What Does Gender Mean?

Before beginning my study into this topic, if I had been asked the question: What defies gender? I would of most likely of said ‘being male or female’. I have a feeling if I was to ask this question to others, I would receive a similar answer. You see it all the time in the world around you, from having to choose ‘M’ or ‘F’ on a form to shopping in the female/male section of the store. Whilst searching for the true meaning of gender, I came across these definitions:

“Gender is determined socially; it is the societal meaning assigned to male and female.  Each society emphasizes particular roles that each sex should play, although there is wide latitude in acceptable behaviors for each gender” (Hesse-Biber, S. and Carger, G. L., 2000, p. 91).

“Gender is used to describe those characteristics of women and men, which are socially constructed, while sex refers to those which are biologically determined. People are born female or male but learn to be girls and boys who grow into women and men. This learned behaviour makes up gender identity and determines gender roles” (World Health Organization, 2002, p. 4).

“Gender is the division of people into two categories, “men” and “women.”  Through interaction with caretakers, socialization in childhood, peer pressure in adolescence, and gendered work and family roles women and men are socially constructed to be different in behavior, attitudes, and emotions.  The gendered social order is based on and maintains these differences” (Borgatta, E.F. and Montgomery, R.J.V, 2000, p. 1057).


Gender Relations, Definition of
“Gender relations refer to a complex system of personal and social relations of domination and power through which women and men are socially created and maintained and through which they gain access to power and material resources or are allocated status within society” (IFAD, 2000, p. 4).

The common denominator here is that gender is learned through social experiences, where the learnt role can vary depending on your upbringing.

“In pre-industrial Europe, for example, the practice of medicine (Other than midwifery) was generally seen as a male prerogative. However, in Russia, health care was more often seen as a feminine role. The results of these views can still be seen in modern society, where European medicine is most often practiced by men, while the majority of Russian doctors are women.”- Source

So what’s the difference between Gender and Sex? They are often referred to as meaning the same thing, even the first definition above uses the word ‘Sex’ to refer to gender. In My Gender Workbook, Kate Bornstein attempts to put the two into a chart to help define each meaning, where sex is defined as the act of sex and gender is distinguishing between two people.

Picture 1Bornstein also expands on the definitions of gender assignment, role, identity, and attribution:

Picture 2– Extract from My Gender Workbook, taken from Google Books.

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