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"When two individuals come together and leave their gender outside the bedroom door, then they make love. If they take it inside with them, they do something else, because society is in the room with them"

Andrea Dworkin (1946 - 2005)
U.S. writer and feminist.

"Gender" is derived from the Old French word genre, meaning "kind of thing". It goes back to the Latin word genus (meaning "kind", "species").

Gender Vs. Sex

Sociologists make a distinction between gender and sex. Gender is the perceived or projected masculinity or femininity of a person or characteristic. Sex, on the other hand, is conventionally perceived as a dichotomous state or identity for most biological purposes, such that a person can only be female or male.

Before going into more detail about the differences between gender and sex, it should be made clear why this is an important difference. Differentiating gender from sex allows social scientists to study influences on gender without confusing their audience. If a social scientist were to continually talk about how sex is socially constructed, her audience might get confused, thinking the scientist is ill-informed about the biological determinants of sex. Using one term, gender, to refer to the socially constructed and malleable component of human sexuality and another term, sex, to refer to the biological and immutable component of human sexuality allows scientists interested in these two components to study them without confusion.


The members of many species of living things are divided into two or more categories called sexes. These refer to complementary groups that combine genetic material in order to reproduce, a process called sexual reproduction. Typically, a species will have two sexes: male and female. The female sex is defined as the one which produces the larger gamete (i.e., reproductive cell) and which bears the offspring. The categories of sex are, therefore, reflective of the reproductive functions that an individual is capable of performing at some point during its life cycle, and not of the mating types, which genetically can be more than two.

In mammals (and many other species) sex is determined by the sex chromosomes, called X and Y. For mammals, males typically have one of each (XY), while females typically have two X chromosomes (XX). All individuals have at least one X chromosome, the Y chromosome is generally shorter than the X chromosome with which it is paired, and is absent in some species. In humans, sex is conventionally perceived as a dichotomous state or identity for most biological purposes, such that a person can only be female or male.


Gender is the social and representational component of human sexuality. Perhaps the best way to understand gender is to understand it as a process of social representation. Because gender roles are delineated by behavioral expectations and norms, once those expectations and norms are known by the individual, the individual can or does adopt the behaviors that represent the gender they wish to portray. The gender one wishes to portray is not solely a cognitive, selfdriven desire but also the socialized gender role imputed by parents, peers, and society.


Figure 1: Gender

Perhaps a concrete example will help clarify. A biological boy (XY chromosomes) may be socialized to play the traditional masculine role, which includes characteristics such as:

  1. independence

  2. courage and

  3. aggressiveness.

A biological female (XX chromosomes) may be socialized to play the traditional feminine role, including characteristics like:

  1. submissiveness

  2. emotionality and

  3. empathy

Assuming the socialization is effective and not rejected, our masculine boy and feminine girl will engage in behaviors to reflect their genders. For instance, the boy may play with toy soldiers and join athletic teams. The girl, on the other hand, may play with dolls and bond with other girls in smaller groups.

"Traditional Gender Characteristics"

Feminine Characteristics
Masculine Characteristics







Table adapted from Macionis (2004).

However, gender is fluid and can change. Continuing with our hypothetical boy and girl, it is possible for the boy to decide later in life that he no longer wishes to portray himself as traditionally masculine. The boy may adopt some traditionally feminine characteristics and become androgynous, or may adopt a feminine persona altogether. Either change would involve adopting the behaviors and customs that go along with the intended gender. The same is true for the girl, who may adopt masculine characteristics.

Gender Discordance

A significant fraction of the human population does not correspond exclusively to either female or male. When gender and sex collide, the result is discordance or conflict. Some discordances are purely biological, such as when the sex of the chromosomes (genetic sex) does not match the sex of the external genitalia (anatomic sex). For more extensive discussion of this type of discordance, see this article on intersex. Discordances between the biological and psychosocial levels, such as when the gender does not match the anatomic sex, are even more common but less well understood. The vast majority of people who are discordant in some aspect of psyche or behavior do not have any detectable biological intersex condition. Human societies respond to, or accommodate, these behavioral and psychological discordances in many different ways, ranging from suppression and denial of difference to acknowledging various forms of third sex.

It is interesting, and perhaps significant, that some societies identify youths with atypical behavioral characteristics and, instead of giving them corrective therapy or punishing them, socialize them in such a way that their individual characteristics let them provide a needed and/or useful function for the society in a recognized and respected role. Some of the roles these individuals may assume include: shaman, medicine man, tong-ki, berdache, hijra, xanith, and transgender.

