Historically, the terms “sex” and “gender” have been used interchangeably, but their uses are becoming increasingly distinct, and it is important to understand the differences between the two.
This article will look at the meaning of “sex” and the differences between the sexes. It will also look at the meaning of “gender,” and the concepts of gender roles, gender identity, and gender expression.
In general terms, “sex” refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences.
“Gender” is more difficult to define, but it can refer to the role of a male or female in society, known as a gender role, or an individual’s concept of themselves, or gender identity.
Sometimes, a person’s genetically assigned sex does not line up with their gender identity. These individuals might refer to themselves as transgender, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming.
“Sex” generally refers to biological differences.
The differences between male and female sexes are anatomical and physiological. “Sex” tends to relate to biological differences.
For instance, male and female genitalia, both internal and external are different. Similarly, the levels and types of hormones present in male and female bodies are different.
Genetic factors define the sex of an individual. Women have 46 chromosomes including two Xs and men have 46 including an X and a Y. The Y chromosome is dominant and carries the signal for the embryo to begin growing testes.
Both men and women have testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. However, women have higher levels of estrogen and progesterone, and men have higher levels of testosterone.
The male/female split is often seen as binary, but this is not entirely true. For instance, some men are born with two or three X chromosomes, just as some women are born with a Y chromosome.
In some cases, a child is born with a mix between female and male genitalia. They are sometimes termed intersex, and the parents may decide which gender to assign to the child. Intersex individuals account for around 1 in 1,500 births.
Some people believe that sex should be considered a continuum rather than two mutually exclusive categories.
Gender roles vary greatly between societies.
Gender tends to denote the social and cultural role of each sex within a given society. Rather than being purely assigned by genetics, as sex differences generally are, people often develop their gender roles in response to their environment, including family interactions, the media, peers, and education.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender as:
“Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.”
Gender roles in some societies are more rigid than those in others.
The degree of decision-making and financial responsibility expected of each gender and the time that women or men are expected to spend on homemaking and rearing children varies between cultures. Within the wider culture, families too have their norms.