Reminders on genders
Sex and gender: what is the difference?
Sex and gender are two related concepts, but which must be distinguished. The term “sex” refers to physical differences distinguishing men and women (reproductive organs, hair, etc.), while “gender” refers to the socially determined roles and behaviors that society considers as a features of men and women. In western countries – in France at least -, in everyday life, it is often said that a man must be protective and have some authority. Instead, women must be smiling and paying attention to their appearance.
“Man” and “woman” are two categories of sex, while “masculine” and “feminine” are categories of genders.
If the sexes have fairly constant characteristics across time and space (anywhere in the world and throughout history, women have a vagina and men a penis), genders change depending on the time and the society. Some examples here:
- In Western countries, medicine has long been exercised by men. Currently, this occupation is being largely feminized. (64% of students in some French universities)1.
- In West Africa, sewing and garment making is an activity considered as very virile2.
- In Malaysia, computer sciences are very feminized and are considered as a typically feminine activity 3 4.
- In Moso society (China), property and family names are transmitted by the mother (matrilinealsociety). Women are
traditionally considered as more powerful than men, mentally and … physically5! Women have political power and the majority of household heads are females6. Women’s identity is based on work rather than on maternity6. Finally, in this society, there is no marriage, relationships between men and women are not contractual and non exclusive6 5, but note that if a man decides to come and live in the house of his partner, he will adopt her name6. Currently, this society changes and adopts increasingly the dominating Chinese model, based on the patriarchy and marriage6.
- Among Khasi, in the state of Meghalaya (India), women are heads of households and they provide the financial needs of the household, while men stay at home7 8. Women also have the power of decision. After marriage, the woman brings her husband to live at home with her parents7. Females dominate the social and economic space and are more financially independent than men8. In general, and contrary to the rest of India, parents want to have daughters rather than boys7. Traditionally, the youngest daughter inherits property from her mother. Men do not have access to property8.This inferior status of men in the Khasi generated movements for the rights of men.8 9.It was shown that Khasi women are more competitive than men and they take more risks 8 9.
- Margaret Mead studied three different populations of New Guinea, describing it in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) 10. She thought initially that temperament was primarily modeled by sex, but she realized ultimately that it is mainly determined by the education given to children, which can lead to poor differentiation of gender identities. Thus, in
Arapesh, both mother and father take equally care of the children, who are raised with no violence; manifestations of authority are uncommon. The fathers are thus very maternal and gentle with their offspring, an attitude that would be considered as feminine in the Western world. Neither men nor women have the feeling that sexuality is a powerful force which they are slaves of. In contrast, in Mundugumor society, men and women have a “masculine” behaviour, insults and shoving being common for both sexes. Having a child is considered as a sign of decline and shame; children are raised very hardly. No signs of maternal love can be detected either among men or women (but where is the famous maternal instinct?). Both sexes claim to have uncontrollable sexual needs. Finally, in these two societies, Arapesh and Mundugumor, which are radically different, finally, genders are not really differentiated, unlike Chambuli. Among them, the masculine and feminine characteristics seem reversed compared to the Western societies. Thus Chambuli men appear as artists, rather emotional and very concerned about their appearance: they wear lots of jewelry and other accessories to seduce women who hold the economic power. Men have to ask their wife’s permission to spend the money at the market. Females are the chiefs of their family and sustain it. They are described as strong, dominant and authoritarian by Mead, and display a shaved head. However, some authors have suggested later that Chambuli men are not so much dominated, since they hold the political power. Actually, both sexes would be more or less equal11.
- There is a third gender in India and Pakistan, Hijras, who claim themselves as asexual12.
Thus, genders vary a lot from one society to another, which suggests they are not biologically determined but socially constructed.
In Western society, how are genders constructed?
