This page is a resource explaining general sociological concepts of sex and gender. The examples I cover are focused on experiences of otherness.
In sociology, we make a distinction between sex and gender. Sex are the biological traits that societies use to assign people into the category of either male or female, whether it be through a focus on chromosomes, genitalia or some other physical ascription. When people talk about the differences between men and women they are often drawing on sex – on rigid ideas of biology – rather than gender, which is an understanding of how society shapes our understanding of those biological categories.
Gender is more fluid – it may or may not depend upon biological traits. More specifically, it is a concept that describes how societies determine and manage sex categories; the cultural meanings attached to men and women’s roles; and how individuals understand their identities including, but not limited to, being a man, woman, transgender, intersex, gender queer and other gender positions. Gender involves social norms, attitudes and activities that society deems more appropriate for one sex over another. Gender is also determined by what an individual feels and does.
The sociology of gender examines how society influences our understandings and perception of differences between masculinity (what society deems appropriate behaviour for a “man”) and femininity (what society deems appropriate behaviour for a “woman”). We examine how this, in turn, influences identity and social practices. We pay special focus on the power relationships that follow from the established gender order in a given society, as well as how this changes over time.
Sex and gender do not always align. Cis-gender describes people whose biological body they were born into matches their personal gender identity. This experience is distinct from being transgender, which is where one’s biological sex does not align with their gender identity. Transgender people will undergo a gender transition that may involve changing their dress and self-presentation (such as a name change). Transgender people may undergo hormone therapy to facilitate this process, but not all transgender people will undertake surgery. Intersexuality describes variations on sex definitions related to ambiguous genitalia, gonads, sex organs, chromosomes or hormones. Transgender and intersexuality are gender categories, not sexualities. Transgender and intersexual people have varied sexual practices, attractions and identities as do cis-gender people.
People can also be gender queer, by either drawing on several gender positions or otherwise not identifying with any specific gender (nonbinary); or they may move across genders (gender fluid); or they may reject gender categories altogether (agender). The third gender is often used by social scientists to describe cultures that accept non-binary gender positions (see the Two Spirit people below).
Sexuality is different again; it is about sexual attraction, sexual practices and identity. Just as sex and gender don’t always align, neither does gender and sexuality. People can identify along a wide spectrum of sexualities from heterosexual, to gay or lesbian, to bisexual, to queer, and so on. Asexuality is a term used when individuals do not feel sexual attraction. Some asexual people might still form romantic relationships without sexual contact.
Regardless of sexual experience, sexual desire and behaviours can change over time, and sexual identities may or may not shift as a result.
Gender and sexuality are not just personal identities; they are social identities. They arise from our relationships to other people, and they depend upon social interaction and social recognition. As such, they influence how we understand ourselves in relation to others.
The definition of sex (the categories of man versus woman) as we know them today comes from the advent of modernity. With the rise of industrialisation came better technologies and faster modes of travel and communication. This assisted the rapid diffusion of ideas across the medical world.
Sex roles describes the tasks and functions perceived to be ideally suited to masculinity versus femininity. Sex roles have converged across many (though not all) cultures due to colonial practices and also due to industrialisation.
Sex roles were different prior to the industrial revolution, when men and women worked alongside one another on farms, doing similar tasks. Entrenched gender inequality is a product of modernity. It’s not that inequality did not exist before, it’s that inequality within the home in relation to family life was not as pronounced.
In the 19th Century, biomedical science largely converged around Western European practices and ideas. Biological definitions of the body arose where they did not exist before, drawing on Victorian values. The essentialist ideas that people attach to man and woman exist only because of this cultural history. This includes the erroneous ideas that sex:
Is pre-determined in the womb;
Defined by anatomy which in turn determines sexual identity and desire;
Differences are all connected to reproductive functions;
Identities are immutable; and that
Deviations from dominant ideas of male/female must be “unnatural.”
As I show further below, there is more variation across cultures when it comes to what is considered “normal” for men and women, thus highlighting the ethnocentric basis of sex categories. Ethnocentric ideas define and judge practices according to one’s own culture, rather than understanding cultural practices vary and should be viewed by local standards.
