Gender versus sex – why you should observe the difference

Filling in a form recently (I don’t recall what for), I was asked to state my gender. The question was particularly puzzling as all I was given was a box in which to insert M or F.

It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this use of the word “gender” when what the author intended was (avert your eyes now if you’re of a sensitive disposition) “s-e-x”.

Such squeamishness about what is a perfectly innocuous word in this context is rife, but the distinction between “gender” and (whisper it) “s-e-x” is nice, useful and worth preserving.

What, you thought “gender” and “sex” were synonymous? Then let me point you to the World Health Organisation, which – whatever your thoughts on their handling of the swine flu non-crisis – can be applauded for providing a lucid and sensible definition of the difference between the two words:

“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.

“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.

For further explanation and examples of sex characteristics versus gender characteristics, see the WHO page.

Can you see now why I was befuddled by the question? Had they given me half a page on the form to answer I could have said something like:

Well, last time I looked I was definitely physically female, but I’m not sure about the gender thing, because:

I’m hopelessly undomesticated – if it weren’t for my husband we’d be knee-deep in dirty laundry and looking forward to cold beans from the can for lunch.

I’d choose a nice pint of hoppy ale over a glass of chilled chardonnay any day.

I’d rather go to a lecture on particle physics than bake a cake.

I find shopping for clothes dull, dull, dull, not to mention rather stressful.

I’m distinctly non-plussed by chocolate.

Those Vodafone adverts about the benefits of phones for gossip leave me cold.

A quiz on Facebook told me I had a masculine brain.

So, er, what d’ya reckon?

By using “gender” as a synonym for “sex”, we risk losing a word that enables us to recognise – and therefore challenge – traditional assumptions about how men and women should behave.

So don’t be squeamish – make “sex” a blush-free part of your vocabulary.

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4 Responses to “Gender versus sex – why you should observe the difference”

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Clare, Thank you for drawing the distinction between sex and gender – it’s one I’ve not given any thought to and by lucky coincidence applies to a submission form I’m working on. Sex it is!

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Brad – it will no doubt spare you having to wade through essays on the personal gender preferences of several pedants.

  3. Belinda says:

    Good one – even for someone who took a couple of ‘gender’ studies at Uni I was still unclear about common usage…this has cleared it up…ahhhhhhhh

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Belinda,

    Given how often “gender” is used wrongly, it’s no surprise you were unsure. Glad I’ve helped!

    Clare