September 12, 2011

There is controversy over how gender is defined and in the distinction between the terms gender and sex. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gender as “the behavioral, cultural, and psychological traits typically associated with one’s sex.” Interestingly, the definition of sex encompasses “the sum of the structural, functional, and behavioral characteristics of living things that are involved in reproduction by two interacting parents that distinguish males and females.” The definition of gender emphasizes psychological and cultural traits, whereas the definition of sex emphasizes structural and functional traits. Both definitions, however, include behavioral aspects.

The use of the term gender as something separate from one’s sex is a fairly recent conceptual development. In American society, resistance to traditional gender role norms can be traced back to the suffrage movement of the 1920s and 1930s, although most chroniclers suggest that it was not until the midto late 1960s that gender took on a separate definition from sex. The rise of the feminist movement produced concerns about the traditional perspective on gender due to its unidimensionality and rigidness. At one extreme is the perspective that gender is solely made up of, and influenced by, one’s biology. At the other extreme is the perspective that gender is unrelated to one’s biology and completely determined by how individuals experience themselves. In between are researchers who argue that gender comprises varying degrees of biology, psychology, and culture. The traditional perspective on gender is that it involves two mutually exclusive categories, so that individuals who are high on masculine traits must be low on feminine traits. Many researchers now conceive of gender as involving multiple continuums, allowing for the possibility that one can be high or low on both masculine and feminine traits. Others take this a step further and emphasize that expression of masculine and feminine traits is dependent upon situational context. Still others argue that the entire conceptualization of sex-based traits is erroneous, calling attention to how these so-called traits are used to classify women as the lesser sex relative to men.

It would be erroneous to suggest that all biologists or all psychologists agree on how to define gender; however, there are some commonalities based on scientific discipline. Many biologists assert that gender is no different than sex, and is simply determined by the 23rd pair of human chromosomes. In this pair, females are designated AX and males are designated XY. Those who promote an essentialist perspective in psychology also endorse this definition, arguing that gender is nothing more than sex, decided at birth, and is unchanging. Evolutionary theorists also adhere to the essentialist perspective that gender is biologically based. These theorists focus on reproduction as the essential motive driving the behavior of all organisms. Evolutionary theories focus on women’s and men’s unequal investments in the care provided for their offspring and because of this, the differential adaptiveness of specific behaviors that help aid in the survival of these offspring. From this perspective, biological sex differences have produced environmental pressures that have led women and men to develop different gender roles. Because these gender differences are viewed as being evolutionarily adaptive, they are viewed as fixed, although presumably new environmental pressures could alter what types of gender displays are most adaptive.

There are other psychological theorists who adhere to the opposite view, suggesting that gender has nothing to do with one’s sex, but rather involves the beliefs and feelings of one’s experiences in a social and public environment. Psychologists who have adopted this view frequently describe the experiences of people who feel they are trapped in the body of the opposite sex (see Transsexualism) or people who have equal proportions of masculine and feminine attributes (androgyny). Although essentialists would focus their explanation of these individuals’ experiences on their chromosomes and reproductive organs, social constructionists would focus their explanations on how masculine or how feminine these individuals feel throughout their daily lives and would use those guidelines rather than sex to describe their gender. Psychologists typically define gender identity as an individual’s own sense of how male or female they feel, regardless of biological sex. It is in this identification that gender is realized.

Theorists who argue that gender is socially constructed focus on the different roles that women and men are expected to fulfill in a society. Anthropologists have documented the vast heterogeneity in the types of traits and behaviors that are viewed as masculine or feminine in different cultures. For example, in many nonindustrialized societies, men and women are expected to perform very different work roles, with men often being responsible for hunting and women for providing all other types of food as well as food preparation. In cultures in which women may haul heavy buckets of water for long distances, definitions of femininity and perceptions of what makes a woman attractive are very different from those in an industrialized urban culture that emphasizes a different set of roles and image of attractiveness. Such was also the case during frontier days in America and among lowstatus minority women who have been required to fulfill domestic and factory jobs. In contrast, among 21st century urban professional women, sweating may be acceptable at the gym, but not at the workplace.

If women and men express gender differently in different cultures, how do gender differences emerge? Social constructionists argue that gender roles are taught from birth through both implicit and explicit messages. The young boy who plays with his sister’s makeup before going to school is frequently the object of ridicule by peers and adults and is unlikely to do so again. Many psychologists argue that children internalize these perceptions of what it means to be a girl or boy and that these traits become a part of their identity. Many sociologists have argued that gender emerges through the different ways in which men and women, as well as those of diverse ethnicities and classes, experience their bodies in a social and historical context. In addition to gender roles and gender identity, they emphasize the importance of gender stratification. Gender stratification is society’s unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privilege between the sexes. Unlike essentialists, social constructionists do not believe that biology is destiny and therefore they do not view traditional gender roles as inevitable. However, they do believe that societies encourage men and women to adapt certain traits and roles and that most individuals internalize these messages. Thus, gender roles become an integral part of most people’s sense of self.

Other theorists have argued that too much emphasis is placed on gender as an individual difference variable and instead suggest that gender may be more situationally dependent. Should a situation call for the display of more masculine attributes, most people are able to produce such characteristics. For example, an assertive leadership style may be viewed as masculine in American culture, but many women corporate leaders have adopted this leadership style. This belief that gender displays are based on situational demands and rewards challenges the assumption that gender is an integral part of an individual’s personality and a core aspect of their self-concept. Postmodernist theorists go beyond the argument that gender roles are flexible and dynamic, instead arguing that gender is completely fluid and unrelated to stable aspects of the self, including personality and biology. These theorists argue that gender is not intrinsic to women and men, but instead represents a performance. In this light, an individual’s performance can be viewed as either traditional or nontraditional with respect to society’s expectations for their gender. Thus, everyone performs gender and can change how they perform it if they choose to do so.

SEE ALSO: Femininity, Gender role, Homosexuality, Lesbian, Marianismo, Masculinity, Queer, Transgenderism, Transsexuality

Suggested Reading

  • Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.
  • Diamant, L., & Lee, J. A. (2002). The psychology of sex, gender, and jobs. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • Howard, J. A., & Hollander, J. (1997). The gender lens: Gendered situations, gendered selves. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Mackie, M. (1987). Constructing women and men: Gender socialization. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online
  • Shaver, P., & Hendrick, C. (1987). Sex and gender: Review of personality and social psychology (Vol. 7). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Spence, J. T., Deaux, K., & Helmrich, R. L. (1985). Sex roles in contemporary American society. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology. New York: Random House.

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