The construction of genders in our societies is one of the major themes of gender studies and my blog. I will therefore mention it only briefly, just to give an overview:
Since its birth, the child is subjected to a gendered education, which is sometimes done involuntary. Hence the cry of a female baby will be interpreted as fear, whereas parents think that their male infant cries of anger – anger that must be appeased as quickly as possible13. Mothers move more and touch more their baby boys, while they smile more and talk more with their female infants14 15. Finally, mothers feel averagely more attached to baby boys and behave more impersonally with female babies14.
Later, the mother will favor three times more often her child if he is boy than a girl, in the case of a conflict with another child16.
Girls are given toys corresponding to their gender, i.e, referring to the domestic area and /or to childcare (dinette, doll …) or their physical appearance (Barbie, jewel, princess costume …). Boys are given toys which will enable them to express their imagination (pirates, astronauts…), and even sometimes their violence (guns, swords …). Until the age of five, physical aggression is more tolerated – if not encouraged- for boys than girls17.
In children’s literature books (see my detailed article), the heroes are most often males. Girls are more passive and more often indoors. The boys are represented in as more active and live more exciting adventures.
Girls are also suggested to do manual activities (drawing, pearl jewels making) or activities where they can develop theirgrace and
beauty (dance, gym). Boys will be encouraged to do physical sports like soccer or rugby, sport representing one of the most important vectors of male socialization: on the field, boys will have to show their strength and their pain resistance. They will have to show they are men, and not “fags”!
Girls are taught how to behave correctly, the boys not to cry like a girl.
Finally, at school, teachers behave differentially with girls and boys (see detailed articles here, here and there), especially in male-connoted subjects, such as sciences and mathematics. Teachers communicate more with boys, they ask them more difficult questions and overestimate their good papers; briefly, they have greater expectations from boys than from girls! And this has effects on their students…
During adolescence, parents allow more freedom to their son than to their daughters; boys can get out more often and come back to home later. Girls will be ordered to take part in household chores, more often than boys.
So, in summary, that’s how little girls become feminine and boys masculine, in Western societies, without mentioning the influence of the mass media. Finally, two groups of individuals appear: a group of individuals who are more self-confident and more competitive: males. On the other hand, the group of women will tend to underestimate themselves and to be pay more attention to their environment; women will also integrate quickly they have to please men and be pleasant companions : good housewives knowing how to cook, or sexy girlfriends, thin and shaved, depending on the generation and / or the social environment. Because of their education, women will tend to be submissive to men and men will tend to dominate women, on average (the intra-sex variability is very strong, obviously).
Education of boys and girls differ radically, so referents cultures of men and women are not the same. There is a male culture (where sports and technology are predominant) and a female culture (with notably fashion and everything that relates to the physical appearance) within Western societies.
Note that this gendered education is not only constructive but also punitive: a disagreement between sex and gender shall be punished: it is not accepted that a woman speaks loudly or does not behave herself. The reverse – a man adopting a feminine attitude – may be even less tolerated.
Societies are themselves gendered. The degree of “femininity” or “masculinity” of their people can be evaluated by the BSRI method - Bem Sex Role Inventory – which is to complete a questionnaire including self-description of masculine traits (strong personality, dominant, aggressive, leadership behavior, hard) and feminine traits (affectionate, sensitive to the needs of others, warm, tender, loving children). Moya et al 2005 18 have shown that the degree of masculinity of men and women were correlated within societies, as well as their degree of femininity. In other words, in countries where women are feminine, men are also feminine. On the contrary, where men are masculine, women are masculine too. Note that femininity and masculinity are not necessarily negatively correlated. The countries the most feminized are the least sexist (in terms of benevolent and hostile sexisms), the most developed (higher HDI), the most individualistic and most respectful of human rights.
These results re-emphasize the fact that psychological characteristics of individuals (aggressiveness, tenderness …) are socially constructed and not dependent on any genetic determinism. They seem rather determined by social context than by sex, according to this study. For example, the score of femininity of French men (5.20) is, on average, higher than that of women in Nigeria and Ghana (4.44). In some countries women got higher masculinity scores than men (Guatemala, Venezuela …) and in others, men get higher femininity scores than women (Iran).
