Lorber Describes Gender Assignments

Lorber. “Night to his Day”: The Social Construction of Gender

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“Night to his Day”:
The Social Construction of Gender Judith Lorber

Excerpts from: Paradoxes of Gender (Chapter 1) by Judith Lorber, ©1994 Yale University Press.

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Talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water. Gender is so much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted assumptions and presuppositions is like wondering about whether the sun will come up.1 Gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes. Most people find it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of social life, and is the texture and order of that social life. Yet gender, like culture, is a human production that depends on everyone constantly “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987).

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And everyone “does gender” without thinking about it. Today, on the subway, I saw a well-dressed man with a year-old child in a stroller. Yesterday, on a bus, I saw a man with a tiny baby in a carrier on his chest. Seeing men taking care of small children in public is increasingly common-at least in New York City. But both men were quite obviously stared at – and smiled at, approvingly. Everyone was doing gender – the men who were changing the role of fathers and the other passengers, who were applauding them silently. But there was more gendering going on that probably fewer people noticed. The baby was wearing a white crocheted cap and white clothes. You couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. The child in the stroller was wearing a dark blue T-shirt and dark print pants. As they started to leave the train, the father put a Yankee baseball cap on the child’s head. Ah, a boy, I thought. Then I noticed the gleam of tiny earrings in the child’s ears, and as they got off, I saw the little flowered sneakers and lace-trimmed socks. Not a boy after all. Gender done.

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Gender is such a familiar part of daily life that it usually takes a deliberate disruption of our expectations of how women and men are supposed to act to pay attention to how it is produced. Gender signs and signals are so ubiquitous that we usually fail to note them – unless they are missing or ambiguous. Then we are uncomfortable until we have successfully placed the other person in a gender status; otherwise, we feel socially dislocated. In our society, in addition to man and woman, the status can be transvestite (a person who dresses in opposite-gender clothes) and transsexual (a person who has had sex-change surgery). Transvestites and transsexuals carefully construct their gender status by dressing, speaking, walking, gesturing in the ways prescribed for women or men whichever they want to be taken for – and so does any “normal” person.

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For the individual, gender construction starts with assignment to a sex category on the basis of what the genitalia look like at birth.2 Then babies are dressed or adorned in a way that displays the category because parents don’t want to be constantly asked whether their baby is a girl or a boy. A sex category becomes a gender status through naming, dress, and the use of other gender markers. Once a child’s gender is evident, others treat those in one gender differently from those in the other, and the children respond to the different treatment by feeling different and behaving differently. As soon as they can talk, they start to refer to themselves as members of their gender. Sex doesn’t come into play again until puberty, but by that time, sexual feelings and desires and practices have been shaped by gendered norms and expectations. Adolescent boys and girls approach and avoid each other in an elaborately scripted and gendered mating dance.

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Parenting is gendered, with different expectations for mothers and for fathers, and people of different genders work at different kinds of jobs. The work adults do as mothers and fathers and as low-level workers and high-level bosses, shapes women’s and men’s life experiences, and these experiences produce different feelings, consciousness, relationships, skills – ways of being that we call feminine or masculine.3 All of these processes constitute the social construction of

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Gendered roles change – today fathers are taking care of little children, girls and boys are wearing unisex clothing and getting the same education, women and men are working at the same jobs. Although many traditional social groups are quite strict about maintaining gender differences, in other social groups they seem to be blurring. Then why the one-year-old’s earrings? Why is it still so important to mark a child as a girl or a boy, to make sure she is not taken for a boy or he for a girl? What would happen if they were? They would, quite literally, have changed places in their social world.

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To explain why gendering is done from birth, constantly and by everyone, we have to look not only at the way individuals experience gender but at gender as a social institution. As a social institution, gender is one of the major ways that human beings organize their lives. Human society depends on a predictable division of labor, a designated allocation of scarce goods, assigned responsibility for children and others who cannot care for themselves, common values and their systematic transmission to new members, legitimate leadership, music, art, stories, games, and other symbolic productions. One way of choosing people for the different tasks of society is on the basis of their talents, motivations, and competence – their demonstrated achievements. The other way is on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity – ascribed membership in a category of people. Although societies vary in the extent to which they use one or the other of these ways of allocating people to work and to carry out other responsibilities, every society uses gender and age grades. Every society classifies people as “girl and boy children,” “girls and boys ready to be married,” and “fully adult women and men,” constructs similarities among them and differences between them, and assigns them to different roles and responsibilities. Personality characteristics, feelings, motivations, and ambitions flow from these different life experiences so that the members of these different groups become different kinds of people. The process of gendering and its outcome are legitimated by religion, law, science, and the society’s entire set of values.

