2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Culture and Diversity

The word gender describes the idea that many animal species are divided into what are known as sexes, i.e. male and female, or neither. Some languages have a system of grammatical gender; while nouns may be classified as "masculine" or "feminine" in such languages, this is essentially a convention with little or no connection to their meaning. Likewise, a wide variety of phenomena have gendered characteristics ascribed to them, by analogy to male and female bodies (such as with the gender of connectors and fasteners) or due to social norms. In social sciences, the word "gender" is sometimes used in contrast to biological sex, to emphasize a social, cultural, or psychological dimension. The discipline of gender studies investigates and elaborates on the nature of sex and gender.

Etymology and usage

Gender comes from Middle English gendre, from Latin genus, all meaning "kind", "sort", or "type". Ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root gen, which is also the root for "kind", "king" and many others. It appears in Modern French in the word genre (type, kind) and is related to the Greek root gen- (to produce), appearing in gene, genesis and oxygen. As a verb, it is used for to breed in the King James Bible:

Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind. Leviticus, 19:19

According to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher Protagoras used the terms masculine, feminine, and neuter to classify nouns, introducing the concept of grammatical gender. At least since the 14th century, the word is also used to indicate male or female qualities:

The Psyche, or soul, of Tiresias is of the masculine gender Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia
I may add the gender too of the person I am to govern Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey
Black divinities of the feminine genderCharles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Our most lively impression is that the sun is there assumed to be of the feminine genderHenry James, Essays on Literature

By 1900, this usage was considered jocular by some, perhaps like the modern expression "of the female persuasion". In 1926, Fowler's Modern English Usage suggested that “ a grammatical term only. To talk of persons...of the masculine or feminine g[ender], meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder.”

In some parts of the social sciences, following a usage shift that began in the 1950s and was well established by the 1980s, gender has been used increasingly to refer to social rather than biological categories, for which the word sex is used:

“Today a return to separate single-sex schools may hasten the revival of separate gender roles” Wendy Kaminer, in The Atlantic Monthly (1998)

The American Heritage Dictionary uses the following two sentences to illustrate the difference: “The effectiveness of the medication appears to depend on the sex (not gender) of the patient.” But: “In peasant societies, gender (not sex) roles are likely to be more clearly defined."

In the last half of the 20th century, the use of gender in academia has increased greatly, and it now outnumbers the word sex in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. However, in many instances, the term gender acts as a euphemism for sex, and the distinction between sex and gender is only fitfully observed.

Grammatical gender

In linguistics, the term "grammatical gender" refers to various forms of expressing biological or sociological gender, or sometimes other natural characteristics such as animacy, by inflecting words. For example, in the words actor and actress the suffix -or denotes "male person" (masculine), and the suffix -ress denotes "female person" (feminine). This type of inflection is very rare in modern English, but quite common in other languages, including most languages in the Indo-European family. Normally, English does not mark nouns or other words for gender, although it does express gender in the third person singular personal pronouns he (male person), she (female person), and it (object, abstraction, or animal), and their other inflected forms.

A language where grammatical gender is quite active is French, where, for example, in the sentences Il est un grand acteur "He is a great actor" and Elle est une grande actrice "She is a great actress", not only do the nouns (acteur, actrice) and the pronouns (il, elle) denote the gender of their referent, but so do the articles (un, une; "a") and the adjectives (grand, grande; "great"). Modern English does not exhibit such generalized forms of gender agreement, although Old English did.

Grammatical gender may be partly assigned by convention, so it doesn't always coincide with natural gender. Furthermore, the gender assigned to animals, inanimate objects and abstractions is often arbitrary. Thus, in Latin and Romance languages the word Sol (Sun) is masculine and the word Luna (Moon) is feminine, but, in German and Germanic languages in general, the opposite occurs.


Male (left) and female fruit flies, D. melanogaster. The female is determined by the presence of two X chromosomes.
Male (left) and female fruit flies, D. melanogaster. The female is determined by the presence of two X chromosomes.

Gender can refer to the (biological) condition of being male or female, or less commonly hermaphrodite or neuter, as applied to humans, animals, and plants. In this sense, the term is a synonym for sex, a word that has undergone a usage shift itself, having become a synonym for sexual intercourse. In a study of scientists' usage of "gender" and "sex", Haig wrote:

Among the reasons that working scientists have given me for choosing gender rather than sex in biological contexts are desires to signal sympathy with feminist goals, to use a more academic term, or to avoid the connotation of copulation.

