Why Gender Matters

Contemporary social scientists approach sex, gender and orientation as three separate, yet interconnected, components (Butler 1990). This perspective emerged from social research in the 20th century which began to challenge prevailing assumptions that correlated biological sex with specific gender identities and sexual orientations. American psychoanalyst Robert Stoller was among the first to change the way the social sciences approached sex, gender and sexuality in his book, Sex and Gender (1968). In his investigation, Stoller relied on ethnographic interviews to develop a new approach that separated biological sex from gender identity formation and sexual arousal. According to Stoller, gender identity is not only influenced by biological and hormonal influences, it is also informed by sex assignment at birth as well as environmental and psychological influences. Although contemporary approaches to gender research have developed more nuanced approaches to biological sex and gender identity (see Butler below), Stoller’s research opened the door for new social and philosophical perspectives on sex, gender and orientation.

Theoretical arguments such as Stoller’s were largely informed by early anthropological research on sex and gender which had already offered evidence that challenged prevailing ideologies that sex and gender were universal categories shared cross-culturally. Margaret Mead was among the first anthropologists to identify variation in gender roles and gender ideologies. In her books, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949), Mead relied on ethnographic information from three social groups in New Guinea to show cross-cultural variation in male and female roles as well as differences in ideas about femininity and masculinity. Small-scale variation among three closely related social groups called for a greater look at cross-cultural variation world-wide.  As a result, anthropological approaches to sex, gender and orientation necessitate the disaggregation of the three components.


Sex is a biological category that can be based on the arrangement of chromosomes, hormones and/or phenotypic (physical) features. Sex categories are considered universal because all humans, and even non-humans, can be organized according to the same categorical system. Yet, sex categories vary cross-culturally. Some societies may create sex categories according to chromosomal arrangements, while others may categorize sex according to physical traits such as external and/or internal reproductive organs. Therefore, sex is a social construct because it is an invented idea that is created according to specific criteria that is established within a social system. It is also important to note that in the natural world,  sex is not always a binary system solely based on two (male and female) categories. Intersexuality, the state of possessing both ‘male’ and ‘female’ sex traits, exists in the plant and animal kingdoms as well as among human beings.

Some flora (such as the marijuana plant pictured here) can possess both male (stamens) and female (stigma) reproductive organs and are able to self-pollinate and produce offspring on their own. These plants are commonly referred to as hermaphrodites. In addition to hermaphroditic variations, many fauna (such as the parrot fish pictured below) change their sex throughout the course of their lifetime. Many begin their lives as a male and later develop into females.  New research is also finding that environmental contamination is increasing the rate of hermaphrodism in reptiles, fish and amphibians. To learn more about the impacts of contamination on human and non-human male reproductive development, watch the CBS documentary, The Disappearing Male )

Although sex categorizations in euro-centric culture are usually based on binary male-female / XY – XX chromosome arrangements, intersexuality, or sexual ambiguity, is not uncommon among humans. In fact, intersexuality among humans is as common as twins or red hair. Humans may possess different chromosomal arrangements such as XXX, XXY, XO, and XYY, as well as a wide range of hormonal and physical traits that fail to fit into either of the culturally designated male or female categories. This is why many societies have incorporated third sex categories into the cultural construct of biological sex.  In the Dominican Republic for example, Guevadoces means ‘eggs at twelve’ which refers to individuals who were assigned to the ‘female’ category in childhood but developed external male traits (such as testicles, hence ‘eggs’) when hormonal changes occur during puberty.  Western Scientists refer to this as  ‘5-alpha reductase syndrome’. Visit the research site of Imperto et al to learn more about Guevedoces 

The Argentinian drama film below, XXY  (2007), portrays the cultural dilemma faced the parents of a sexually ambiguous child born with XXY chromosomes. It dramatizes their struggle to accept their child for the way the child was born while facing social alienation of intersexuality within a cultural system that is strictly based on a binary, male-female, sex categorization for humans.

To learn more about the wide range of intersex variations that exist in human biology, visit the website for the Intersex Society of North America and review the frequently asked questions (FAQ).  For discussion, we will consider the implications of a binary sex-categorization system and you will be expected to take a scholarly position on the controversy surrounding intersexuality as a ‘condition’ or ‘syndrome’ or as a natural state that demands a reconstruction of sex and gender categorizations.


Gender is a cultural representation based on socially-constructed beliefs and practices regarding the roles, responsibilities and obligations that are, in some ways, tied to the biological and reproductive experiences of ‘males’ and ‘females’. Gender Roles are culturally defined norms, behaviors and obligations that are assigned and considered appropriate for a specific gender. Gender roles are sometimes tied to biology, such as the association of childcare with women due to biological ties to pregnancy and lactation. Gender can also be associated with ideas about masculinities and femininities which are clusters of traits that society assigns to specific genders or sexes, such as aggression, hairiness, and stature. Like sex, gender varies cross-culturally. Throughout the United States, for example, many cultural groups find it acceptable for women to wear slacks in public. In places such as Sudan however, women may face corporal punishment for crossing the same gender boundary: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31897384/

Different cultural groups not only differ on the social construction of the rights, duties and obligations associated with the gender roles of ‘men’ and ‘women’, but many societies also accommodate ‘third’ genders. In Southeast Asia, Hijras represent a third gender that at one time held an important role in religious and cultural rituals. British colonialism enforced a binary man-woman gender categorization that has marginalized Hijras in contemporary society.