Social Construction of Gender
Gender, like all social identities, is socially constructed. Social constructionism is one of the key theories sociologists use to put gender into historical and cultural focus. Social constructionism is a social theory about how meaning is created through social interaction – through the things we do and say with other people. This theory shows that gender it is not a fixed or innate fact, but instead it varies across time and place.
Gender norms (the socially acceptable ways of acting out gender) are learned from birth through childhood socialisation. We learn what is expected of our gender from what our parents teach us, as well as what we pick up at school, through religious or cultural teachings, in the media, and various other social institutions.
Gender experiences will evolve over a person’s lifetime. Gender is therefore always in flux. We see this through generational and intergenerational changes within families, as social, legal and technological changes influence social values on gender. Australian sociologist, Professor Raewyn Connell, describes gender as a social structure – a higher order category that society uses to organise itself:
Gender is the structure of social relations that centres on the reproductive arena, and the set of practices (governed by this structure) that bring reproductive distinctions between bodies into social processes. To put it informally, gender concerns the way human society deals with human bodies, and the many consequences of that “deal” in our personal lives and our collective fate.
Like all social identities, gender identities are dialectical: they involve at least two sets of actors referenced against one another: “us” versus “them.” In Western culture, this means “masculine” versus “feminine.” As such, gender is constructed around notions of Otherness: the “masculine” is treated as the default human experience by social norms, the law and other social institutions. Masculinities are rewarded over and above femininities.
Take for example the gender pay gap. Men in general are paid better than women; they enjoy more sexual and social freedom; and they have other benefits that women do not by virtue of their gender. There are variations across race, class, sexuality, and according to disability and other socio-economic measures. See an example of pay disparity at the national level versus race and pay amongst Hollywood stars.
Professor Connell defines masculinity as a broad set of processes which include gender relations and gender practices between men and women and “the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture.” Connell argues that culture dictates ways of being masculine and “unmasculine.” She argues that there are several masculinities operating within any one cultural context, and some of these masculinities are:
In Western societies, gender power is held by White, highly educated, middle-class, able-bodied heterosexual men whose gender represents hegemonic masculinity – the ideal to which other masculinities must interact with, conform to, and challenge. Hegemonic masculinity rests on tacit acceptance. It is not enforced through direct violence; instead, it exists as a cultural “script” that are familiar to us from our socialisation. The hegemonic ideal is exemplified in movies which venerate White heterosexual heroes, as well as in sports, where physical prowess is given special cultural interest and authority.
A 2014 event between the Australian and New Zealand rugby teams shows that racism, culture, history and power complicate how hegemonic masculinities play out and subsequently understood.
Masculinities are constructed in relation to existing social hierarchies relating to class, race, age and so on. Hegemonic masculinities rest upon social context, and so they reflect the social inequalities of the cultures they embody.
Similarly, counter-hegemonic masculinities signify a contest of power between different types of masculinities. As Connell argues:
“The terms “masculine” and “feminine” point beyond categorical sex difference to the ways men differ among themselves, and women differ among themselves, in matters of gender.”
Sociologist CJ Pascoe finds that young working-class American boys police masculinity through jokes exemplified by the phrase, “Dude, you’re a fag.” Boys are called “fags” (derogative word for homosexual) not because they are gay, but when they engage in behaviour outside the gender norm (“un-masculine”). This includes dancing; taking “too much” care with their appearance; being too expressive with their emotions; or being perceived as incompetent. Being gay was more acceptable than being a man who did not fit with the hegemonic ideal – but being gay and “unmasculine” was completely unacceptable. One of the gay boys in Pascoe’s study was bullied so much for his dancing and clothing (wearing “women’s clothes”) that he was eventually forced to drop out of school. The school’s poor management of this incident is an unfortunately all-too-common example of how everyday policing of gender between peers and inequality within institutions reinforce one another.
See the video illustrating how hegemonic masculinity is damaging to men. Notice that most of these often-heard sayings directed at boys and men use femininity and heterosexism as insults. (Heterosexism is the presumption that being a certain type of heterosexual person is “natural” and anything else is “not normal.”)
