Gender impacts on health
Every citizen in the EU faces the potential risk of contracting Covid-19. Although more men and older people are dying from the virus, Covid-19 is reminding us that its impact is not only determined by biological differences. Social norms also affect the health behaviour of women and men differently, which impacts on their overall health. For instance, EIGE’s Gender Equality Index shows that on average in the EU, men are more likely to smoke than women. This puts them at greater risk of developing a serious disease if infected with Covid-19.
While women have a longer life expectancy than men, they spend less years living in good health. Due to a higher life expectancy and higher likelihood of facing health problems (see graph below), women are more likely to be in need of long-term care. This is now further complicated as older people, and especially women who are living alone and depend on care from family, friends or neighbours will no longer be able to rely on it to the same extent. For older people living in residential facilities, social distancing measures can increase their chances of social exclusion as visitors are denied entry.
Women and men limited in their usual activities due to health problems,
by age group and level of difficulty experienced (%, EU-28, 2018)
As scientists are working fast to try and find a vaccine for Covid-19, it’s important that their medical research is not gender blind. Clinical trials must include a gender-balanced representation of women to see how the vaccine might affect women and men differently.
Medical research has historically shown limited gender sensitivity but an important step forward in this respect has been the Clinical Trials Regulation of the European Commission (2014). It requires the consideration of gender in clinical trials. It should help address concerns about drugs being mainly tested on men, which can mask adverse side effects that are more common among or exclusive to women.
Insufficient gender sensitivity in medical research and healthcare is perhaps not very surprising, given the under-representation of women in health governance and decision-making. Although women are well represented among medical students and doctors, they are less well represented among senior doctors and professors, or in executive health sector positions overall.
What policymakers need to know
- Recognising the different extent to which disease outbreaks affect women and men is a fundamental step to understand the effects of a health emergency on different individuals and communities, and to create effective, equitable policies and interventions.
- Experience from past pandemic outbreaks show the importance of incorporating gender analysis into the preparedness and institutional response to improve the effectiveness of health interventions and promote gender and health equity goals.
- Medical research and health services that address the impact of both sex (biological factors) and gender (social factors) on the health differences of women and men would help to better serve their individual health needs.
- Increasing the representation of women in health governance, decision-making and certain occupations (e.g. senior doctors, professors or researchers) could help to ensure that women also have an opportunity to shape important healthcare decisions.
For more information
 The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team. The epidemiological characteristics of an outbreak of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). China CDC Weekly 2020; 2: 113–22.
 World Health Organization, Q&A on COVID-19 and smoking, 24 March 2020.
 Wenham, C., Smith, J., Morgan, R. (2020) COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak. The Lancet. Volume 395, Issue 10227. P846-848, March 14, 2020.