Understanding Gender vs Sex

A Sociological Definition

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From the sociological standpoint, gender is a performance composed of a set of learned behaviors that are associated with and expected to follow sex category. Sex category, how we classify one's biological sex, refers to differences in genitalia used to categorize humans as male, female, or intersex (ambiguous or co-occurrent male and female genitalia). Sex is thus biologically determined, whereas gender is socially constructed.

We are socialized to expect that gender category (man/boy or girl/woman) follows sex, and in turn, to infer that sex follows the perceived gender of a person. However, as the rich diversity of gender identities and expressions makes clear, gender does not necessarily follow sex in the ways we are socialized to expect. In practice, many people, regardless of sex or gender identity, exude a combination of social characteristics that we consider both masculine and feminine.

Extended Definition

In 1987, sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman offered a now widely accepted definition of gender in an article published in the journal Gender & Society. They wrote, “Gender is the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category. Gender activities emerge from and bolster claims to membership in a sex category.”

The authors emphasize here the normative expectation that one’s gender match one’s sex category, claiming, even, that gender is a performance meant to prove one’s sex. They argue that people rely on a variety of resources, like mannerisms, behaviors, and consumer goods to perform gender. Yet, it is precisely because gender is a performance that people can “pass” for a gender identity that does not “match” their sex category.

By adopting certain behaviors, mannerisms, styles of dress, and sometimes body modifications like binding breasts or wearing prostheses, a person can perform any gender of their choosing.

West and Zimmerman write that "doing gender" is an achievement, or accomplishment, that is a fundamental part of proving one’s competence as a member of society. Doing gender is part and parcel of how we fit in with communities and groups, and whether we are perceived as normal, and even mentally sound. Take for example the case of gender performance at college parties. A woman student of mine once recounted in a class discussion how her experiment at doing gender “wrong” resulted in disbelief, confusion, and anger at a campus event. While it is seen as perfectly normal for men to “freak” dance with a woman from behind, when this woman student approached men in this manner, her behavior was taken as a joke or as weird by some men, but even as a threat which resulted in hostile behavior by others. By reversing the gender roles of “freak” dancing, the woman student made herself appear to be an incompetent member of society who failed to understand gender norms, and was shamed and threatened for doing so.

The results of the woman student’s micro-experiment demonstrate another aspect of West and Zimmerman’s theory of gender as an interactional achievement—that when we do gender we are held accountable by those around us. The methods by which others hold us accountable to what is perceived as the “correct” doing of gender vary widely, and include doling out praise for normative gender performances, like compliments on hair or clothing styles, or for “ladylike” or “gentlemanly” behavior. When we fail to do gender in the normative fashion, we may be met with subtle cues like confused or upset facial expressions or double takes, or overt cues like verbal challenges, bullying, physical intimidation or assault, and even exclusion from social institutions. Gender is highly politicized and contested in the context of educational institutions, for example.

In some cases, students have been sent home or excluded from school functions for wearing clothing that is not perceived as normal for their gender, such as when boys attend school in skirts, or girls wear tuxes to prom or for senior yearbook photos.

In sum, gender is a socially-situated performance and accomplishment that is framed and directed by social institutions, ideologies, discourse, communities, peer groups, and other individuals in society.

Prominent social scientists who research and write about gender today include, in alphabetical order, Gloria Anzaldúa, Patricia Hill Collins, R.W. Connell, Brittney Cooper, Yen Le Espiritu, Sarah Fenstermaker, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Arlie Hochschild, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Nikki Jones, Michael Messner, Cherríe Moraga, C.J. Pascoe, Cecilia Ridgeway, Victor Rios, Chela Sandoval, Verta Taylor, Hung Cam Thai, and Lisa Wade.

Those interested in learning more about the sociological study of gender can visit Sociologists for Women in Society, and the American Sociological Association’s section on Sex and Gender.