Updated: Oct 26, 2020
By Kaitlyn Levine
Image by Anjali Menon
Gender is of great importance in the development of one’s life and persona. While sex can be defined by biological construction, gender has a complex identity. The relationship between gender and sex has been an ever changing state. Historical, social, and scientific aspects shape the evolving identity and offer explanations to this construct embedded in our society.
The term gender was not used until 1955, when psychologist John Money first used it in his journal. He explored the psychological aspect of gender, arguing that gender was a societal construct. In the following years, other academic scholars would present theories that challenged the contemporary ideas of gender, one being Sandra Bem. Her ideas were influenced by the cognitive revolution of the 1960s, from which she developed the theory of gender schema. She believed that one’s behavior was shifted to reflect the gender norms of the society in which they lived. While these psychologists were some of the earliest to develop gender exploration, they were not the first to question gender norms and identity.
One of the first people to publicly challenge gender norms and the state of women’s identity was the 14th century Italian, Christine de Pizan, whose values align with those of modern-day feminists. She believed that women and men were equal and should be treated equally in both political and social standings. Centuries later, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir similarly questioned the gender norms of which remained in many ways unchanged since Pizan’s time. Her work, “The Second Sex” questioned the patriarchy and undermined the subordinate behavior of women perpetuated throughout history. She outlined what was to come of the long fight for gender equality. Through her influence, the future of gender identity and feminism was explored.
Historically, one’s lifestyle and characteristics have been determined by gender. Prominent examples of gender roles include women traditionally being caretakers and mothers to children and men serving as the head of the household. These common roles are observed globally, especially within the Western world. Traditionalism has contributed to the culture surrounding gender roles and produced gender-norms as gender normality is often observed within religions and conservative societies. In some cultures, it has become a common practice for women to be treated as inferiors. As a result of this, the default genders have been identified as binary.
Some argue that gender doesn’t exist, that it’s simply a social construct. Though gender is a social construct, the value placed on it in society makes it real. Social climate weighs in on matters of philosophy, especially those pertaining to the structure of the mind. Gender is similar to privilege - though in existential forms it does not exist. When given context and placed into society, it becomes valuable. Without influence from the culture of a given society, gender would not exist.
While gender is often seen as synonymous with sex, the definitions and implications have mass differences when analyzed through a scientific lens. Sex can be defined as the biological identity of one’s genitalia and chromosomes. Gender is a neuropsychiatric construct that influences the psychological development of a person, and is impacted by society. The concept of genitalia dictating one’s gender is inherently oppressive, as it reduces one to their reproductive organs and creates the idea that people are only their sex. Not only is gender fluid, but sex is also unreliable, making a reproductive organ a role as a determining factor in dictating gender extremely problematic.
Throughout history, sex has been used as a form of gender identification, along with mentality and physical attributes. However, with scientific advancements, new concepts and ideas have emerged, as well as evidence of sex fluidity. X (female) and Y (male) chromosomes determine the biological sex of a person, but studies suggest the Y chromosome is fastly shrinking. In addition to this, chromosome variations occur that can change the physical and neurological identity of a person. An example of this is XXY condition, formally known as Klinefelter syndrome, in which an extra X chromosome causes a physical change within men. Men with this syndrome can experience enlarged breasts, wide hips, or reduced muscle mass. Scientific advancements and better understanding of conditions such as these continue to disprove the idea that gender and sex are the same.
In nature, it is often found that there are no typical roles regarding gender. The vast differences of species opens a door of possibilities for gender and sex. While in human nature, we observe neuropsychiatric construction, which was once correlated to sex, in nature, we find many sex and gender variations. Moreover, nature has taken a course in which gender is irrelevant. Hermaphroditism, when an organism has full or partial reproductive organs that typically align with the female or male sex, as well as Intersexuality, the variation of sexual characteristics, exemplify nature defying human ideals.
Also, the concept of gender fails to recognize those who identify with a gender but cannot reproduce or those whose reproductive organs are not compliant with traditional belief. If a woman is infertile, is she still a “woman?” People who may not want children no longer align with the societal expectations of them that are enforced by this ideology. Those who do not fulfill the gender norms are left behind in the limbo of otherness.
The ideas of gender roles have heavily influenced the perception of abilities not only in the political world, but also in the workplace and social customs. While movements have advanced the social awareness of gender inequality, centuries-old systems of privilege could take years to dismantle. In fact, the World Economic Forum reports it will take 108 years to close the gender gap. As a society, we cannot undo the past but instead work towards a greater future for every gender, and lack thereof.
The definition of gender has also changed throughout history. To some people, being a man may mean providing for your family and being the head of the household. However, some may see being a man as carrying sperm. As the social climate changes, the need for inclusivity and acceptance of non-traditional genders and non-traditional gender roles grows.
The effects of gender roles and beliefs can be illustrated today. A study conducted by Payscale states that as of 2020, women make 81 cents for every dollar a man makes of the median salary. With the same occupation and qualifications, the controlled gender pay gap is 98¢ for women to every man’s dollar. These differences can be traced to systematic inequality established throughout historical gender roles.
Occupational stereotypes also affect one's career choices and trajectory and add to the large gender gap in certain fields. For example, women encounter further professional barriers after taking maternity leave, with many facing maternal discrimination. Many women also work a Double Day, in which they work a full-time job and complete unpaid caregiving and housework. Women who have careers are still expected to fulfill gender roles, leaving many overwhelmed and stressed compared to their working male counterparts who are rarely expected to take on as many domestic responsibilities. These overwhelming demands on working mothers are reflected in media portrayals of working women as tired mothers, whose lives center around their children and work. While this is an oftentimes truthful portrayal, it also reinforces the idea that women cannot be mothers and professionals without sacrificing their happiness- only men can have both. However, women aren’t only negatively affected by gender roles. Expectations of men to be providers for their household has created a stigma surrounding single male fathers and stay at home dads.
In addition, gender traditional fields often disregard non-conforming professionals. Only 12% of registered nurses are men, as gender roles have painted healthcare and caregiving as feminine, further defining the extent of society’s unbalanced views regarding gender roles in the professional and domestic spheres.
In contrast, males dominate political positions, occupying over 70% of positions in the House of Representatives, Senate, and heads of state. Women account for half of the population, yet are underrepresented in the political world. As an effect of this, policies and laws are enacted without female representation and do not accurately portray ideals in the best interest of women. This is one of the most prominent effects of gender roles of men and women; men are to be dominant, women are to be submissive.
Intrinsically, gender-sex correlation creates a system of discrimination solely based on reproductive organs, when gender is a neuropsychiatric construct influenced by social structure, and sex is fluid. Gender discrimination is counterproductive to the advancement of society as a whole. By acknowledging that the definition of gender continues to change over time, we can create an inclusive environment for everyone.
Written by writer Kaitlyn Levine