AIMS: To identify the pattern of gender differences in drinking across societies, and to its association with other societal characteristics. METHODS: The aggregated results of GENACIS project surveys in 29 countries were examined and were compared with other characteristics of these societies. RESULTS: In all the participating societies men's drinking was more prevalent and heavier than women's drinking. Differences between countries in the gender gap in drinking were strongly associated with women's position in society, as well as with modernization. Similar results were obtained for indicators of alcohol's adverse consequences. CONCLUSIONS: Gender differences should be studied not only as individual behaviours, but also as societal traits, associated with other characteristics of the social system.