Women and men are different as regards their biology, the roles and responsibilities that society assigns to them and their position in the family and community. These factors have a great influence on causes, consequences and management of diseases and ill-health and on the efficacy of health promotion policies and programmes. This is confirmed by evidence on male-female differences in cause-specific mortality and morbidity and exposure to risk factors. Health promoting interventions aimed at ensuring safe and supportive environments, healthy living conditions and lifestyles, community involvement and participation, access to essential facilities and to social and health services need to address these differences between women and men, boys and girls in an equitable manner in order to be effective. The aim of this paper is to (i) demonstrate that health promotion policies that take women's and men's differential biological and social vulnerability to health risks and the unequal power relationships between the sexes into account are more likely to be successful and effective compared to policies that are not concerned with such differences, and (ii) discuss what is required to build a multisectoral policy response to gender inequities in health through health promotion and disease prevention. The requirements discussed in the paper include i) the establishment of joint commitment for policy within society through setting objectives related to gender equality and equity in health as well as health promotion, ii) an assessment and analysis of gender inequalities affecting health and determinants of health, iii) the actions needed to tackle the main determinants of those inequalities and iv) documentation and dissemination of effective and gender sensitive policy interventions to promote health. In the discussion of these key policy elements, we use illustrative examples of good practices from different countries around the world.