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Gender: definitions and connotations

Watch this video on gender to explore some key ideas and issues that help to explain the differences between sex and gender.
In the last 10 years or so, perhaps even longer than that, we’ve been challenged to think more widely about gender, and to think about the new vocabulary that’s emerging that offers us wider definitions of what gender is. The impact of that for people, and particularly people who’ve been born with indeterminate genitalia and the term male or female has caused considerable physiological and psychological problems for people over the years. But not just the physiological or the psychological problems, the social issues that arise out of the concept of gender are such that we think it’s important that we unpack and unpick some of those ideas before we move on to thinking about the impact that gender has.
So we are thinking about this new vocabulary. If we think about a binary definition of gender, we’re looking at terms such as male and female, men and women, boys and girls, as though these are opposites of one another. In recent years, we’ve been challenged to think about what a nonbinary definition of gender might mean. And instead of using terms like man and woman and male and female, we would used what might be described as gender-neutral terms such as person. So this person.
And this would offer them a more respectful environment in which to think about the issues and challenges that are faced by people who may perceive themselves as being transgender or intersex, and their definition of themselves as social beings. So gender is an issue and a concept that has more than one way of being interpreted. But it’s important that we look at how we arrive out for our definition of ourselves might be in relation to gender. I think part of that comes from our socialisation process. How do we become the people that we are? How do we become who we are in essence?
If we think about the ways in which we are encouraged to be, so from the earliest stages in our lives and perhaps even before birth, we are given appellations, symbols, signals that encourage us to identify in a particular way. If parents or primary caregivers or family encourage us to behave in ways that are associated with the gender that we are recognised to be. And that, from the earliest of stages, forms part of the way in which we as people interact and operate with one another.
We moved from that intimate environment into a wider environment of secondary socialisation, where schools, peers, workplaces might enforce the images that we have of ourselves or the understanding that we have of ourselves, or might challenge it. But one of the things that I think is impossible to deny is that the strength of the socialisation processes that we go through are such that it’s very, very difficult for us to avoid conformity.
For many parents trying to raise children in a gender neutral way has been significantly challenging, not just for those parents, but for the children, who perhaps in nursery schools find themselves reading storybooks where all of the heroes are male heroes, and to introduce a female heroine causes confusion, disruption, and sometimes upset to small children. For people who try to challenge gender stereotypes or gender conformity in the workplace, they’re often seen as being odd or different. And for many of us, to be considered odd or different is not an experience that we want to have.
But I suppose part of those– the reason I offer that illustration from a child’s perspective is to help us to understand how deeply rooted and pervasive gender socialisation is. I would invite you to consider your own experiences. However the gender expectations in your family conveyed to you as a child were the things that you were expected to do because you were ascribed the status of being a boy or a girl. How was that manifested? How did how did that manifest itself? Where did those associations come from? And I’d invite you also to think about whether or not these things are inevitable. You may have other family members or friends who’ve challenged some of the gender stereotyping that exists in society.
And you may observe a struggle that perhaps you’ve had yourself, or others in your family, or friendship groups have had when you’ve tried to challenge gender expectations. The ways in which these things happen, the clothes that we wear, the toys that we are given, the ways in which we are described, the appellations– what a lovely girl, a big strong boy, these are things that reinforce, consistently reinforce the message that gender has very particular connotations and very particular ways of being displayed. So we think about then, some of the physical anatomical biological connotations that are with the sex of a human being. And then think about gender as being something quite different, something that has political as well as social implications.
In our society, in many societies throughout the world, the idea that men and women would be paid equally for the work that they do, even when that work is very similar, and in fact, exactly the same. There are many examples throughout history and prior to the Equal Pay Act in the United Kingdom, where men and women doing exactly the same job are paid different rates of pay. Suffrage and terms of the entitlements without and qualification by race, gender, wealth, social standing, all of these things in today’s world and there could be a tendency for us to take that right to vote as a universal and a basic human right.
These are fairly new concepts, fairly new, and things that we have in our society that indicate perhaps the value of individuals, and almost the world we can see, that male suffrage and female suffrage did not happen at the same time. It might seem surprising to think that it’s less than 100 years that women have had the vote in the United Kingdom. But that’s exactly what it is. There are many different sociological explanations for these things. We are still in a situation in the United Kingdom and throughout the Western world and probably in other parts of the world as well, where women are still paid considerably less for comparable work.
Most recent example of this would be in the BBC, where the salaries of top earners were made public. And the differences between the salaries of top male presenters and top female presenters was considerable. And we could argue that that’s an example of institutionalised discrimination. This is a public corporation. So there is no reason for that kind of discrimination still to exist, but it does. So we think then, about gender and about gender stereotyping and about the way in which gender inequality impacts on the lives of girls and women. And then that takes us into thinking about, are the links then between gender and power?
And we can look at some of the overt examples of gender discrimination, but also some of the covert ways in which gender inequality is embedded within our society. And there is a website called Everyday Sexism which is a useful tool for you to look at and exploring these issues. It looks like the sexism that is prevalent in the home, in the street, in the workplace gets many everyday examples, contemporary examples, these things that are happening now, not in a historical context, but are happening daily to women in the UK and the wider world. And it talks about the illustrations and this talk about the impact that that has on the people who are experiencing that kind of sexism.
I think it’s important for us to recognise that these concepts are inextricably-linked. Gender and power are not two separate things. We can see over time how the power base in society has emerged and developed. And we can see the challenges that gender inequality has posed over time, and a frame definitely dependent on the perspective of the person who’s doing that framing. The exclusion of women from the public arena has meant that early sociological and philosophical thinking is clearly dominated by male perspectives. Women were not permitted to publish, to research, to be involved in many of the professions.
That undoubtedly impacts the way in which ideas are brought into the public domain, and that which was said to be the truth has only really begun to be challenged both directly and indirectly over time. The scientific basis for many of the ideas around gender have been challenged.

This lecture on gender explores some key ideas and issues that help to explain the differences between sex and gender.

The anatomical definitions relate to sex whilst gender is more concerned with social roles and with ideas around masculinity and femininity. It has long been thought that gender roles were both fixed and binary (eg either one thing or another – male or female) but in recent times there has been much wider exploration of what it means to take a non-binary approach to this issue. Ideas about gender neutrality, transgender existence and inter-sex experiences are all issues for further consideration.

The assumptions that relegated women to the background and to the private rather than to the public domain has been comprehensively challenged and debunked. And as we go through the different sections of this course, that evidence will be offered to you to challenge some of your own preconceptions and ideas and assumptions about what gender is, what gender inequality is, and what it means for each of us in this project.

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