Such complex situations have led some scientists to argue that the two sexes are socio-cultural constructions. Some people have sought to define their sexuality and sexual identity in nonpolar terms in the belief that the simple division of all humans into males and females does not fit their individual conditions. A proponent of this movement away from polar oppositions, Anne Fausto-Sterling, once suggested we recognize five sexes: male, female, merm, ferm and herm. Although quickly rejected as a bizarre flouting of human nature and social reality, and inimical to the interests of those whom she was attempting to champion, it expresses the difficulty and imperfection of the current social responses to these variations.

Biological Differences

While a large part of this chapter is dedicated to pointing out the socially determined differences between men and women, it is also important to note that not all differences are social. Men and women differ in their physiological makeup. In addition to different sex organs, the average male is 10 percent taller, 20 percent heavier, and 35 percent stronger in the upper body than the average female (Ehrenreich 1999; that physicological differences may have been influenced by social/cultural decisions in the past is still debated). How such measures are taken and evaluated remains the subject of interrogation and scrutiny. Scientists and clinicians point out that the relative strength of women, measured against their own body size, rather than on an absolute such as how much weight they can carry compared to men, shows that strength differences are minimal (Ebben and Randall, 1998: np).

Women, for reasons still somewhat undetermined, tend to outlive men. Women's life expectancy in the U.S. is 79.8 years, men's is 74.4 (U.S. National Center for Health Statistics 2003). The leading hypothesis to explain this phenomenon is the skewing caused by war in earlier years, combined with higher stress in the situations and occupations typical of men. An as yet unexplained phenomenon is that more female infants than male infants survie the neonatal period. There is some discussion that these number may be skewed because sex verification in the neo-natal period tends to be done visually, so not all the biological sexinformation may be correct for this period. Regardless, it does influence such statistical measures as the PYLL (potential years life lost) that help us to calculate the impact of premature death on males and females.

Behaviorally, age of sitting, teething, and walking all occur at about the same time in men and women. However, men enter puberty on average two years later than do women. There do not appear to be differences in intelligence, happiness, or self-esteem between men and women.

However, women are twice as statistically vulnerable to anxiety disorders and depression, but one-third as statistically vulnerable to suicide and one-fifth as vulnerable to alcoholism. (Women attempt suicide more often than men but have lower rates of "success", because they usually use drugs, whereas men usually use firearms.) Women are also less likely to suffer hyperactivity or speech disorders as children or to display antisocial personalities as adults. Finally, women have slightly more olfactory receptors on average and are more easily rearoused immediately after orgasm (Myers 1996:196). The significance of many such difference is open to debate and interpretation.

Social and Psychological Differences

As the previous section outlined, some gender differences are attributable to biology. However, there are a number of gender differences that vary by society and/or culture, indicating they are social constructions. Two examples of gender differences that are not attributed to biological differences will be discussed below: workforce differences and education.

Work and Occupations

An often discussed and debated difference between men and women involves work and occupations. Women's participation in the workforce has varied significantly over time. Prior to the development of capitalism and factory-type work, women played a significant role in food production and household maintenance. With the advent of capitalism and labor outside of the home, women continued to play a significant role, though their participation in paid labor outside the home diminished over time. Also, women's participation in the labor force varied (and varies) depending on marital status and social class.

Current U.S. labor force statistics illustrate women's changing role in the labor force. For instance, since 1971, women's participation in the labor force has grown from 32 million (43.4% of the female population 16 and over) to 68 million (59.2% of the female population 16 and over). Women also make, on average, $17,000 less than do men. Women tend to be concentrated in less prestigious and lower paying occupations (Bose and Rossi 1983) that are traditionally considered women's jobs (also referred to as pink collar jobs). Finally, women are not paid the same wages as men for similar work. This difference is often illustrated as a ratio, as shown in the graph below. Women tend to make between 75% and 85% of what men make for comparable work. Reasons for disparity in pay will be discussed in more detail below.

