Introduction to Women's
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comprehensive picture of the health of a population is critical to
guiding health research, policy and programs. Such a picture is created
by collecting data on a range of health measures – health indicators –
that can be pooled together and analyzed to describe, compare and
monitor patterns of mortality (deaths), morbidity (illness, disease),
wellness, and health-affecting factors (personal behaviours, resources
such as housing and systemic influences such as the availability of
care). To understand women’s health, this information must be
available and should be analyzed by sex and by gender. Sex- and
gender-based analysis (SGBA) is recognized internationally and by the
Canadian government as a critical component of sound health planning.
According to Government of Canada policy, SGBA is used “to ensure that
the initiatives and activities of the Health Portfolio lead to sound
science, ensure gender equality and are effective and efficient” .
This section of The Source has been developed to
introduce the concepts and context of work done in the area of women’s
health indicators in Canada. This introduction includes an overview of
what is meant by women’s health indicators and the rationale behind
their use. This material is followed by a brief introduction to
indicator frameworks, which are explained more fully in the following
Are Women’s Health Indicators?
health indicator measures health status in a population of women. In
Canada, as in other countries, women’s health indicators are intended to
measure how sex and gender affect the health of women and girls, to
understand in what ways women’s health differs from men’s but also to
understand specific influences within and among sub-populations of
Sex refers to the biological characteristics
that distinguish males and females. Sex differences include physical and
physiological differences such as body shape and size, proportion of
fat to muscle, and hormones. Health-related data are often recorded by
sex, (male or female), although they are not always reported by sex.
Looking at sex-disaggregated data is the first step towards
understanding the effect of being male or female in any specific health
condition. Data that are both reported and recorded by sex allow the
user to make comparisons between males and females. Indicators may also
be women-specific, in that they measure conditions that occur only among
women, such as maternal smoking, maternal mortality or ovarian cancer
Gender refers to the socially constructed roles
and relationships, personality traits, attitudes, relative power, and
other characteristics that are ascribed to men and women by
society. Gender-sensitive indicators allow us to identify,
examine, and monitor gender-related in changes in society over time .
They should also allow for comparisons of diversity between groups of women, men, boys,
or girls , which implies that they should measure other
characteristics such as age, location of residence, ethnic background,
sexual orientation, religious tradition, and a host of other variations
Including measurements of sex, gender,
and diversity in health indicators allows SGBA to pursue the overall
goal of equity, or the treatment of people in a manner that ensures
similar or comparable outcomes. This is distinct from equality, which
requires that people in similar circumstances be treated in similar
ways. Policies and services that aim to achieve equity are often
different from one group to another because they are tailored to the
individual needs of different groups of people.
or on the Environmental Scan tab to read about historical and current
efforts to expand and refine women’s health indicator use and
Why Women’s Health
An ideal set of women’s
1. Drive change: A
good indicator is one that suggests directions for action. Linking
indicators with priorities and strategies for change is critical to
improving women’s health .
2. Make visible
what is currently invisible: Data on women’s health indicators provide
the basis for SGBA to illuminate differences between men and women
and/or among groups of women in terms of determinants of health, access
to health services, and health outcomes.
comparison: Women’s health indicators provide standard measures that can
be compared by community, region, province, and/or country.
progress: Collecting and comparing indicators over time enables us to
see if women’s health has improved or worsened, as well as to identify
key trends in disease or health.
5. Measure the
impact of policies, programs or projects: Women’s health indicators help
expand our knowledge of the impact of policies and programs on women’s
6. Point to more
effective, targeted interventions: Women’s health indicators may help
improve the focus and effectiveness of existing or emerging
interventions, by identifying the specific needs of women and subgroups
7. Support gender
equity: Understanding how health outcomes are impacted by sex, gender,
and diversity can help tailor policies and services to achieve gender
Unfortunately, in Canada surveys,
surveillance systems, and other health related data often do not record
or report statistical data by sex, gender, ethnicity, Aboriginal status,
geographic region, socio-economic status or other variables that allow
us to conduct SGBA and better understand the health of specific
populations . In some cases these details are recorded by not
reported, and become lost through aggregation to population-level
reporting. In other cases, the data collection mechanisms are missing
altogether. Recognizing this gap, women’s health researchers and policy
makers have worked diligently over the past two decades to improve
representation of sex and gender in health surveillance and thus our
ability to conduct SGBA. However, despite recent advances, significant
gaps still exist in our ability to monitor, report on, and understand
researchers began investigating women’s health indicators, they
attempted to capture all aspects of health and illness by developing
extensive lists of indicators, some with more than one
thousand. This approach produced an overwhelming amount of
data to be collected, analyzed, and reported; and many of the indicators
measured very similar health characteristics.
Since then, women’s health analysts have been developing theoretical frameworks to narrow the number of indicators necessary to capture the complexities of health status and influences in a manageable way. The original lists of indicators have evolved into frameworks which posit relationships among the indicators and a comprehensive model of women’s health. Additionally, researchers have begun to investigate how qualitative information, which asks why or how health outcomes occur, can complement and enhance standard quantitative indicators, which measure whether something occurs or the degree to which it occurs. An analysis of current indicator frameworks can be found in the Frameworks section of this document.
This document pulls together related pages from The Source, a web-based tool to assist researchers, policy makers, health planners, and students identify sources of health data for women and girls. The Source is organized according to a number of critical indicators of women’s health and provides a sex-and gender-based analysis of these indicators. The indicators and topics are grouped according to the categories Health Status, Health Determinants, and Health Services. This organization is based on the model used by the World Health Organization and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
 Health Portfolio Sex and Gender-Based Analysis Policy. Health Canada website. Access on April 15, 2010 from www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/pubs/women-femmes/sgba-policy-politique-ags-eng.php
 Beck T, (1999). Using Gender-Sensitive Indicators: A Reference Manual for Goverments and Other Stakeholders. London: Commonwealth Secretariat.
 United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), (2000). Progress of the World’s Women 2000; UNIFEM Biennial Report. New York: United National Development Fund for Women.
 Clark J., and Bierman A. (2009). The Power Study Framework, Chapter 2. Accessed on December 7, 2009 from www.powerstudy.ca/webfm_send/50
 Aguilar L. Gender Indicators. Accessed on December 7, 2009 from www.genderandenvironment.org/admin/admin_biblioteca/documentos/Gender%20Indicators.pdf
 Austin S, Tudiver S, Chultem M, Kantiebo M. Gender-based analysis, women’s health surveillance and women’s health indicators – Working together to promote equity in health in Canada. Int J Public Health 2007; 52: S41-S48.