A close up of a bearded male's face, with red lipstick and a hand with fake nails and red nail polish.
Gender classification is not what it used to be.

What is gender?

Assumptions and biases distort how we think about and perceive experiences of gender.

So, how can we think critically about the concept of gender?

From the 1960s feminists, drawing on psychological theories of gender identification, separated the categories of sex and gender:

  • Sex is a biological trait based on genitalia and chromosomal difference (male and female).
  • Gender is the social organisation, construction or management of these biological differences (men and women; masculinity and femininity).   All societies attach meanings to male and female, these meanings create masculine and feminine expectations, roles and dispositions.

Gender norms

Gender is often understood through a society’s gender norms – the culturally acceptable ways to become masculine or feminine. That is, we strive to approach the gender norms that society transmits.

Judith Butler suggests that though we constantly fail to approximate these norms, gender’s social and cultural power rests on that very failure. We are judged based on those norms and as we continue to try better the norms are reinforced.

While these norms are very powerful, there is actually no fixed relation between:

  • biological characteristics
  • how society organises meanings attached to gender identity
  • how individuals engage with those meanings and identities.

This is why some people talk about their experience of gender as being ‘fluid’.

Your task

Can you remember when you first realised that boys and girls are ‘different’? How did you feel about this? Do you remember talking about this?

Share your memories in the comments. Remember people in different countries have very different experiences of sex and gender. Show care in your responses to fellow learners and remember this is a public forum.

More resources

Think you’re all for gender equality? Your unconscious may have other ideas.


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Gender and Development

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