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Western society’s values legitimate gendering by claiming that it all comes from physiology – female and male procreative differences. But gender and sex are not equivalent, and gender as a social construction does not flow automatically from genitalia and reproductive organs, the main physiological differences of females and males. In the construction of ascribed social statuses, physiological differences such as sex, stage of development, color of skin, and size are crude markers. They are not the source of the social statuses of gender, age grade, and race. Social statuses are carefully constructed through prescribed processes of teaching, learning, emulation, and enforcement. Whatever genes, hormones, and biological evolution contribute to human social institutions is materially as well as qualitatively transformed by social practices. Every social institution has a material base, but culture and social practices transform that base into something with qualitatively different patterns and constraints. The economy is much more than producing food and goods and distributing them to eaters and users; family and kinship are not the equivalent of having sex and procreating; morals and religions cannot be equated with the fears and ecstasies of the brain; language goes far beyond the sounds produced by tongue and larynx. No one eats “money” or “credit”; the concepts of “god” and “angels” are the subjects of theological disquisitions; not only words but objects, such as their flag, “speak” to the citizens of a country.

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Similarly, gender cannot be equated with biological and physiological differences between human females and males. The building blocks of gender are socially constructed statuses. Western societies have only two genders, “man” and “woman.” Some societies have three genders-men, women, and berdaches or hijras or xaniths. Berdaches, hijras, and xaniths are biological males who behave, dress, work, and are treated in most respects as social women; they are therefore not men, nor are they female women; they are, in our language, “male women. “4 There are African and American Indian societies that have a gender status called manly hearted women – biological females who work, marry, and parent as men; their social status is “female men” (Amadiume 1987; Blackwood 1984). They do not have to behave or dress as men to have the social responsibilities and prerogatives of husbands and fathers; what makes them men is enough wealth to buy a wife.

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Modern Western societies’ transsexuals and transvestites are the nearest equivalent of these crossover genders, but they are not institutionalized as third genders (Bolin 1987). Transsexuals are biological males and females who have sex-change operations to alter their genitalia. They do so in order to bring their physical anatomy in congruence with the way they want to live and with their own sense of gender identity. They do not become a third gender; they change genders. Transvestites are males who live as women and females who live as men but do not intend to have sex-change surgery. Their dress, appearance, and mannerisms fall within the range of what is expected from members of the opposite gender, so that they “pass.” They also change genders, sometimes temporarily, some for most of their lives. Transvestite women have fought in wars as men soldiers as recently as the nineteenth century; some married women, and others went back to being women and married men once the war was over.5 Some were discovered when their wounds were treated; others not until they died. In order to work as a jazz musician, a man’s occupation, Billy Tipton, a woman, lived most of her life as a man. She died recently at seventy-four, leaving a wife and three adopted sons for whom she was husband and father, and musicians with whom she had played and traveled, for whom she was “one of the boys” (New York Times 1989).6 There have been many other such occurrences of women passing as men to do more prestigious or lucrative men’s work (Matthaei 1982, 192-93).7

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Genders, therefore, are not attached to a biological substratum. Gender boundaries are breachable, and individual and socially organized shifts from one gender to another call attention to “cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances” (Garber 1992, 16). These odd or deviant or third genders show us what we ordinarily take for granted – that people have to learn to be women and men. Men who cross-dress for performances or for pleasure often learn from women’s magazines how to “do” femininity convincingly (Garber 1992, 41-51). Because transvestism is direct evidence of how gender is constructed, Marjorie Garber claims it has “extraordinary
power… to disrupt, expose, and challenge, putting in question the very notion of the ‘original’ and of stable identity” (1992, 16) …

For Individuals, Gender Means Sameness

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Although the possible combinations of genitalia, body shapes, clothing, mannerisms, sexuality, and roles could produce infinite varieties in human beings, the social institution of gender depends on the production and maintenance of a limited number of gender statuses and of making the members of these statuses similar to each other. Individuals are born sexed but not gendered, and they have to be taught to be masculine or feminine.8 As Simone de Beauvoir said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman…; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature… which is described as feminine” (1952, 267) ….

