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Page type: Sociocultural
Categories: Social justice ; Identities

Page contents:

Defining gender
What is gender?
Gender roles
Gender identity
Gender equality

Common questions about gender
Social constructs are real, so why not binary genders?
Isn't the gender spectrum a modern "western" invention?
Animals only have two genders, aren't humans animals?
But isn't binarity based on biological facts?
What if I'm just attached to "traditional" gender roles?

Sources & Links


Defining gender

What is gender?

Gender is a word for the social expectations that come with being a man, a woman, or other[1].

A person's gender is part of their identity, influencing the ways they feel and express themselves[2].

Gender is more than a binary "boy or girl" choice: there exists a wide spectrum of gender identities[3].

Although the two are related, gender is not the same thing as biological sex.

Gender roles

People are expected to behave in certain ways depending on their gender. These expectations are called "gender roles", and vary depending on an individual's age, country, culture, and other aspects of the society they live in[4].

Gender roles influence people's lives in many ways: the way they are expected to dress and groom themselves, the jobs they are expected to perform or avoid, the things they are expected to do for their family, the ways they are expected to entertain themselves, and many other aspects of their daily life.

Many cultures encourage "traditional" gender roles, arbitrarily deciding which activities are considered best suited for men or women. The enforcement of traditional gender roles tends to limit individual freedoms, and often causes gender inequalities[5].

Gender identity

People can have a gender identity different from the one they were assigned at birth. This means a person's gender does not have to be representative of their genitals, chromosomes, hormones, or any other biological characteristic[6].

Most people are cisgender[7], meaning their gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth[8].

People who consider their gender identity to be incompatible with the one initially assigned to them are called transgender[9]. If they cannot identify with any of the gender identities of the society they live in, they might identify as non binary[10].

It is possible for a person to be fine with being a specific gender, while rejecting the norms, roles, and stereotypes traditionally associated with that gender[11]. Such people are not necessarily transgender, and are considered gender nonconforming[12].

Gender equality

Many activists, including feminists, point out that society treats some people better than others based on their gender[13], and call for gender equality[14].

The goal is not to erase the differences between genders or to "end" genders, but rather to ensure that everyone has equal rights and access to equal opportunities no matter what their gender is.


Common questions about gender

Social constructs are real, so why not binary genders?

Genders are considered a social construct: they are not purely a product of nature, but rather shaped by many cultural and historical influences unique to each society[15]. This is evidenced by the social expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman varying from country to country and culture to culture[16].

Money is a social construct too, as it only has value due to people collectively agreeing on its value, otherwise it would be nothing but worthless pieces of paper. This raises the question: if society can make money "real", then why aren't traditional binary gender roles "real" too?

When people claim that gender is a social construct, they are not trying to invalidate people's gender related personal experiences. Quite the opposite, they are acknowledging that genders are a very real thing, while also highlighting that the concept of gender is not as strict as it seems.

Just like currencies fluctuate in value, and the rules of finance evolve as our understanding of economics progresses, so does the definition of gender evolve over time. Social constructs are not static[17].

Isn't the gender spectrum a modern "western" invention?

Throughout history, many different cultures have acknowledged the existence of transgender or non-binary individuals[18]. Some of the more popular examples include:

  • The Indian subcontinent has three genders, the third one being hijras[19].
  • In the Philippines, bakla are considered a third gender[20].
  • Samoan culture includes the gender nonconforming faʻafafine[21].
  • Thai culture considers kathoey, transgender women, to be a third sex[22].
  • Some Balkan cultures include transgender men called "sworn virgins"[23].
  • Ancient Sumerians had gender identities for transgender and non-binary individuals[24].
  • Plenty of native American cultures had concepts of gender fluidity[25].

The gender spectrum is not a new invention coming out of European or North American society, but rather a logical concept which many cultures have conceptualized and embraced throughout history.

Animals only have two genders, aren't humans animals?

Comparing humans to animals is nonsense: animals don't have to choose between dresses and trousers, whether to put on makeup or not, or whether to pay some of their employees less than others. While biological sex is a product of nature, gender is socially constructed, it is part of a human's made up identity[26].

One could think that sexual dimorphism (different sexes having different physical characteristics[27]) implies the existence of genders in animals, but this falls apart when looking at species where male and female individuals have the same physical characteristics, species in which individuals can change sex during their lifetime, species in which individuals are both male and female, or species which reproduce asexually.