Naturalization and gender hierarchy
The distinction between sex and gender is crucial. It emerged in the late 60′s among Anglo-Saxon feminist and covers a major evolution of thought: it calls into question the evidence that personality and behavior would be mainly explained by biological sex. This distinction questions the idea that male and female behaviors are “naturally” different.
In Western societies, genders, which are perceived as “natural essences” of men and women, enabled the establishment of a sexual and hierarchical division of labor: two “kinds” of people, so different from each other, could not obviously perform the same activities. The public sphere activities that required skills like reason, intelligence or force – that women did not supposedly have- went naturally to men than. The women were mostly confined to the private sphere, where they accomplished an unpaid domestic work
If this division of labor has been widely questioned in the West since the late nineteenth century and that currently, women have legal access to all professions, actually, it remains deeply entrenched. It was not until 1966 that French women can exercise an occupation without the prior consent of their husband and open a bank account. In France, in 1999, women spent daily averagely 1h30 more doing household than their husbanded19. There is little doubt that this has changed since this time, as suggested by an Ipsos study 20. Private sphere seems to be still the preserve of women. Note that the more feminized occupations are often more or less connected to the domestic sphere: childcare (teacher, childminder) or adult care (nurse, caregiver) and housework (cleaning lady). In 2011, in France, men earn 37% more than women.21, indicating that males’ work is more paid and that they have access to more remunerative professions. In conclusion, the women work for wages far below those of men, so they are exploited on the labor market. In addition to this, there is an extortion of a domestic work, unpaid, within the couple. All this confirms that the unequal sexual division of labor, is still prevalent and justified by the genders.
The famous “complementarity of sexes,” a justification of the sexual hierarchy
The establishment of genders thus allows a hierarchy between the sexes and the naturalization of genders is a justification for this hierarchy. Formerly, it was stated that males were more intelligent than females, and thus they were not allowed to study because it was “fair” and “logical.”
Currently, few people still dare to say that. They prefer to speak of “complementarity between men and women“, the naturalization of genders in an egalitarian appearance. In reality, this idea of complementarity between the sexes is very dangerous, because of its friendly aspect; it justifies the unjustifiable: sex inequality. It is said, especially in psychology books and magazines for the general public, that men are more logical – while women are more sensitive. But if men are more logical and are more capable of reasoning, it is “normal” that they who hold power. It is sometimes written that men are better in math (which is false 22) while women are more apt to verbal tasks (also false 23): if men are better in science, it is “logical” that occupations related to sciences (the best paid, coincidentally) go to men. It is said that men have a more specialized brain while women have the ability to do many little tasks at once (another misconception! 24). How to find a better justification for the traditional division of labor? Men would be better to do a specialized task – his job – whereas women are able to do lots of not very complicated tasks, but requiring a great versatility –i.e household chores. In the end, each alleged natural differences between sexes is used to justify an unequal social system.
There are differences between men and women, obviously. However, the physical differences must be distinguished from the cognitive ones. Cognitive differences have been brought to light (IQ scores, preference for certain activities, differences in speaking time), but nothing indicates that they are the result of any biological determinism. Many social effects come into play: gendered education, but also stereotype threat or Pygmalion effect. When (i) the very strong magnitude of these phenomena (ii) the gender differences in other types of society are considered, we can suppose that social conditioning has a central influence in gender differences; biological determinism has probably a very minor influence - or not influence at all – on the psychological differences between sexes.
The existence of two genders – in other words the creation of two categories of individuals who would be radically different depending on their sex – leads to a hierarchy of the sexes. It is difficult to imagine that sex equality can be achieved without the gender abolition: it is difficult to imagine the creation of two distinct classes of people without trying to rank them, to determine which one is the “best”. Sex should be seen for what it is: a physical trait, and nothing more.
1. Kahn-Bensaude I. La féminisation : une chance à saisir. Conseil National de l’Ordre des Médecins. 2006. Available at: http://www.conseil-national.medecin.fr/article/la-feminisation-une-chance-saisir-588. Consulté mai 5, 2011.
