tended to be larger in men compared with women in both wakefulness [194.5 +/- 21.3 vs. 138.8 +/- 12.0 (SE) mm(2)] and NREM sleep (111.1 +/- 17.6 vs. 83.3 +/- 11.9 mm(2); P = 0.058). There was no significant difference, however, after correction for body surface area. Retropalatal compliance also tended to be higher in men during both wakefulness (5.9 +/- 1.4 vs. 3.1 +/- 1.4 mm(2)/cmH(2)O; P = 0.006) and NREM sleep (12.6 +/- 2.7 vs. 4.7 +/- 2.6 mm(2)/cmH(2)O; P = 0.055). However, compliance was similar in men relative to women after correction for neck circumference. We conclude that the gender difference in retropalatal compliance is more accurately attributed to differences in neck circumference between the genders.