Health Literacy

What’s the Difference? Does Gender Matter When Communicating About Health?

Article from the Boston Globe’s On Call Magazine, December 2004

By Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting

When creating health information, does it matter whether your audience is male or female? Should there be a difference in style? If so, what is that difference? I’ve been intrigued by these questions recently, having worked on two gender-specific publications — one about breast cancer and another on prostate cancer. My sense is there are important differences, especially in regard to the tone, words, and examples. But to learn more, I spoke with a physician and a college professor who are both experienced in gender-related communication.

Henry Lerner, MD, is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Newton. He is also an instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School. In his clinical practice and writing, Lerner communicates with women and their spouses or partners about miscarriage, sexuality, and other potentially sensitive and emotional topics. Dawn Skorczewski, PhD, is director of composition at Emerson College in Boston. She is not only an expert in writing but also teaches other instructors how to communicate effectively with a diverse body of students.

Lerner and Skorczewski differ in their opinions about how important it is for writers to consider the gender of their reading audience. Skorczewski says that gender is a significant consideration as men tend to want more facts and statistics while women prefer information about relationships and feelings. Lerner disagrees, saying that the reader’s educational level, not his or her gender, is the most important factor to consider.

Differences aside, Lerner and Skorczewski do agree that good writing builds on a combination of effective communication strategies. Here are their tips for producing health materials both men and women can relate to and understand.

Audience. Regardless of gender, Skorczewski recommends that as a writer you think of readers as intelligent and informed, though perhaps unfamiliar with the topic you are writing about. “Think of your readers as differently –experienced,” Skorczewski says, adding that you should think of writing less like making a speech and more like having a “conversation with someone whose point of view you respect.”

Skorczewski points out the best way to learn about your readers’ experiences is to ask. Health professionals, she says, can ask patients about what they want to learn and invite them to share stories about how this information affects their lives. If you gather this information before you start to write, you can use what you learn to help shape your communication.

Content. Lerner says men and women both want clear, straightforward explanations. When the topic is miscarriage, for example, he says everyone wants to know why this happened and what to expect in the future. “People want information more than empathy or sympathy,” Lerner says. “Most people want explanations to gain control.”

Agreeing on the benefit of clear explanations, Skorcewski adds that men and women may prefer to learn this information in different ways. A man, for example, may want to know more about the probability that miscarriage will occur again, while a woman might have feelings to express about the loss of the life she was carrying and its impact on her family. These perspectives need not be mutually exclusive. But it is important to be aware of them so you can combine a factual approach with one that also focuses on feelings. That way, both needs can be met.

Gender-specific terms and images. The words you use need to be respectful of your audience’s point of view and inclusive so as not offend or exclude anyone. . That means you need to be sensitive when choosing images. “The language of science is deeply gendered,” says Skorczewski. You may want to reconsider before using only warlike metaphors such as “destroying disease” and “armies of cells.”

The pronouns you use are also important and carry weight. Some writers use “he/she” or something similar in an attempt to be inclusive. This format, however, can be difficult to read and understand, especially by readers who have limited literacy or language skills. An alternative is using what J.R. Redfern calls “gender fair language.” Such language “minimizes unnecessary concern about gender in your subject matter, allowing both you and your reader to focus on what people do rather than on which sex they happen to be.” Here are two ways to do that:

  • Use gender-specific names instead of more generic titles or descriptions. For instance, write about “Dr. Mary Green” or “Dr. Sam Brown” rather than “a doctor.” This way you don’t have to decide whether to use “he,” “she,” or “he/she” in later sentences.
  • Use plural nouns and pronouns. For instance, you can say “patients who keep their appointments” rather than “a patient who keeps his/her appointment.”

Numbers. While understanding and using numbers can be difficult for many people, Lerner notes that men tend to be quicker than women at interpreting numbers. Consequently, he may use an analogy to enhance his readers’ understanding. For example, when giving the statistic that miscarriages occur in 20 percent of all pregnancies, Lerner may point out that, on average, it rains in Boston once every five days to help readers grasp the significance of the percentage and understand the frequency of the occurrence.

Writers sometimes ask me whether it is advisable to tailor or adapt information to match specific readers’ particular needs. This may include altering style and approach based on such particulars as gender, culture, or age of the audience. My answer is it depends.

If you are writing for a small audience that you know well or can get to know well, it’s appropriate to include words, examples, and illustrations that connect with the experience and needs of your readers. But when writing for a larger audience, it is important to use a style that is inclusive and that everyone can relate to and understand. In either case, ask your readers for their feedback. They are the experts on writing that appeals to them specifically as women or men. What you learn can help you in the future to know when and how to adapt your writing to make it, among other things, gender specific.

How to Find Out More

Henry M. Lerner, MD, is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Newton and instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School. He is also author of Miscarriage: Why It Happens and How Best to Reduce Your Risks (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Press, 2003).

Dawn Skorczewski, PhD, is director of composition at Emerson College in Boston and author of Teaching One Moment at a Time: Disruption and Repair in the Classroom (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004). You can reach her by email at


  • Gilligan C, 1993. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Harvard University Press.
  • Lunsford A, Ruszkiewicz JJ, 2001. Everything’s an Argument. Bedford Books.
  • Redfern JR, “Gender Fair Language,” The Writing Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
  • Tannen D, 2001. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Perennial Currents.

Article reprinted with permission from On Call magazine and published by a division of Boston Globe Media.