2. Guinche T. Fratrie recomposée : fratrie de sang et fratrie de cœur : un statut du tiers applicable aux quasi-frères/sœurs ? Caen: Université de Caen; 2008. Available at: http://www.sauvegarde56.org/uploaded/Thierry%20GUINCHE.pdf.
3. Lagesen VA. A Cyberfeminist Utopia?: Perceptions of Gender and Computer Science among Malaysian Women Computer Science Students and Faculty. Science, Technology & Human Values. 2008;33(1):5-27.
4. Othman M, Latih R. Women in computer science: no shortage here! Commun. ACM. 2006;49(3):111-114.
5. Shih C-kang. Tisese and Its Anthropological Significance : Issues around the Visiting Sexual System among the Moso. L’Homme. 2000;(154/155):697-712.
6. Luo C-L. The Gender Impact of Modernization among the Matrilineal Moso in China. 2008.
7. Kumar Utpal D, Bhola Nath G. Status Of Women In The Rural Khasi Society Of Meghalaya. Dans: Kolkata; 2007.
8. Andersen S, Ertac S, Gneezy U, List JA, Maximiano S. Gender, Competitiveness and Socialization at a Young Age: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society. 2011.
9. Gneezy U, Leonard KL, List JA. Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society. NBER Working Paper,. 2008;(13 727).
10. Mead M. Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. 1er éd. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 2001.
11. Errington F, Errington FK, Gewertz DB. Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests i Papya New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1989.
12. Nanda S. The Hijras of India: Cultural and Individual Dimensions of an Institutionalized Third Gender Role. J. of Homosexuality. 1986;11(3):35-54.
13. Condry J, Condry S. Sex differences: A study of the eye of the beholder. Child Development. 1976;47(3):812-819.
14. Denham S, Moser M. Mothers’ Attachment to Infants: Relations with Infant Temperament, Stress, and Responsive Maternal Behavior. Early Child Development & Care. 1994;98(1):1-6.
15. Laflamme D, Pomerleau A, Malcuit G. A Comparison of Fathers’ and Mothers’ Involvement in Childcare and Stimulation Behaviors During Free-Play with Their Infants at 9 and 15 Months. Sex roles. 47(11-12):507-518.
16. Ross H, Tesla C, Kenyon B, Lollis S. Maternal intervention in toddler peer conflict: The socialization of principles of justice. Developmental Psychology. 1990;26(6):994-1003.
17. Loeber R, Farrington DP. Young children who commit crime: Epidemiology, developmental origins, risk factors, early interventions, and policy implications. Develop. Psychopathol. 2000;12(4):737-762.
18. Moya M, Poeschl G, Glick P, Paez D, Fernandez Sedano I. Sexisme, masculinité-féminité et facteurs culturels. Revue internationale de psychologie sociale. 2005;18(1-2):141-167.
19. Ponthieux S, Schreiber A. Dans les couples de salariés, la répartition du travail reste inégale. Insee; 2006. Available at: http://www.insee.fr/fr/ffc/docs_ffc/donsoc06d.pdf.
20. Plisson H. Les hommes rechignent toujours aux tâches ménagères. Ipsos Public Affairs. 2005. Available at: http://www.ipsos.fr/ipsos-public-affairs/actualites/hommes-rechignent-toujours-aux-taches-menageres. Consulté mai 11, 2011.
21. Synthèse : les inégalités entre les femmes et les hommes en France et en Europe. Observatoire des inégalités. 2011. Available at: http://www.inegalites.fr/spip.php?article1400.
22. Spelke ES. Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science?: A Critical Review. American Psychologist. 2005;60(9):950-958.
23. Wallentin M. Putative sex differences in verbal abilities and language cortex: A critical review. Brain and Language. 2009;108(3):175-183.
24. Bishop KM, Wahlsten D. Sex Differences in the Human Corpus Callosum: Myth or Reality? Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 1997;21(5):581-601.