The third gender in Thailand is referred to as Kathoey. The film, Beautiful Boxer (2007),  is based on the true story of Nong Tom, a kathoey who became an internationally recognized boxer.

Two-spirit refers to individuals in Native American cultures that performed multiple gender roles. Documented in more than 130 tribal groups, two-spirits were generally revered until European domination marginalized members outside of the binary gender paradigm. The documentary film, Two-Spirit (2010), tells the story of a two-spirit Navaho teen that was murdered in a hate-crime.

In Albania, biological females who assume the gender roles of men are referred to as Sworn Virgins.

A wide range of third gender categories have existed and continue to persist throughout the world. Yet, European colonialism and the globalization of the binary man-woman gender paradigm has resulted in the persecution of third genders in post-colonial territories throughout the world.

Gender Role Theories

In the late 20th century, Judith Butler argued that ‘gender’ and sex’ are socially and culturally constructed. In her book, Gender Trouble (1990), Butler deconstructs gender by explaining how sex, gender and sexuality appear as natural correlates because social norms regulate conformity to specific essentialisms established by society. She contributed to the social understanding of gender as performative by theorizing that people are not born with gender, they act out gender according to social and cultural norms.

There are a wide variety of approaches aiming to identify the origins of gender role formation. Evolutionary biologists present gender roles as cultural adaptations to the environment; different environments lead to gender diversity. Some psychologists point to cognitive mapping to unveil the psychological aspects of gender identity formation. From a social scientific perspective however, gender identity is considered a learned behavior that is acquired through socialization.

For people living in cultures that have access to ultra-sound technologies that allow for pre-natal sex-determination, gender socialization can begin before a child is born as parents select gender-specific names, toys, clothing and room decorations. When sex is assigned at birth, childrearing practices and the differential treatment of boys and girls contribute to the child’s understanding and internalization of gender norms and behaviors. Children are often rewarded for stereotypical behavior and punished for non-conformity to gender expectations. Children also identify and imitate the gender roles performed by their parents. A growing body of research has also shown that toys and media play a significant role in gender socialization among American children. Compare the ways that the commercial advertisement below makes use of prevailing gender ideologies. What gender norms and values are conveyed to the child viewer?


Review the children’s book, ‘I’m glad I’m a Boy, I’m glad I am a girl!’ by Whitney Darrow. http://michiedo.blogspot.com/2008/12/im-glad-im-boy-im-glad-im-girl.html Consider the ways, if any, that gender roles and ideologies have changed since this book was published in the 1970s. What type of historical events generated new circumstances that contributed to those changes?


There is a massive body of research addressing orientation, particularly in the field of Queer Studies, that we will not get into in this course. It is important, however, to continue to disaggregate orientation and sexuality from gender and sex. Orientation or sexuality is based on the sex and genders that a person is attracted to emotionally, physically, sexually and romantically. Although social and cultural norms correlate sexuality with specific sex and gender categories, sexuality is approached by the social sciences as a distinctly separate aspect of the human experience.

As you move through the course from this point, it is important to pay particular attention to your use of terms such as ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘orientation.’ It has recently become popular in U.S. society to use the term ‘gender’ to refer to biological sex. During a visit to the veterinarian’s office, the paperwork asked for my cat’s ‘gender’. Although my cat can be categorized as a biological male, having been born with two testicles and a penis, it is quite unlikely that he has socially-constructed beliefs and practices regarding his roles, responsibilities and obligations that are tied to his experience as a biological male. His feline mother did not socialize him to meow or behave differently than his female siblings. As his human caretaker however, I engendered him by naming him ‘Oliver’ instead of ‘Olivia’, by providing him with a blue-colored collar rather than a pink one, and by occasionally making fun of his high-pitched meow. Names, colors and mannerisms are the ways that humans make symbolic associations that lend meanings and serve to organize and interpret reality. These associations helped to situate a biological male cat within the social schema of an American household. In the next section, we will explore the ways that symbolic meanings and associations help to socially organize people within the context of marriage, family and household, and this social organization plays a role in the distribution of resources throughout communities and within households and families.



In light of the information in this lesson on the social construction of sex and gender as well as the information on womens empowerment and economic development in the Duflo reading, why does gender matter in international development? Or does it? In what ways should sex and gender be taken into account when planning a development project? What is the sex/gender dynamic within the society you have selected for your project in this class? Are men and women considered equal, or does one gender require more consideration than the other? what are your thoughts on development programs seeking to empower women? Are women’s rights human rights, or are women’s empowerment programs another way of enforcing Western ideas about gender on peripheral communities?

When you complete the discussion, move on to the Marriage, Households & Family lesson.