Gender 101...

When you fill out a questionnaire, you are often asked for your sex or gender. Some people think they are the same thing, when in fact, they are quite different.

Your sex is biological: females are born with XX chromosomes and a vagina, males are born with XY chromosomes and a penis and some people are born with a different combination of chromosomes or genitals which is referred to as intersex.

In contrast, your gender is socially constructed – it’s shaped by the society and culture we live in. While it might seem simple to define a person’s sex (i.e. male, female, intersex), we often struggle to assign gender as it’s a more ‘fluid’ concept defined using terms such as masculinity and femininity. Sometimes we attempt to lock people into simple and rigid gender roles, when actually there’s no one way of being or doing gender.

Gender is made up of three parts:

  1. Our sex: the genuine biological differences that come with each sex (e.g. males produce sperm, females produce eggs).
  2. Our gender identity: how we feel about ourselves in relation to our biological sex and society’s expectations of our behaviours and roles as a male or female.
  3. Our gender expression: how we present ourselves to the world and how we express our masculine and feminine qualities to communicate our gender outwardly.

Most people are born male or female but learn to be girls and boys who grow into men and women. We learn our gender identity which helps us determine our gender roles. Society tends to teach young people that, depending on their gender, their roles will either be mowing the lawn, cooking the BBQ, being the breadwinner and being the disciplinarian; or cooking dinner, grocery shopping, cleaning the house and being the primary carer of the children. They’re also told that to fit into society’s gender roles they will be muscly, tough, rational and not cry; or be pretty, emotional and caring.

Stepping outside rigid gender roles means that young people don’t feel pressured to always stay within every boundary that society tells them are the ‘the norms’ for their sex. For many young people (more than we might think) there is huge pressure to adopt rigid and stereotypical gender roles and behaviours across every aspect of their life.

For example…

  • A young woman is told that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a leader (or get into management or politics) because she’s not ‘cut-throat’ enough and cares too much about people’s feelings … because she’s female.
  • A boy being encouraged to choose the woodwork/mechanics elective rather than the cooking or fashion design class …because he’s male.
  • A young woman invited to be a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding and being asked to wear a dress even though she never wears dresses/skirts and feels uncomfortable in them …because she’s female.

It’s not just the clothes we wear, the haircuts we get or the hobbies we take up that are dictated by our culture’s understanding of gender roles – physical skill-sets that are in no way biologically determined can be associated with society’s rigid gender concepts too, as reflected in the media, law, schools, religion, etc. We’re constantly told that boys are more robust and better at physical or dangerous work, and more assertive and rational. This leads to expecting or accepting aggressive or violent behaviours from men, as well as having more faith in men to work in certain professions and roles, e.g. mining, engineering or management and leadership roles.

The pressure we put on young people to conform to gender roles is also about more than ‘schoolyard teasing’ because of what someone is wearing or how masculine/feminine they are. The roles we present to young people as ‘the norm’ for their gender impact on their careers, their social lives, their relationships and their sex lives.

Young people make decisions about their lives and relationships according to what behaviour those around them and the rest of society encourage or discourage. They can feel pushed into education and career pathways because ‘that’s what guys/girls do’. They can make choices about their relationships and sex-lives because society punishes or rewards people for subscribing to the traditional gender roles we understand and feel comfortable with.

We need to adopt a new model of understanding gender that accepts the way people identify and express their gender – a model that demonstrates equality and mutual respect, encourages boys and girls equally in their education and career choices, and removes pressure on young people to follow those old gender stereotypes that stack the odds in favour of one gender.