What is gender?

There is a simple answer to this question, and a more complicated answer. The simple answer is that gender refers to the different ways in which sexual differences between people appear differently in different times and places, societies, cultures, and across people's lifetimes. Thus, gender is seen as to some extent based on but distinct from sex; even if, confusingly, gender is  sometimes used interchangeably with sex. While gender is often still taken to mean women and  girls, all people, men, boys, and transgender and intersex people, are gendered. But beyond this,  gender has multiple meanings.

 A more complex answer is that gender is a shorthand for a very wide range of ways of  representing, doing, performing, giving meaning to, categorizing, relating power to, reproducing,  analyzing and theorizing differences that invoke sex, sexuality and further gendered concepts,  however indirectly. Often, relations of inequality, including structural inequality, are connected to  gender. Gender refers to both gendering processes in society, and outcomes of those processes.  It can: be a distinguishing personal and collective element, as in gender categorizations of  people; be enacted in social and institutional practices; be part of the construction of what counts  as knowledge; and be understood through many different scientific approaches.

There are, however, some caveats. First, what is called sex is partly culturally constructed; how sex is understood is itself part of gender, hence talk of sex/gender, gender/sex, even gex. Another is that gendered/sexed differences can be extended far beyond people to other beings and things: colours, clothes, concepts, and so on. A third is that how this is spoken about varies greatly across languages, with very different ways of talking about gender and sex. There are many current debates on gender around, for example, moving beyond binaries, multiple sexes, intersectionality, transgender, human-non-human interfaces, and materiality.

Jeff Hearn, Professor, Gender Studies, Örebro University, Sweden


See. e.g.: Jeff Hearn and Liisa Husu Understanding gender: Some implications for science and technology, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 36, 2011, pp. 103-113. 

Image: CC BY 2.0- Flickr- *sax

Related blog post: Jeff's video on "What is gender"



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