Historically, the terms "sex" and "gender" have been used interchangeably, but, in modern society, their meanings are becoming increasingly distinct.
Being clear on the differences between the two concepts is more important than ever.
In this article, we will look at the meaning of "sex" and the differences between the sexes; we will also look at the meaning of "gender," "gender roles," "gender identity" and "gender expression."
In general terms, "sex" refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences. "Gender" is more difficult to define but can refer to the role of a male or female in society (gender role), or an individual's concept of themselves (gender identity).
Sometimes, a person's genetically assigned sex does not line up with their gender identity. These individuals might refer to themselves as transgender, non-binary or gender-nonconforming.
"Sex" generally refers to biological differences.
The differences between male and female sexes are anatomical and physiological; "sex" tends to relate to biological differences.
For instance, male and female genitalia, both internal and external are, of course, different; similarly, the levels and types of hormones present in male and female bodies are different.
It is genetics which defines the sex of an individual. Women have 46 chromosomes including two Xs and men have 46 including an X and a Y. The Y chromosome is dominant and carries the signal for the embryo to begin growing testes.1
Although the male/female split is often seen as binary, this is not entirely true. For instance, some men are born with two or three X chromosomes, just as some women are born with a Y chromosome.
In some cases, a child is born with a mix between female and male genitalia; they are sometimes termed intersex, and the parents may decide which gender to assign to the child. Intersex individuals account for around 1 in 1,500 births.2 In fact, some sources put the figure as high as 1.7%.3
Although sex is often considered a black and white state of affairs, there is, in fact, a significant amount of middle ground; some believe that sex should be considered a continuum as opposed to two mutually exclusive categories.
Gender tends to denote the social and cultural role of each sex within a given society.4 Rather than being purely assigned by genetics as sex differences generally are, gender roles are adhered to as an (often subliminal) response to family interactions, the media, peers and education.5
The World Health Organization (WHO) describe "gender" like so:6
"Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men - such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed."
Gender roles in particularly patriarchal societies are much more rigid than those in more liberal countries. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, a woman's gender role is as the homemaker, they are subservient to men and not provided certain freedoms such as driving.
Gender roles vary greatly between societies.
In liberal countries, gender roles are still apparent in many regards - women often spend more time childrearing and men are more likely to be the primary money-earners.
However, traditional gender roles are not set in stone and are increasingly reversed in modern societies.
Gender roles and gender stereotypes are highly fluid and can shift substantially over time. For instance, high-heeled shoes, now almost unanimously considered feminine in Western societies, were initially designed for upper-class men to use when hunting on horseback.
As women caught on and began wearing high heels, male heels slowly became shorter and fatter as female heels grew taller and thinner. Over time, the perception of the high heel changed to its current sociological state: feminine.8 There is nothing intrinsically feminine about the high heel; social norms have made it so.
Another classic example of the malleability of gender roles is the pink/blue girl/boy stereotype that is so prevalent in Western countries. To modern eyes, pink is unmistakably feminine; this only shows how strong society's impact is on our perceptions of gender roles.
Babies were dressed in white until colored garments for babies were introduced in the middle of the 19th century. The following quote comes from a trade publication called Earnshaw's Infants' Department, published in 1918:7
"The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."
Move forward 100 years and you would be hard-pressed to find a single male baby dressed in pink in the industrialized world.
Gender identity and expression
Another meaning of gender is an individual's view of themselves - gender identity. GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) describe gender identity as being:
"One's internal, personal sense of being a man or woman. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices."9
Similarly, GLAAD describe gender expression as follows:
"External manifestations of gender, expressed through one's name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice, or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine and feminine changes over time and varies by culture."
To conclude, in general terms, "sex" refers to biological characteristics and "gender" refers to the individual's and society's perceptions of sexuality and the malleable concepts of masculinity and femininity.
Recent developments in gender research from MNT news
Is your heart female? Your liver male? New research suggests that the stem cells our organs are made of "know" whether they are "male" or "female," and that this gender bias could impact the development and behavior of organs.
Could gender differences in the symptoms of autism mask their prevalence in girls? A recent study into autistic friendships highlights some striking asymmetries.