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Sex vs. Gender

In most societies, people tend to see the terms “sex” and “gender” as synonymous. For this reason, both in previous times and presently, a new born baby’s gender (typically considered as either “male” or “female”) is usually assigned at birth based on their genitals and expected to be assumed throughout the whole life of that person. Shortly said, someone born with a penis will be a “boy” and someone with a vulva will be a “girl”.

Still, there is a distinction we should make between the physical or biological characteristics of a person associated to one of the two sexes (e.g. having masculine or feminine genitalia, having or not facial hair, the hormones found in the blood), and the societal/cultural perceptions related to the them (e.g. ways in which males or females should dress, behave, look, roles that are typically assigned to male or female). Even if usually considered as interchangeable, the words “sex” and “gender” have different meanings. The first, “sex”, refers to biological characteristics of a person, namely chromosomes, internal and external sex organs, hormonal activity, appearance (e.g. body hair, muscle mass, breasts, voice, having or not a visible Adam’s apple). On the other hand, “gender”, refers more to the expectations that society has about males and females (e.g. wearing specific clothes for males different than the ones for females, having different roles in the family or in society).

Talking about gender, we can observe that from the societal and cultural point of view there are a lot of cultural expectations on how a masculine or feminine individual should look like. These may refer to muscular mass (men are expected to show more mass and physical strength), body hair (e.g. in a lot of cultures it is desirable for the man to show body hair and for the women to get rid of it), height (e.g. men are expected to be tall, typically taller than their partner), weight (e.g. it is more socially acceptable for a man to be overweight than for a woman), etc.

What is interesting about these is also the fact that they tend to change a lot over time, given that they are an outcome of culture, rather than of biology. For example, long hair was and currently is typically associated to women, while men are expected to keep short hair. But from the 1960s to the ‘80s, long hair for men became more socially acceptable and even desirable in some contexts. Then, in the ‘90s short hair and an athletic body started to become again the ideal. Other examples are men wearing earrings, women having tattoos, men wearing pink clothes, etc.

There are a lot of other aspects associated to what is culturally acceptable or not with the two genders. Clothing, hairstyles, typical activities, expressing emotions, family roles, household duties, colours, toys or clothes are just some of the more obvious examples.

In most cultures, people face great pressure to express their gender within the stereotypical definitions of “man” or “woman.” Furthermore most societies view sex and/or gender as a binary concept, with two possible options: male or female (or masculine/feminine). Still, this way of viewing them is wrong for both concepts.

From the biological perspective (i.e. “sex”) there are a lot of naturally occurring intersex conditions (people who show a mix or an absence of male and female physical characteristics: i.e. genitals, sex chromosomes, gonads, hormones, reproductive structures). For example, in the case of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), persons who are typically considered as women develop masculine-typical characteristics (e.g. dense body hair, a receding hairline, deep voice, prominent muscles) and have their reproductive organs developing in an atypical way (e.g. larger than average clitorises, or even a clitoris that looks rather like a penis, or labia that look like a scrotum).

Also, in terms of gender people may not feel that they identify with the gender typically associated with their sex or even with one of the traditional gender identities. For example, a transgender person identifies with a gender that is different than the sex they were assigned at birth (e.g. a young individual who by biological standards is considered a male identifies himself with the feminine gender). A cisgender person has a gender identity consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth. (e.g. a child whose sex was assigned male on their birth certificate and who identifies as a boy). Agender persons feel they cannot identify strictly with any of the two binary options.

Another typical confusion that is made is also about gender and sexual orientation. The most simple distinction between the two is that while “gender” is more on the personal level (how we perceive ourselves) sexual orientation is on the interpersonal level (who we are attracted to).

Gender based discrimination

According to the ‘Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women’ adopted in 1979 by the United Nations, gender discrimination is defined as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

While this remains one of the landmark definitions with respect to discrimination of women, in recent years gender based discrimination has become more comprising, by making the distinction between sex and gender, and moving away from the traditional binary system, in which gender is classified as being either male or female. For example, the “Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women” of the United Nations now defines it as “discrimination occurring due to interaction between sex (as the biological characteristics of women and men) and their socially constructed identities, attributes and roles and society’s social and cultural meaning for biological differences between women and men”.

In practice, this means that gender based discrimination does not only refer to women being treated as inferior or less capable than men. It also addresses the situations in which a person is mistreated because it fails to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth (e.g. women thought to be too masculine or men seen as too feminine facing mistreatment by peers in school, condemnation by broader society, discrimination at their workplace)

Levels of manifestation

Gender discrimination is manifested at different levels in society:

  • Ideology level - different cultural norms dictate the roles that women and men should take in the society (e.g. women should be the ones taking the role of offering care to children, of making sure the house is clean and tidy; men should take the role of being the “providers of the family” and the “head of the family”).
  • Institutional - originating from different ideologies existing at institutional level about the differences in ability or power that should exist between women and men (e.g. women earning less than men, or less women than men in leading position).
  • Interpersonal - based on the “traditional roles” and other norms in society, the relations between men and women transform accordingly (e.g. there are expectations from women, to care for the family and house, apart from the typical responsibilities. If the house is not clean, then the pressure and blame are exclusively on the woman).
  • Individual - having these roles and norms so deeply rooted into the culture, also women begin to act according to this discriminatory behaviour (e.g. because it is so frequent and so accepted, a lot of women also consider domestic violence to be normal, even if they are the main victims of it).

The phenomenon has existed for so long and it is so deeply embedded in most of the world’s cultures, that some of its manifestations are not even acknowledged as a form of discrimination or oppression.

Forms of gender based discrimination*:


*You can find more information on this topic in the full version of the T-Kit, available for download (the left-side menu)




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