Professor Judith Lorber and Susan Farrell argue that the social constructionist perspective on gender explores the taken-for-granted assumptions about what it means to be “male” and “female,” “feminine” and “masculine.” They explain:
women and men are not automatically compared; rather, gender categories (female-male, feminine-masculine, girls-boys, women-men) are analysed to see how different social groups define them, and how they construct and maintain them in everyday life and in major social institutions, such as the family and the economy.
Femininity is constructed through patriarchal ideas. This means that femininity is always set up as inferior to men. As a result, women as a group lack the same level of cultural power as men.
Women do have agency to resist patriarchal ideals. Women can actively challenge gender norms by refusing to let patriarchy define how they portray and reconstruct their femininity. This can be done by rejecting cultural scripts. For example:
Rejecting unachievable notions of romantic love disseminated in films and novels that turn women into passive subjects; and
By generally questioning gender norms, such as by speaking out on sexism. Sexist comments are one of the everyday ways in which people police and maintain the existing gender order.
As women do not have cultural power, there is no version of hegemonic femininity to rival hegemonic masculinity. There are, however, dominant ideals of doing femininity, which favour White, heterosexual, middle-class cis-women who are able-bodied. Minority women do not enjoy the same social privileges in comparison.
The popular idea that women do not get ahead because they lack confidence ignores the intersections of inequality. Women are now being told that they should simply “lean in” and ask for more help at work and at home. “Leaning in” is a limited way of overcoming gender inequality only if you’re a White woman already thriving in the corporate world, by fitting in with the existing gender order. Women who want to challenge this masculine logic, even by asking for a pay rise, are impeded from reaching their potential. Indigenous and other women of colour are even more disadvantaged.
Some White, middle-class, heterosexual cis-women may be better positioned to “lean in,” but minority women with less power are not. They’re fighting sexism and racism and class discrimination all at once.
Cross-national studies show that social policy plays a significant role in minimising gender inequality, especially where publicly funded childcare frees up women to fully participate in paid work. Cultural variations of gender across time and place also demonstrate that gender change is possible.
Transgender and Intersex Australians
Nationally representative figures drawing on random samples do not exist for transgender people in Australia. The Sex in Australia Study organised a sub-set of questions to address transgender or intersex issues, but these were not used as no one in their survey specified that they were part of these groups. The researchers think that transgender and intersex Australians either nominated themselves broadly as woman or men, and as either heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual. Alternatively, transgender and intersex Australians may have declined to participate in the survey. The researchers note that around one in 1,000 Australians are transgender or intersex. The Private Lives study, which surveyed over 3,800 lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) Australians finds that 4.4% identify as transgender (and a further 3% prefer another term to describe their sex/gender other than male, female or transgender).
American and British estimates are no more exact. Smaller or specialised surveys on issues such as surveillance and tobacco estimate that between 0.2% and 0.5% of Americans are transgender, while surveys in the UK identify that up to 0.1% of the population has began or undergone gender transition (noting this does not capture other people who may be considering transgender options).
The research shows that transgender people face various gender inequalities. They lack access to adequate healthcare; they are at a high risk of experiencing mental illness as a result of family rejection, bullying and social exclusion; and they face high rates of sexual harassment. They also face much discrimination from doctors, police, and other authority groups. Work colleagues discriminate against transgender people through informal channels, by telling them how to dress and how to act. Employers discriminate in tacit ways, which might manifest as gender bias leading managers to question how gender transition may impact on work productivity. Employers also discriminate in overt ways, by promoting and affirming transgender men only when they conform to hegemonic masculinity ideals, and generally holding back or otherwise punishing transgender women. Feminism has yet to fully embrace transgender inclusion as a feminist cause. Transgender advocacy groups have made great strides to increase visibility and rights of transgender people. Nevertheless, mainstream feminism’s reticence to take up transgender issues serves only to perpetuate gender inequality.
Transgender people have always lived in Australia. Read below to learn more about sistergirls, Aboriginal transgender women, and how Christianity attempted to displace their cultural belonging and femininity.
