Gender-related variables for health research

Biol Sex Differ. 2021 Feb 22;12(1):23. doi: 10.1186/s13293-021-00366-3.


Background: In this paper, we argue for Gender as a Sociocultural Variable (GASV) as a complement to Sex as a Biological Variable (SABV). Sex (biology) and gender (sociocultural behaviors and attitudes) interact to influence health and disease processes across the lifespan-which is currently playing out in the COVID-19 pandemic. This study develops a gender assessment tool-the Stanford Gender-Related Variables for Health Research-for use in clinical and population research, including large-scale health surveys involving diverse Western populations. While analyzing sex as a biological variable is widely mandated, gender as a sociocultural variable is not, largely because the field lacks quantitative tools for analyzing the influence of gender on health outcomes.

Methods: We conducted a comprehensive review of English-language measures of gender from 1975 to 2015 to identify variables across three domains: gender norms, gender-related traits, and gender relations. This yielded 11 variables tested with 44 items in three US cross-sectional survey populations: two internet-based (N = 2051; N = 2135) and a patient-research registry (N = 489), conducted between May 2017 and January 2018.

Results: Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses reduced 11 constructs to 7 gender-related variables: caregiver strain, work strain, independence, risk-taking, emotional intelligence, social support, and discrimination. Regression analyses, adjusted for age, ethnicity, income, education, sex assigned at birth, and self-reported gender identity, identified associations between these gender-related variables and self-rated general health, physical and mental health, and health-risk behaviors.

Conclusion: Our new instrument represents an important step toward developing more comprehensive and precise survey-based measures of gender in relation to health. Our questionnaire is designed to shed light on how specific gender-related behaviors and attitudes contribute to health and disease processes, irrespective of-or in addition to-biological sex and self-reported gender identity. Use of these gender-related variables in experimental studies, such as clinical trials, may also help us understand if gender factors play an important role as treatment-effect modifiers and would thus need to be further considered in treatment decision-making.

Keywords: Biomedical outcomes; Gender measures; Sex differences.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • Culture*
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Humans
  • Male
  • SARS-CoV-2*
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Factors*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires