Posted by on August 1, 2016 - 2:23pm

By: Nicole C. Woitowich, PhD

Over the weekend, Newsweek published an article highlighting the inequities that exist in women’s health research [1]. I think it’s fantastic that major media outlets are drawing attention to an issue that has been central to the Women’s Health Research Institute’s mission since its inception. However, as I read along, I can’t help but cringe when I come across the following mistake: sex and gender are not synonyms. 

In the opening paragraph, author Jessica Firger mentions how “biological factors beyond a patient’s control – especially gender – can determine [cancer] treatment outcome.”  But the truth is, gender is not a biological factor whereas sex is. Gender is a social construct which defines the appearance, actions, thoughts, and behaviors associated with the male or female sex and can change depending on the cultural context. Sex on the other hand, is strictly a biological construct determined by the presence or absence of the Y chromosome. To use sex and gender interchangeably, especially when discussing biomedical research, is in error.

Perhaps what’s more embarrassing, is that scientists continue to make this mistake as well (and quite frankly, they should know better). A quick search through PubMed will reveal article titles relating to “gender differences” in the context of pancreatic cancer, orthostatic hypotension, and proton pump inhibitor pharmacology, when they should have been properly attributed to “sex differences.” How can we expect the media and general public to understand the differences between sex and gender if we can’t get it right ourselves?

 So, I offer you the following Public Service Announcement from your friendly local scientist:

  1. Cell lines have a sex.
  2. Model organisms have a sex.
  3. Humans have both a sex and gender and it’s important to differentiate between the two.  

If we are to advance sex- and gender-inclusive biomedical and clinical research, it is of the utmost importance to understand these concepts.

Lastly, don’t say gender instead of sex just because you’re afraid of saying the word sex. This is a stigma we all need to get over because sex (in both definitions) is a natural, biological concept. It’s time we start attributing it as such.


1. Firger, J. "Females Suffer From Gender Gap in Cancer Trials, Drug Development." Newsweek, 30 July 2016. Web.