Ratio of Women's Earnings to Men's Earnings by Earnings Precentile: 1999

Figure 2: Ratio of Women's Earnings to Men's Earnings by Earnings Precentile: 1999


Another often studied difference between men and women involves educational attainment. For a long time, higher education (undergraduate and graduate education) was an exclusively male bastion. Women did eventually gain access to institutions of higher learning, but parity or equality on a number of levels is still in the works. One measure of educational attainment where women have made great inroads is in college attendance. In 1960, 37.9% of female high school graduates enrolled in college. This is compared to 54.0% of male high school graduates. In 2002, more female high school graduates were enrolling in college than males, 68.4% of females vs. 62.1% males. Women have, in fact, made significant progress in this respect. Women now earn more Bachelors and Masters degrees than do men and they earn almost as many PhDs.

Progress in this regard, however, should be tempered by the fact that while women are entering college at higher rates and even earning more degrees, the degrees are in less prestigious areas (e.g., social sciences and humanities compared to physical sciences) and women with degrees still earn less than do men with comparable degrees (Jacobs 1996).


Sexism is discrimination against people based on their sex or gender. Sexism can refer to three subtly different beliefs or attitudes:

  • The belief that one sex is superior to the other.

  • The belief that men and women are very different and that this should be strongly reflected in society, language, the right to have sex, and the law.

  • It can also refer to simple hatred of men (misandry) or women (misogyny).

Many peoples' beliefs on this topic range along a continuum. Some people believe that women should have equal access to all jobs except a few religious positions. Others believe that while women are superior to men in a few aspects, in most aspects men are superior to women. Sexist beliefs are an example of essentialist thought, which holds that individuals can be understood (and often judged) based on the characteristics of the group to which they belong; in this case, their sex group (male or female). Essentialism assumes that all individuals clearly fit into the category of male or female.

Sexism against women is often called chauvinism, though chauvinism is actually a wider term for any extreme and unreasoning partisanship on behalf of a group to which one belongs, especially when the partisanship includes malice and hatred towards a rival group. Therefore many forms of radical feminism can legitimately be referred to as chauvinism. This is not common usage, however, and the term is most often used to refer to male chauvinism. While the view that women are superior to men is also sexism, only in recent years has an awareness of this reverse sexism begun to develop in public discourse. Certain forms of sexual discrimination are illegal in many countries, but nearly all countries have laws that give special rights, privileges, or responsibilities to one sex.



Figure 3: Violence

Sexism can take many forms, including preventing women from attending college and paying women less than men for comparable work. Another common form of sexism is violence, especially violence toward women. In 2002, women were the victims of over 900,00 violent crimes and over 200,000 rapes or sexual assaults. Men are more likely to be the victims of violent crime, but far less likely to be the victims of rapes or sexual assaults. Additionally, many violent crimes, rapes, and sexual assaults are committed not by strangers but acquaintances.

Gender Theory

Sociological theory tries to understand gender in the sense of how it is socially constructed as well as in its implications for society.

Gender Socialization

One of the understandings that underlies most theoretical approaches to gender differences involves differences in gender socialization. As discussed earlier, socialization is the process that conveys norms and behaviors to potential members of a group. In the case of gender socialization, the groups that are being joined are males and females. Thus, gender socialization is the process of educating and instructing potential males and females as to the norms, behaviors, values, etc. of group membership.

Preparations for gender socialization begin even before the birth of the child. One of the first questions people ask of expectant parents is the sex of the child. This is the beginning of a social categorization process that will continue throughout a person's life. Preparations for the birth often take the infant's sex into consideration (e.g., painting the room blue if the child is a boy, pink for a girl). Many gender differences can be attributed to differences in socialization, though to attribute them exclusively to socialization would be asserting something that is not known. It is important to keep in mind that gender differences are a combination of social and biological forces; sometimes one or the other has a larger influence, but both play a role in this process.

Some clear indications of the influence of gender socialization have been explored in research studies. For instance, young boys tend to favor team sports with complex rules, clear objectives, and winners and losers. Young girls tend to favor less complex games in smaller groups that do not have clear winners and losers (Lever 1978). These differences may have significant consequences for social ability later in life. Specifically, because boys engage in the types of activities they do, they may be better prepared for corporate life:

  • dealing with diversity in group membership where people have specific responsibilities

  • coordinating actions and maintaining cohesiveness among group members

  • coping with a set of impersonal rules

  • working for collective and personal goals

Lever attributes these differences in types of play not to the direct influence of parents or other adults - who obviously have a hand in it - but to a historical legacy of gender segregation. In the U.S. and much of Europe, organized team sports were limited to participation by males. Even today, many high schools continue to fund male sports activities at a much higher rate than they do female sports. Legislation in the 1970s (see Title IX) attempted to level the playing field for men's and women's sports in colleges and universities.

