Women may experience greater pulmonary gas exchange impairment during exercise than men. To test this we used the multiple inert gas elimination technique to study eight women and seven men matched for age, height and (O(2) max) ( approximately 48 ml x kg(-1) min(-1)) during normoxic and hypoxic (inspired P(O(2))= 95 Torr) cycle exercise. Resting lung function was similar between the sexes, except for a lower carbon monoxide diffusing capacity (DL(CO)) in women (P < 0.05). Arterial P(O(2)),P(CO(2)) and alveolar-arterial O(2) difference (A-aD(O(2))) were not significantly different in men and women. Despite a lower diffusing capacity for O(2) (DL(O(2))) in women, the ratio DL(O(2))/beta (which estimates pulmonary end-capillary diffusion equilibrium) was similar between men and women and estimates of diffusion limitation during hypoxic exercise were not different between the sexes. Ventilation-perfusion inequality (described by the second moment of the perfusion distribution, logSD increased during both normoxic and hypoxic exercise. Surprisingly, logSD values were slightly lower for women under all conditions (P < 0.05), but this did not significantly affect gas exchange. These data indicate that these active women, despite a lower DL(CO) and DL(O(2)), do not experience greater exercise-induced abnormalities in gas exchange than men matched for age, height, aerobic capacity and lung size. Possibly fitness level and lung size are more important in determining whether or not pulmonary gas exchange impairment occurs during exercise than sex per se.