Gender is the expression of traits associated with masculinity and femininity. Unlike sex, which characterizes the chromosomal status of a person, gender is expression of one’s chromosomal state. For example, a person born with male chromosomes might dress as a woman or undergo surgery to transition to having female genitalia. Her gender would be female, but the biological sex she was born with would be male. Activists for transgender rights frequently emphasize the importance of addressing a person according to his or her gender, rather than his or her sex.
Until the 1950s, the word gender was only used to refer to gender pronouns. But John Money coined the term gender in 1955 to differentiate biological sex from socially prescribed gender roles. Feminists embraced gender in the 1970s as a way to emphasize that a person’s biological sex does not determine his or her personality, capabilities, and other traits commonly associated with biological sex. In recent years, gender and sex are frequently used interchangeably. Some theorists advocate only using the term gender, arguing that the concept of biological sex is misleading; people with ambiguous genitals or chromosomal abnormalities–known as intersex–make up at least 1% of the population.
The field dedicated to the study of gender roles and gender expression is called gender studies. The field examines the social circumstances that affect gender expression and the shifting nature of gendered traits. For example, in the U.S. the color pink is widely considered a feminine color but was considered a highly masculine color until the early 20th century. Women are frequently excluded from engineering jobs, but when computers were first developed, computer operating positions were considered ideal for women. Gender theorists often point to the shifting nature of gender roles as evidence that gender should not limit human expression. Because some people are born with ambiguous biological sex and because some people do not feel comfortable identifying as the biological sex as which they were born, some theorists advocate adding at least one additional gender or eliminating the concept of sex and gender altogether.
Last updated: 01-10-2013