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Sandra Bem (1981, 1983) argues that because gender is a powerful “schema” that orders the cognitive world, one must wage a constant, active battle for a child not to fall into typical gendered attitudes and behavior. In 1972, Ms. Magazine published Lois Gould’s fantasy of how to raise a child free of gender-typing. The experiment calls for hiding the child’s anatomy from all eyes except the parents’ and treating the child as neither a girl nor a boy. The child, called X, gets to do all the things boys and girls do. The experiment is so successful that all the children in X’s class at school want to look and behave like X. At the end of the story, the creators of the experiment are asked what will happen when X grows up. The scientists’ answer is that by then it will be quite clear what X is, implying that its hormones will kick in and it will be revealed as a female or male. That ambiguous, and somewhat contradictory, ending lets Gould off the hook; neither she nor we have any idea what someone brought up in a totally androgynous manner would be like sexually or socially as an adult. The hormonal input will not create gender or sexuality but will only establish secondary sex characteristics; breasts, beards, and menstruation alone do not produce social manhood or womanhood. Indeed, it is at puberty, when sex characteristics become evident, that most societies put pubescent children through their most important rites of passage, the rituals that officially mark them as fully gendered – that is, ready to marry and become adults.

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Most parents create a gendered world for their newborn by naming, birth announcements, and dress. Children’s relationships with same-gendered and different-gendered caretakers structure their self-identifications and personalities. Through cognitive development, children extract and apply to their own actions the appropriate behavior for those who belong in their own gender, as well as race, religion, ethnic group, and social class, rejecting what is not appropriate. If their social categories are highly valued, they value themselves highly; if their social categories are of low status, they lose self-esteem (Chodorow 1974). Many feminist parents who want to raise androgynous children soon lose their children to the pull of gendered norms (Gordon 1990, 87-90). My son attended a carefully nonsexist elementary school, which didn’t even have girls’ and boys’ bathrooms. When he was seven or eight years old, I attended a class play about “squares” and “circles” and their need for each other and noticed that all the girl squares and circles wore makeup, but none of the boy squares and circles did. I asked the teacher about it after the play, and she said, “Bobby said he was not going to wear makeup, and he is a powerful child, so none of the boys would either.” In a long discussion about conformity, my son confronted me with the question of who the conformists were, the boys who followed their leader or the girls who listened to the woman teacher. In actuality, they both were, because they both followed same-gender leaders and acted in gender-appropriate ways. (Actors may wear makeup, but real boys don’t.)

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For human beings there is no essential femaleness or maleness, femininity or masculinity, womanhood or manhood, but once gender is ascribed, the social order constructs and holds individuals to strongly gendered norms and expectations. Individuals may vary on many of the components of gender and may shift genders temporarily or permanently, but they must fit into the limited number of gender statuses their society recognizes. In the process, they re-create their society’s version of women and men: “If we do gender appropriately, we simultaneously sustain, reproduce, and render legitimate the institutional arrangements …. If we fail to do gender appropriately, we as individuals – not the institutional arrangements – may be called to account (for our character, motives, and predispositions)” (West and Zimmerman 1987, 146).

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The gendered practices of everyday life reproduce a society’s view of how women and men should act. Gendered social arrangements are justified by religion and cultural productions and backed by law, but the most powerful means of sustaining the moral hegemony of the dominant gender ideology is that the process is made invisible; any possible alternatives are virtually unthinkable (Foucault 1972; Gramsci 1971).10

For Society, Gender Means Difference

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The pervasiveness of gender as a way of structuring social life demands that gender statuses be clearly differentiated. Varied talents, sexual preferences, identities, personalities, interests, and ways of interacting fragment the individual’s bodily and social experiences. Nonetheless, these are organized in Western cultures into two and only two socially and legally recognized gender statuses, “man” and “woman.”11 In the social construction of gender, it does not matter what men and women actually do; it does not even matter if they do exactly the same thing. The social institution of gender insists only that what they do is perceived as different.

