In the construction and maintenance of society, not everyone has an equal say. Some groups hold more power than others and reap the benefits of an inequitable construction. Individual identity decides a person’s inclusion in particular groups and their place in society. This identity is crafted by considering several characteristics but none are more primal than sex and gender. Unfortunately, the very definition of these concepts is debated in a highly political and polarised manner. One side vehemently sticks to a traditional, binary model, while the other advocates for a fluid, inclusive model. This polarisation is expressed as violence and oppression against the latter. The debate is further fuelled by a misunderstanding of the concepts in contention, with conflation as the kindling. These concepts are used to construct social categories, several of which are harmful. In this article, I examine gender and sex, why they play a critical role in our society, and how that can change.
Conceptually, gender and sex are distinct but intersect and overlap. Their conflation is maintained by interchangeable usage and changing definitions through the ages. For clarity’s sake, I will first provide definitions for the two terms.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines sex as:
“... the biological characteristics that define humans as female or male. While these sets of biological characteristics are not mutually exclusive, as there are individuals who possess both, they tend to differentiate humans as males and females” (1)
Sex is assigned to individuals upon birth, usually based on the observation of one biological marker - external genitalia. An individual with a penis is categorised as a man, and an individual with a vagina is categorised as a woman. Other biological markers that often come into play are chromosomes, gonads, sex-specific hormones, or internal reproductive structures (2). For some, these biological markers do not fit into the strict categories of male or female. They are then grouped under intersex, an umbrella term for people born with natural biological sex characteristics that do not conform to cultural standards of maleness and femaleness (3). Assigned sex at birth is not determinative or fixed, but we will address this later.
Despite historical usage and current misusage, gender is not synonymous with sex. It is a social construct that instructs appropriate behaviour and roles for an individual in society. The UN defines gender as:
“the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a society considers appropriate for individuals based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender roles are learned, changeable over time and variable within and between cultures.” (3)
The current societal norm is to assign gender based on one’s assigned sex at birth but individuals can and do identify outside this assignment. Since gender is one of the primary characteristics of social categorisation, it invades every aspect of life including language, expressions, clothing styles, jobs, and social roles. We are expected to conform to the image created for our assigned gender. Men are expected to be masculine, and women are expected to be feminine. Intersex people are assigned a gender based on social norms when biological sex is ambiguous (4,5) and expected (forced) to behave as such.
We are taught to behave a certain way and punished if we don’t. As we fester in this environment, we become very effective at playing and reinforcing the role, even when it is harmful.
As with most social identities, gender is also constructed based on our interactions and experiences with society (6). We then perform our gender in societal contexts, using feedback to continuously reorganise our self-concept. As West and Zimmerman (7) point out, gender is something we do rather than something we are. Inevitably, our assigned gender affects our interactions with society. We are taught to behave a certain way and punished if we don’t. As we fester in this environment, we become very effective at playing and reinforcing the role, even when it is harmful. Most of us fall prey to the idea of a gender binary, as this is the reinforced norm.
But, we must acknowledge that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are categories only because they are statistically prominent. We identify a cluster of characteristics that frequently occur together, categorise, name, and proceed to employ them in subsequent interactions. We also ignore all the greys in between because acknowledging their existence would make the model complicated, inconvenient, and in some cases, invalidate our existing beliefs.
Despite the pressure of social conformation and punishment, gender identity is not determinative, and people identify outside of society’s assignment. We can present with a mix of masculine and feminine characteristics, move between the two, or not even consider characteristics as gendered. Masculine and feminine are socially constructed categories that aren’t opposites or mutually exclusive. They are also defined differently across different cultures and time periods. What prevents me or someone else from constructing a third category? Or infinite categories?
Let us explore the idea of gender using the example of the skirt. Most will agree if I claim it is appropriate attire for females. This gendered meaning comes attached, is universally accepted, and is fixed, right? Well, the Scots might disagree. So will the Hawaiians. The kilt (skirt with a distinct 'tartan' pattern) and lavalava (a long skirt) are appropriate attire for Scotsmen and Hawaiians of all gender.
Similarly, we add gendered meanings to most objects in our world. Pink is for girls, while blue is for boys. Crying is not for men. Makeup is for women. Women raise children at home while men go out in the world to work. Where do these constructs come from, and why do they still exist? Why are particular wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum associated with men while others are associated with women? What will happen if men start wearing makeup and openly weep when they feel sad? Why is it outside the norm to have a working woman and a stay-at-home dad? Is it necessary to attach gendered meanings to every characteristic, role, and object?
As Raine Dozier (4) puts it, “biological sex is a complex constellation of chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, and reproductive organs”.
Social construction does play a role in sex categorisations too. We select a few biological characteristics and group them under the words 'man' and 'woman'. When these characteristics fail to meet our strict criteria, we use the intersex category. At the core, these categories and selected characteristics are nothing more than social constructs. For example, not all men have a testosterone level deemed typical. Some men cannot grow beards, while some women can. Chromosomal sex (genotype) does not always match the phenotype, usually due to a mutation in the SRY gene (8). We make exceptions but never reframe the strict binary model. As Raine Dozier (4) puts it, “biological sex is a complex constellation of chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, and reproductive organs”. Simple external observation cannot determine an individual’s sexual identity.
Why do we categorise people based on sex and gender? Firstly, social categorisations help us navigate our complex social world, predict, explain, evaluate others, and identify ourselves in social systems (9,10). Secondly, human beings exhibit a low level of sexual dimorphism (8), which serves as an easy, observation-based characteristic for categorisation. Such body-based categorisations were not universal or prominent across societies, with Oyĕwùmí (11,12) pointing out the role of European imperialism and colonialism in propagating them. Over time, sex-based categories led to the development of harmful stereotypes, hierarchies, and segregation. For example, people under the 'women' category were not allowed to vote until recently. Society did not consider them fit to make political decisions or have power, but this changed when we realised sex was a baseless characteristic to consider when determining one's political right and ability.
In a lecture titled, ‘Debating Gender’, Brian D. Earp (13) critically examines the process of selecting characteristics for gender categorisation. In the voting example, neither sex nor gender is an appropriate characteristic, but age and residency status might be. The rationale is that children might be under-informed, and people who live in the country should decide its political direction. These blanket categorisations serve as a thumb rule to make the voting process easy and efficient. But the problem with thumb rules is that they sometimes lead to false narratives. For example, the simple categorisation that men should work while women take care of the family has evolved into the dangerous narrative that men are better workers than women. The remnants of this idealogy are still causing discrimination and disparity in the workplace.
If the need for social categorisation exists, we have to critically and mindfully ask ourselves: “Which characteristics, if any, are necessary for categorising people in this scenario for this reason in this particular social context while maintaining fairness and inclusiveness?” It is also essential to ask why we categorise people as men and women and whether we should continue using these categories across the board (14). We must extend this level of critical outlook to every social context that requires categorisation.
In conclusion, gender and sex are overlapping but distinct concepts. They are best understood as social constructs with biological and psychological properties. Gender and sex are extensively used to categorise people in society, even when it might be inappropriate, inaccurate, and harmful. Traditionally, these categories were strictly restricted to the binary, which we are now dismantling in favour of a more fluid approach. As society changes, the categories that support its functioning need to be redefined. If we remain critical and engaged, we can construct a fairer society that is inclusive, progressive, and prosperous for all.