Intersex people have been, up until recently, heavily defined in popular culture by largely damaging ideas from medical science. Practitioners tend to present intersex conditions through a pathological lens, often leaving individuals and families feeling that they have little choice other than surgical intervention to “correct” gender. Sharon Preves’s research shows that medical interventions often have devastating effects on gender identity and sometimes on sexual function. Girls with an enlarged clitoris and boys with a micro-penis are judged by doctors to have an ambiguous sex and might be operated on early in life. What is meant to be a cosmetic fix to make bodies “normal” can sometimes lead to harmful self-doubt and relationship problems for some intersex people. Others do not experience such trauma, and they feel more supported especially when parents and families are more open to discussing intersexuality rather than hiding the condition. Much like transgender people, intersex people have also been largely ignored by mainstream feminism, which only amplifies their experience of gender inequality.
Gender Across Time and Place
Behaviours that come to be understood as masculine and feminine vary across cultures and they change over time. As such, the way in which we understand gender here and now in the city of Melbourne, Australia, is slightly different to the way in which gender is judged in other parts of Australia, such as in rural Victoria, or in Indigenous cultures in remote regions of Australia, or in Lima, Peru, or Victorian era England, and so on. Still, the notion of difference, of otherness, is central to the social organisation of gender. As Judith Lorber and Susan Farrell argue:
“What stays constant is that women and men have to be distinguishable” (my emphasis).
Gender does not look so familiar when we look at other cultures – including our own cultures, back in time. Here are examples where hegemonic masculinity (issues of gender and power) look very different to what we’ve become accustomed to in Western nations. Let’s start with a historical example from Western culture.
16th Century Europe
European nations have not always adhered to the same ideas about feminine and masculine. As I noted a few years ago, aristocratic men in Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries wore elaborate high-heeled shoes to demonstrate their wealth. The shoes were impractical and difficult to walk in, but they were both a status symbol as well as a sign of masculinity and power. In Western cultures, women did not begin wearing high-heeled shoes until the mid-19th Century. Their introduction was not about social status or power, but rather it was a symptom of the increasing sexualisation of women with the introduction of cameras.
The cultural variability of how people “do gender” in different parts of the world demonstrates the cultural specificity of gender norms. Gender has different norms at different places at different points in time. The Wodaabe nomads from Niger are a case in point.
Wodaabe men will dress up during a special ceremony in order to attract a wife. They wear make-up to show off their features; they wear their best outfits, adorned with jewellery; and they bare their teeth and dance before the single women in their village. To the Western eye, these men may appear feminine, as Western culture associates make up and ornamental body routines with women. Yet in this pastoral culture, the men’s elaborate make-up, dress and behaviour are a show of virility. The women pick the men according to their costume and dance. This is another custom that is contrary to dominant models of gender in the West, which demand that women be more passive, and wait until a man approaches her for romantic or sexual attention.
There are various other examples of cultures and religions where gender is done in alternative ways which recognise genders beyond the binary of male/female.
“Two Spirit” (Navajo Native American)
I wrote about the “Two Spirit” People found amongst the Navajo Native American cultures, who make up two additional genders: the feminine man (nádleehí) and masculine woman (dilbaa). They are traditionally considered to be sacred beings embodying both the feminine and masculine traits of all their ancestors and nature. They are chosen by their community to represent this tradition, and once this happens, they live out their lives in the opposite gender, and can also get married (to someone of the opposite gender to their adopted gender). These couples have sex together and they may also have sex with other partners of the opposite gender. If they have children, they are accepted into the Two Spirit household without social stigma.
Female Husbands (Various African Cultures)
Over 30 cultures in African regions allow women to marry other women; they are called “female husbands.” Typically they must already be married to a man, and they are almost exclusively wealthy as they need to pay a “bride-price” (as do men who marry women). The women do not have sexual relations, it is more of a family and economic arrangement. (Human rights activists challenge this saying that because homosexuality is shrouded in secrecy, these women may not want to admit to sexual relationships; however, there is no empirical evidence to this effect.)