Greenberger and Steinberg (1983) found that gender differences in work and occupations actually begin with adolescents' first jobs:

  • first jobs are significantly segregated by sex

  • girls work fewer hours per week than boys

  • girls earn less per hour than boys

  • hourly wages are higher in job types dominated by males

Greenberger and Steinberg attribute these differences to gender socialization and differential opportunities for boys and girls.

Theories of Gender Differences

Some sociological theories address the issue of why there are gender differences. The most obvious reason is that there are biological differences between men and women. Sociobiologists argue that much of social life as we know it today is rooted in human evolution and biology. Included in such theories is the idea that many gender differences are attributable to differences in physiology and biology. For instance, differences in attitudes and assertiveness toward sexuality have been attributed to evolution and physiology. Women, who invest more in the creation, bearing, and raising of children, are inclined toward monogamous relationships as having a partner to help them improves the chances of their child's survival. Men, on the other hand, may be inclined less toward monogamy as their investment in offspring can be (and often is) far smaller than that of women. As a result, women will be attracted to men who can provide support (i.e., protection and resources) while men will be attracted to fertile women (the symbols of which have changed over time; see Buss 1994).

Another theoretical approach to understanding gender differences falls in step with gender socialization and, to some degree, underlies the socialization process. Symbolic Interactionism argues that humans develop a sense of self through their daily interactions with other people. As they negotiate meaning in these interactions, they begin to understand how people view them and they gain a sense of how the world works. As far as gender goes, Symbolic Interactionism would argue that gender develops through these interactions. As people come to understand the different ways they are perceived and relate these to their sense of self, they develop a self-image that reflects how others perceive them. Genders are perceived differently, resulting in different perceptions of self.

Theories of Gender Implications

Another way of approaching gender differences is to look at the implications as well as the different components that might have encouraged gender differences. One approach to understanding gender roles is the structural-functionalist approach advocated by Talcott Parsons (1942). In this perspective, genders are seen as complementary - women take care of the home while men provide for the home. This approach has been criticized for supporting the status quo and condoning the oppression of women as it argues womens' roles are complentary to mens', especially in that they are submissive.

A contrasting approach to structural-functionalism is that of social-conflict analysis. In this perspective, gender relations are cast in terms of power. Men's dominance of women is seen as an attempt to maintain power and privilege to the detriment of women. This approach is normative in the sense that it does not condone such behavior but rather criticizes it.

Finally, feminism is another approach to gender relations. The basic argument of feminism is similar to that of social-conflict analysis in that it views gender relations as an issue of power. And, in line with social-conflict analysis, feminism is inherently normative - it argues that society must change toward a greater balance of power between the sexes. There are numerous approaches to feminism.

Research Examples

Rand and Hall (1983) were interested in exploring whether men or women were better able to determine their own attractiveness. Using fifty-five Johns Hopkins University undergraduates (24 females), the authors had the students fill out questionnaires that were designed to be selfappraisals of their attractiveness. The authors then used a panel to rate the attractiveness of the participants (an objective measure). The results of the study indicate that women are fairly accurate in their assessments of their attractiveness but men are not. The results were explained by discussing the salience of attractiveness for women; attractiveness is an important component of women's lives. Because it is so important for women, they are more attuned to their actual attractiveness than are men.

Figure 4

Tickamyer (1981) was interested in sex differences in the distribution of wealth. Using biographical data published in magazines and books as well as IRS income reports, Tickamyer explored the differences in wealth between men and women, finding:

  • there are fewer wealthy women than men

  • it is not entirely clear as to whether sources of wealth differ, but it does appear that women are more likely than men to inherit their wealth (especially from husbands)

  • the forms of women's holdings differ from men's; many women have their money in trusts

  • women are less likely to have control over their wealth than men and are less likely to be actively engaged in increasing their wealth through investments as, say, the head of a company is engaged in growing his wealth

Tickamyer attributes the differences in wealth distribution to historical instances of gender discrimination. Up until the 19th century, women could not own property and women's participation in the paid labor force outside the home had been limited. It is possible that wealth among the elite may be redistributed toward a more equal balance between the sexes with increasing numbers of women entering the workforce and moving toward more financially lucrative positions in major corporations.

Read more about gender- "Gender", written by JUDITH LORBER, Published in Encyclopedia of Sociology - ISBN 0-02-864853-6

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PhD student at the University of Cincinnati

MS Human Genetics; employed as a genetic counselor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

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