Primates, our closest relatives, can begin developing gender identities when held in captivity, including non-binary expressions of gender[28]. This suggests that gender identities develop once the need to survive becomes less of a daily priority, possibly explaining why the topic of gender has become more of a focus as our quality of life has increased over time[29].

But isn't binarity based on biological facts?

Although most individuals are born as one of two biological sexes, there exists a minority of intersex people who are born with bodies that do not fit the biological definition of either sex[30].

A more scientific approach would be to use a higher number of categories to classify sexes[31], as the medical world already does, using many different classifications extending beyond male and female[32].

Biological sex is a fact of nature. Considering sex to be strictly binary is unscientific[33].

Gender, like sex, is not a binary concept.

What if I'm just attached to "traditional" gender roles?

If you feel like traditional gender roles fit you well, or that you get along with people who follow traditional gender roles, there's nothing wrong with that. Nobody's trying to stop you from expressing your gender identity in these ways.

What matters is that you also show respect to other people's gender identities. A society sticking solely to traditional gender roles would limit how people can express themselves, and would not solve the issue of gender discrimination negatively affecting the lives of many people[5].

The only way to move past these issues is to allow the expectations and definitions of gender to naturally evolve over time. While you are free to stick to traditional gender roles in your personal life, attempting to force them on others will likely lead to push back, as you'd actively be causing harm to other people in the process.


Sources & Links

[1] Gender on World Health Organization.

[2] Gender on Wikipedia.

[3] How Science is Helping Us Understand Gender by Miles Griffis on National Geographic.

[4] Gender Roles on Oxford Reference.

[5] Gender Roles Can Create Lifelong Cycle of Inequality on Save the Children.

[6] Gender Diversity by Serena Nanda on Wiley Online Library.

[7] Transgender Population Size in the United States: a Meta-Regression of Population-Based Probability Samples by Esthel L. Meerwijk & Jae M. Sevelius on National Library of Medicine.

[8] Cisgender on Wikipedia.

[9] Transgender on Wikipedia.

[10] Understanding Nonbinary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive on National Center for Transgender Equality.

[11] What Does Gender Nonconforming Mean? by Anabelle Bernard Fournier & Emily Swaim on Verywellmind.

[12] ‘Tomboy’ is anachronistic. But the concept still has something to teach us by Lynne Stahl on The Washington Post.

[13] Gender Discrimination: Inequality Starts in Childhood on Save the Children.

[14] Gender equality on UNICEF.

[15] What Is a Social Construct? by Carol Bainbridge & Armeen Poor on Verywellmind.

[16] Sex-Role Portrayals and the Gender of Nations by Laura M. Milner & James M. Collins on JSTOR.

[17] The Times Have Changed: Tracking the Evolution of Gender Norms Over Time by Andreas Kuhn on SSRN.

[18] The Gender Binary Is a Dumb, but Relatively New Concept by Bethy Squires on Vice.

[19] Hijra on Wikipedia.

[20] Bakla on Wikipedia.

[21] Faʻafafine on Wikipedia.

[22] Kathoey on Wikipedia.

[23] Sworn virgins on Wikipedia.

[24] Ancient Mesopotamian Transgender and Non-Binary Identities by Morg Daniels on Cademus.

[25] Indigenous tribes embraced gender fluidity prior to colonisation, but Europeans enforced specific gender roles by Express Web Desk on The Indian Express.

[26] On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’ by Derek C Penn & Daniel J Povinelli on NIH.

[27] Sexual dimorphism on Wikipedia.

[28] Is Gender Identity Unique to Humans? by Jax Schwartz on Discover.

[29] Sex Roles Are Flexible in Chimpanzees and Bonobos. What Does That Say About Human Evolution? by Michelle Rodrigues on ProSocial World.

[30] Intersex on Wikipedia.

[31] Les Cinq Sexes. Pourquoi mâle et femelle ne sont pas suffisants by Anne Fausto-Sterling on Cairn.

[32] Shifting syndromes: Sex chromosome variations and intersex classifications by David Andrew Griffiths on NIH.

[33] What Evolutionary Biology Can and Can't Tell Us About Sex, Gender, and Sexuality by Prosanta Chakrabarty on The MIT Press Reader.

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