Social category

Since the 1950s, the term gender has been increasingly used to distinguish a social role ( gender role) and/or personal identity ( gender identity) distinct from biological sex. Sexologist John Money wrote in 1955, “[t]he term gender role is used to signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. It includes, but is not restricted to, sexuality in the sense of eroticism.” Elements of such a role include clothing, speech patterns, movement and other factors not solely limited to biological sex.

Many societies categorize all individuals as either male or female — however, this is not universal. Some societies recognise a third gender — for instance, Native American Two-Spirit people, and hijras of India and Pakistan — or even a fourth or fifth. Such categories may be an intermediate state between male and female, a state of sexlessness, or a distinct gender not dependent on male and female gender roles. Joan Roughgarden argues that in some non-human animal species, there can also be said to be more than two genders, in that there might be multiple templates for behaviour available to individual organisms with a given biological sex.

There is debate over to what extent gender is a social construct and to what extent it is a biological construct. One point of view in the debate is social constructionism, which suggests that gender is entirely a social construct. Contrary to social constructionism is essentialism which suggests that it is entirely a biological construct. Others' opinions on the subject lie somewhere in between.

Some gender associations are changing as society changes, yet much controversy exists over the extent to which gender roles are simply stereotypes, arbitrary social constructions, or natural innate differences.

Legal status

A person's gender as female or male has legal significance -- gender is indicated on government documents, and laws provide differently for women and men. Some examples of how gender is legally relevant: many pension systems have different retirement ages for men or women; in many jurisdictions, certain sexual offences can only be committed by men (e.g. rape); and usually marriage is only available to different-gender couples, whereas a civil partnership is often only available for same-gender couples.

The question then arises as to what legally determines whether someone is male or female. In most cases this can appear obvious, but the matter is complicated for intersexual or transgender people. Different jurisdictions have adopted different answers to this question. Almost all countries permit changes of legal gender status in cases of intersexualism, when the gender assignment made at birth is determined upon further investigation to be biologically inaccurate -- technically, however, this is not a change of status per se, rather it is a recognition of a status which was deemed to exist unknown from birth. Increasingly, jurisdictions also provide a procedure for changes of legal gender for transgender people.

Gender assignment, when there are any indications that genital sex might not be decisive in a particular case, is normally not defined by any single definition, but by a combination of conditions, including chromosomes and gonads. Thus, for example, in many jurisdictions a person with XY chromosomes but female gonads could be recognised as female at birth.

The ability to change legal gender for transgender people in particular has given rise to the phenomena in some jurisdictions of the same person having different genders for the purposes of different areas of the law. For example, in Australia prior to the Re Kevin decisions, a transsexual person could be recognised as the gender they identified with under many areas of the law, e.g. social security law, but not for the law of marriage. Thus, for a period it was possible for the same person to have two different genders under Australian law.

It is also possible in federal systems for the same person to have one gender under state law and a different gender under federal law (e.g. suppose the state recognises gender transitions, but the federal government does not).

In feminist theory

During the 1970s there was no consensus about how the terms were to be applied. In the 1974 edition of Masculine/Feminine or Human, the author uses “ innate gender” and “learned sex roles”, but in the 1978 edition, the use of sex and gender is reversed. By 1980, most feminist writings had agreed on using gender only for socioculturally adapted traits.

Other languages

In English, both sex and gender are used in contexts where they could not be substituted (sexual intercourse; anal sex; safe sex; sex worker; sex slave). Other languages, like German, use the same word Geschlecht to refer both to grammatical gender and to biological sex, making the distinction between sex and gender advocated by some anthropologists difficult. In some contexts, German has adopted the English loan-word gender to achieve this distinction. Sometimes 'Geschlechtsidentitaet' is used as gender (although it literally means gender identity) and 'Geschlecht' as sex (translation of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble). More common is the use of modifiers: biologisches Geschlecht for sex, Geschlechtsidentität for gender identity and Geschlechtsrolle for gender role etc. In Swedish, "gender" is translated with the linguistic parallel "genus" also in sociological contexts, thus: Genusstudier (gender studies), genusvetenskap (gender science). "Sex" however, only signifies sexual relations, and not the typical Western dichotomy, a concept for which "kön" is used. A common distinction is then made between "kön" (sex) and "genus" (gender), where "kön" only carries the supposedly biological connotations. In earlier literature, and occasionally in non-academic contexts, the word "könsroll" (lit. "sex role", but contextually translated as "gender role") can be seen.