The Nandi people of Kenya allow this tradition. It is permissible when an older woman has not borne a son, and she will marry a woman to bear her a male heir. The “female husband” will now see herself as a man, and will abscond from feminine duties, such as carrying objects on her head, cooking and cleaning. The female husband takes on male roles, such as entertaining guests while her wife waits on them. The Abagusii people of Western Kenya allow a female husband to take a wife to bear her children, and the biological father has no rights over them. The Lovedu of South Africa and the Igbo of Benin and Nigeria also practice a variation of female husband, where an independently wealthy woman will continue to be a wife to her male husband, but she will set up a separate home for her wife, who will bear her children. These arrangements continue in the present-day and can be ideal for young single mothers who need security.
Amongst the Igbo Land in Southeast Nigeria, both women will continue to have sexual relations with men, however, the female husbands must do this discreetly. If she becomes pregnant, her children are considered “illegitimate” and are treated as outcasts. The children of her wife remain her responsibility and they are not shunned. The female-husband tradition preserves patriarchal structure; without an heir, women cannot inherit land or property from their family, but if her wife bears a son, the female wife is allowed to carry on the family name and pass on inheritance to her sons. Nigerian historian, Dr Kenneth Chukwuemeka Nwoko calls this arrangement a patri-matriarchy. The female husband would be left without status if she fails to produce a male heir, yet once assuming their role as husband, she receives authority over her family.
The Kathoey from Thailand are born biologically male but around half identify as women while the rest identify as “sao praphet song” (“a second kind of woman”). Alternatively, they see themselves as transgender women; and others still see themselves as a “third sex.”Monarchy rule and resistance to external colonialism led to an aggressive modernisation campaign that made traditional Kathoey gender practices more difficult. While Thailand generally has less punitive laws about homosexuality (it is not illegal to be gay), LGBTQIA people do not have the same rights as heterosexual couples, and the Kathoey struggle for social recognition of their gender identity.
While the Kathoey are tied to older gender traditions, Peter Jackson, Professor of Thai culture and history at the Australian National University, argues that present-day identities and activism amongst Kathoey are informed by both modern and global sensibilities that arose after World War II. Kathoey women have become a large tourism attraction which stands at odd with their own legal struggles as well as those of other LGBTQIA people in Thailand. Jackson writes:
“My research on Thai queer genders and sexualities reveals that contemporary patterns of kathoey transgenderism are just as recent and as different from premodern forms as Thai gay sexualities, with Thailand’s kathoey cultures taking their current forms as a result of a 20th century revolution in Thai gender norms… The cultural prominence of gender in Thailand is reflected in the intense popular fascination with the transgender kathoey and the relative invisibility of Thailand’s large population of gender-normative gay men in both local and international media representations of queer Thailand.”
Celebrity Kathoey, Nok, is fighting for legal and medical support of poor and rural transgender women in Thailand. She has a Masters degree and is a successful business woman. She feels lucky to have always had her family’s support, but that did not stop her from being jailed as a youth for carrying fake female identification. She now runs a charity helping underprivileged transgender women gain access to medical treatment to support their gender transition. She is also seeking to challenge the law to recognise transgender people’s gender identity, as official documentation currently forces them to legally identify as their biological sex.
We can study how people “do” gender using ethnographic methods, such as fieldwork and observation. If we are interested in understanding how people make sense of their identities, or we want to go in-depth into their gender experiences, we would use other theories or methods, such as qualitative methods, like one-on-one interviews. If we wanted to study direct measures of gender inequality, we might use quantitative methods such as population surveys to cross-reference how people from different genders are paid at work; or we might get people to carry out time-use diaries to collect data about how much housework they do or how much time they spend doing tasks at work relative to their colleagues; and so on.
Mixed methods can be ideal when studying gender inequality. For example, in domestic labour within families, in order to “go beneath the cover story” of domestic equality and domestic labour. This might involve carrying out time use diaries in addition to interviews, or conducting extended interviews with each member of the family to get a holistic picture of how their gender identities, gender practices and family “cover story” diverge.