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If men and women are doing the same tasks, they are usually spatially segregated to maintain gender separation, and often the tasks are given different job titles as well, such as executive secretary and administrative assistant (Reskin 1988). If the differences between women and men begin to blur, society’s “sameness taboo” goes into action (Rubin 1975, 178). At a rock and roll dance at West Point in 1976, the year women were admitted to the prestigious military academy for the first time, the school’s administrators “were reportedly perturbed by the sight of mirror-image couples dancing in short hair and dress gray trousers,” and a rule was established that women cadets could dance at these events only if they wore skirts (Barkalow and Raab 1990, 53).12 Women recruits in the U.S. Marine Corps are required to wear makeup – at a minimum, lipstick and eye shadow – and they have to take classes in makeup, hair care, poise, and etiquette. This feminization is part of a deliberate policy of making them clearly distinguishable from men Marines. Christine Williams quotes a twenty-five-year-old woman drill instructor as saying, “A lot of the recruits who come here don’t wear makeup; they’re tomboyish or athletic. A lot of them have the preconceived idea that going into the military means they can still be a tomboy. They don’t realize that you are a Woman Marine” (1989,

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If gender differences were genetic, physiological, or hormonal, gender bending and gender ambiguity would occur only in hermaphrodites, who are born with chromosomes and genitalia that are not clearly female or male. Since gender differences are socially constructed, all men and all women can enact the behavior of the other, because they know the other’s social script: “‘Man’ and ‘woman’ are at once empty and overflowing categories. Empty because they have no ultimate, transcendental meaning. Overflowing because even when they appear to be fixed, they still contain within them alternative, denied, or suppressed definitions” (Scott 1988a, 49). Nonetheless, though individuals may be able to shift gender statuses, the gender boundaries have to hold, or the whole gendered social order will come crashing down…

Gender as Process, Stratification, and Structure

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As a social institution, gender is a process of creating distinguishable social statuses for the assignment of rights and responsibilities. As part of a stratification system that ranks these statuses unequally, gender is a major building block in the social structures built on these unequal statuses.

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As a process, gender creates the social differences that define “woman” and “man.” In social interaction throughout their lives, individuals learn what is expected, see what is expected, act and react in expected ways, and thus simultaneously construct and maintain the gender order: “The very injunction to be a given gender takes place through discursive routes: to be a good mother, to be a heterosexually desirable object, to be a fit worker, in sum, to signify a multiplicity of guarantees in response to a variety of different demands all at once” (Butler 1990, 145). Members of a social group neither make up gender as they go along nor exactly replicate in rote fashion what was done before. In almost every encounter, human beings produce gender, behaving in the ways they learned were appropriate for their gender status, or resisting or rebelling against these norms. Resistance and rebellion have altered gender norms, but so far they have rarely eroded the statuses.

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Gendered patterns of interaction acquire additional layers of gendered sexuality, parenting, and work behaviors in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Gendered norms and expectations are enforced through informal sanctions of gender-inappropriate behavior by peers and by formal punishment or threat of punishment by those in authority should behavior deviate too far from socially imposed standards for women and men.

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Everyday gendered interactions build gender into the family, the work process, and other organizations and institutions, which in turn reinforce gender expectations for individuals.14
Because gender is a process, there is room not only for modification and variation by individuals and small groups but also for institutionalized change (Scott 1988, 7).

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As part of a stratification system, gender ranks men above women of the same race and class. Women and men could be different but equal. In practice, the process of creating difference depends to a great extent on differential evaluation. As Nancy Jay (1981) says: “That which is defined, separated out, isolated from all else is A and pure. Not-A is necessarily impure, a random catchall, to which nothing is external except A and the principle of order that separates it from Not-A” (45). From the individual’s point of view, whichever gender is A, the other is
Not-A; gender boundaries tell the individual who is like him or her, and all the rest are unlike. From society’s point of view, however, one gender is usually the touchstone, the normal, the dominant, and the other is different, deviant, and subordinate. In Western society, “man” is A, “woman” is Not-A. (Consider what a society would be like where woman was A and man

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The further dichotomization by race and class constructs the gradations of a heterogeneous society’s stratification scheme. Thus, in the United States, white is A, African American is Not-A; middle class is A, working class is Not-A, and “African-American women occupy a position whereby the inferior half of a series of these dichotomies converge” (Collins 1990, 70). The dominant categories are the hegemonic ideals, taken so for granted as the way things should be that white is not ordinarily thought of as a race, middle class as a class, or men as a gender. The characteristics of these categories define the Other as that which lacks the valuable qualities the dominants exhibit.