In Portuguese the cognate of "sex" is commonly used for what English calls "gender", even though the same word can also mean "sexual relation", or "genital organ". Nevertheless, the cognate of "gender" (also used in the sense of "gender", though less frequently), has begun to be used by academics in the context of gender studies.

Other uses

Connectors and fasteners

In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, and in electronics, each of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners (such as nuts and bolts) is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The assignment is by direct analogy with animal genitalia; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male and the part containing the corresponding indentations or fitting outside the other being female.

An electrical power male plug, left, and matching female socket, of a type common in many European countries.
An electrical power male plug, left, and matching female socket, of a type common in many European countries.


In western music theory, keys, chords and scales are often described as having major or minor tonality, sometimes related to masculine and feminine . By analogy, the major scales are masculine (clear, open, extroverted), while the minor scales are given feminine qualities (dark, soft, introverted). German uses the word Tongeschlecht ("Tone gender") for tonality, and the words Dur (from latin durus, hard) for major and moll (from latin mollis, soft) for minor.

See Major and minor.


In Taoism, yin and yang are considered feminine and masculine, respectively. In Christianity, God is described in masculine terms; however, the Church has historically been described in feminine terms. Of one of the several forms of the Hindu God, Shiva, is Ardhanarishwar (literally half-female God). Here Shiva manifests himself so that the left half is Female and the right half is Male. The left represents Shakti (energy, power) in the form of Goddess Parvati (otherwise his consort) and the right half Shiva. Whereas Parvati is the cause of arousal of Kama (desires), Shiva is the killer. Shiva is pervaded by the power of Parvati and Parvati is pervaded by the power of Shiva. While the stone images may seem to represent a half-male and half-female God, the true symbolic representation is of a being the whole of which is Shiva and the whole of which is Shakti at the same time. It is a 3-D representation of only shakti from one angle and only Shiva from the other. Shiva and Shakti are hence the same being representing a collective of Jnana (knowledge) and Kriya (activity). Adi Shankaracharya, the founder of non-dualistic philosophy (Advaita – ‘not two’) in Hindu thought says in his ‘Saundaryalaairi’ –“ Shivah Shaktayaa yukto yadi bhavati shaktah prabhavitum na che devum devona khalu kushalah spanditam api” i.e. It is only when Shiva is united with Shakti that He acquires the capability of becoming the Lord of the Universe. In the absence of Shakti, He is not even able to stir. In fact, the term ‘Shiva’ originated from ‘Shva’, which implies a dead body. It is only through his inherent shakti that Shiva realizes his true nature. This mythology projects the inherent view in ancient Hinduism, that each human carries within himself both male and female components, which are forces rather than sexes, and it is the harmony between the creative and the annihilative, the strong and the soft, the proactive and the passive, that makes a true person. Such thought, leave alone entail gender equality, in fact obliterates any material distinction between the male and female altogether. This may explain why in ancient India we find evidence of homosexuality, bisexuality, androgyny, multiple sex partners and open representation of sexual pleasures in artworks like the Khajuraho temples, being accepted within prevalent social frameworks.

Importance of gender

Gender has both a practical and academic importance in many fields.

Gender and development

Gender, and particularly the role of women is widely recognized as vitally important to international development issues. This often means a focus on gender-equality, ensuring participation, but includes an understanding of the different roles and expectation of the genders within the community.

As well as directly addressing inequality, attention to gender issues is regarded as important to the success of development programs, for all participants. For example, in microfinance it is common to target women, as besides the fact that women tend to be over-represented in the poorest segments of the population, they are also regarded as more reliable at repaying the loans. Also, it is claimed that women are more likely to use the money for the benefit of their families.

Development consultant Kamal Kar has described the particular difficulties of women in poor Bangladeshi villages where open defecation is practised; women are expected to not practise open defecation during daylight hours and suffer discomfort and health problems as a result.

Some organizations working in developing countries and in the development field have incorporated advocacy and empowerment for women into their work. A notable example is Wangari Maathai's environmental organization, the Green Belt Movement.

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