Previous investigation has demonstrated that progesterone, a hormone found in premenopausal women, is a ventilatory stimulant. However, fragmentary data suggest that normal women may have lower ventilatory responses to chemical stimuli than men, in whom progesterone is found at low levels. As male-female differences have not been carefully studied, we undertook a systematic comparison of resting ventilation and ventilatory responses to chemical stimuli in men and women. Resting ventilation was found to correlate closely with CO2 production in all subjects (r = 0.71, P less than 0.001), but women tended to have a greater minute ventilation per milliliter of CO2 produced (P less than 0.05) and consequently a lower CO2 partial pressure (PCO2) (men 35.1 +/- 0.5 Torr, women 33.2 +/- 0.5 Torr; P less than 0.02). Women were also found to have lower tidal volumes, even when corrected from body surface area (BSA), and greater respiratory frequency than comparable males. The hypoxic ventilatory response (HVR) quantitated by the shape parameter A was significantly greater in men [167 +/- 22 (SE)] than in women (109 +/- 13; P less than 0.05). In men this hypoxic response was found to correlate closely with O2 consumption (r = 0.75, P less than 0.001) but with no measure of size or metabolic rate in women. The hypercapnic ventilatory response, expressed as the slope of ventilation vs. PCO2, was also greater in men (2.30 +/- 0.23) than in women (1.58 +/- 0.19, P less than 0.05). Finally women tended to have higher ventilatory responses in the luteal than in the follicular menstrual phase, but this was significant only for HVR (P less than 0.05). Women, with relatively higher resting ventilation, have lower responses to hypoxia and hypercapnia.