What is Gender? (Part 3)

Dear Reader,

Ok, so I’ve teased it for a long time, and I promised to get into it: do the words man and woman refer to sex, or to gender? My answer is that it refers to both. Note, you might want to review Part 1 and Part 2 before reading on.

When we refer to someone as a man, it can refer to either that person being male, or that person having a masculine gender. To tell which, we have to consider the context of the statement, and even then, it isn’t always clear, partly because in many places, sex and gender are treated as the same concept, or, as inextricably linked concepts (i.e. a person whose sex is male must have a masculine gender). This inevitably leads to confusion and miscommunication, as one person may be referring to a man’s gender, while another is interpreting man to refer to male sex.

The imprecision of the words man and woman can be frustrating for transgender people, because we often are using those words to refer to gender, while others interpret them as referring to sex, which leads to mistaken beliefs that transgender people are delusional about their body’s sex (which couldn’t be further from the truth!). Unfortunately, I haven’t found any commonly-used words which unambiguously refer to masculine and feminine genders, and indeed, when I mention “feminine gender”, I frequently am met with questioning looks or complaints about “why are you using such awkward language?”

To avoid ambiguity, here is how I use these words:

When saying male or female, I am referring to sex, which is an assignment made on the basis of one or more of five primary sex characteristics (I’ll cover the concept of sex and those sex characteristics separately).

When saying man or woman (or men or women), I am referring to gender, which we will delve into further in this post.

Which categories can we use for human beings? Sex? Gender?

To categorize humans, we first need to decide on which characteristics we will use for evaluation and sorting them. A human’s sex seems to be an obvious category, but we have a challenge: as a society, we’ve agreed that it is improper to display our genitalia to each other (except for a few, very specific circumstances), so how are we to determine another person’s sex when we can’t see the one body part which would make it obvious? We must turn to characteristics which we can observe.

A few characteristics are easy to observe: skin, height, hair, and shapes and sizes of visible body parts; we can also see clothing and decorations (jewelry, accessories, etc), hear voices, observe the ways people move their bodies, and the behaviors people engage in. But humans are diverse, and come in all shapes and sizes, colors, and heights, have all manner of vocal qualities and patterns, are equally capable of wearing clothing of all kinds, and can behave in all sorts of ways. None of these observable characteristics will objectively and deterministically tell you a person’s sex.


Ok, I’m a computer person, so deterministic means something very specific to me. With computers, a deterministic algorithm is a process which given the same inputs, will always produce the same outputs, regardless of the hardware upon which it is run.

Extending the concept to this context, when I say deterministic, I mean that anyone and everyone, when observing a given human, will be able to apply a process or a set of rules which will correctly identify that person’s sex every time. In other words, we cannot observe a person’s height (or any other casually observable physical/behavioral characteristic), consult a set of rules, and then conclude that person’s sex – and get it correct 100% of the time.

Since we cannot deterministically know a person’s sex through casual observation, we use a stand-in: gender.

So what is Gender?

Ok, so we’re finally here. I gave you one definition in What is Gender? (Part 1). Let’s see how some others have defined gender:

“Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they act and interact, and the distribution of power and resources in society. Gender identity is not confined to a binary (girl/woman, boy/man) nor is it static; it exists along a continuum and can change over time. There is considerable diversity in how individuals and groups understand, experience and express gender through the roles they take on, the expectations placed on them, relations with others and the complex ways that gender is institutionalized in society.”

Source: Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Note: (The American Psychological Association has a very similar definition).

“Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.  This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.”

Source: World Health Organization

Gender: refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/ time-specific and changeable. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a women or a man in a given context.”

Source: UN Women

Each of these definitions refers to gender attributes as “social constructed”. So what does it mean for something to be a social construct? We’ll get into that next time.

Until then,


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