Sex and gender

Sex and gender are not interchangeable terms and they do not mean the same thing. Sex refers to our physical realities, e.g. being born male or female, our anatomy or physical characteristics. Gender refers to the economic, social and cultural attributes, roles and opportunities which determine what is expected, allowed and valued in a woman/man and girl/boy.

Characteristics, emotions and behaviours that people generally associate with being male or female are learned through socialisation and commonly referred to as “masculinity” and “femininity”. Masculinity and femininity are often seen as being completely different from and opposed to one another. For example, in many Western societies, traditional male gender roles promote being active, aggressive and expressive of anger but not sadness while feminine gender roles promote being passive, compliant and expressive of sadness but not anger.

Gender is often a defining aspect of individual identity and influences many aspects of our lives. We behave in ways that others encourage and not in ways that others discourage based on ideas of what it means to be a boy or girl or a man or woman. People are treated differently from birth because of their sex, for example when male babies are dressed in blue pants and female babies are dressed in pink dresses. Gender is also a factor to consider when examining the power and social relations between persons of a different sex and the same sex.

Ideas that we have developed about gender are not fixed, as they evolve through social interactions and vary between cultures and over time. For example, over the past few decades the proportion of women working in the paid economy in Western societies has become more balanced as people accepted the idea of women working outside the home (though there are still significant gender gaps in the labour force). Many people today would also find it hard to believe that pink was considered a strong, masculine colour more appropriate for boys in the United States one hundred years ago and that in 16th century France high heels were considered masculine and worn by many men.

To promote gender equality and equal opportunities for the achievement of important goals in society we can learn to recognise stereotypes and prejudices that we have based on gender and equally value the contributions of males and females and our similarities and differences.


Early Gender Socialization
This UNICEF page explains why early gender socialisation is one of the most pertinent issues in early childhood, affecting both boys and girls.

Male and female ability differences down to socialisation, not genetics
Behavioural differences between the sexes are not hard-wired at birth but are the result of society's expectations, say scientists.

When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?
This article gives a history of gender and children's clothing in the United States, discussing how colours have changed and the role of consumerism and the media.