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Societies vary in the extent of the inequality in social status of their women and men members, but where there is inequality, the status “woman” (and its attendant behavior and role allocations) is usually held in lesser esteem than the status “man.” Since gender is also intertwined with a society’s other constructed statuses of differential evaluation – race, religion, occupation, class, country of origin, and so on – men and women members of the favored groups command more power, more prestige, and more property than the members of the disfavored groups. Within many social groups, however, men are advantaged over women. The more economic resources, such as education and job opportunities, are available to a group, the more they tend to be monopolized by men. In poorer groups that have few resources (such as working-class African Americans in the United States), women and men are more nearly equal, and the women may even outstrip the men in education and occupational status (Almquist 1987).

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As a structure, gender divides work in the home and in economic production, legitimates those in authority, and organizes sexuality and emotional life (Connell 1987, 91-142). As primary parents, women significantly influence children’s psychological development and emotional attachments, in the process reproducing gender. Emergent sexuality is shaped by heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and sadomasochistic patterns that are gendered-different for girls and boys, and for women and men – so that sexual statuses reflect gender statuses.

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When gender is a major component of structured inequality, the devalued genders have less power, prestige, and economic rewards than the valued genders. In countries that discourage gender discrimination, many major roles are still gendered; women still do most of the domestic labor and child rearing, even while doing full-time paid work; women and men are segregated on the job and each does work considered “appropriate”; women’s work is usually paid less than men’s work. Men dominate the positions of authority and leadership in government, the military, and the law; cultural productions, religions, and sports reflect men’s interests.

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Gender inequality – the devaluation of “women” and the social domination of “men” – has social functions and a social history. It is not the result of sex, procreation, physiology, anatomy, hormones, or genetic predispositions. It is produced and maintained by identifiable social processes and built into the general social structure and individual identities deliberately and purposefully. The social order as we know it in Western societies is organized around racial ethnic, class, and gender inequality. I contend, therefore, that the continuing purpose of gender as a modern social institution is to construct women as a group to be the subordinates of men as a group. The life of everyone placed in the status “woman” is “night to his day-that has forever been the fantasy. Black to his white. Shut out of his system’s space, she is the repressed that ensures the system’s functioning” (Cixous and Clement [19751 1986, 67)…

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There is no core or bedrock human nature below these endlessly looping processes of the social production of sex and gender, self and other identity and psyche, each of which is a “complex cultural construction” (Butler 1990, 36). For humans, the social is the natural. Therefore, “in its feminist senses, gender cannot mean simply the cultural appropriation of biological sexual difference. Sexual difference is itself a fundamental – an scientifically contested – construction. Both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are woven of multiple, asymmetrical strands of difference, charged with multifaceted dramatic narratives of domination and struggle” (Haraway 1990, 140).

This page is a resource explaining general sociological concepts of sex and gender. The examples I cover are focused on experiences of otherness.

In sociology, we make a distinction between sex and gender. Sex are the biological traits that societies use to assign people into the category of either male or female, whether it be through a focus on chromosomes, genitalia or some other physical ascription. When people talk about the differences between men and women they are often drawing on sex – on rigid ideas of biology – rather than gender, which is an understanding of how society shapes our understanding of those biological categories.

Gender is more fluid – it may or may not depend upon biological traits. More specifically, it is a concept that describes how societies determine and manage sex categories; the cultural meanings attached to men and women’s roles; and how individuals understand their identities including, but not limited to, being a man, woman, transgender, intersex, gender queer and other gender positions. Gender involves social norms, attitudes and activities that society deems more appropriate for one sex over another. Gender is also determined by what an individual feels and does.

The sociology of gender examines how society influences our understandings and perception  of differences between masculinity (what society deems appropriate behaviour for a “man”) and femininity (what society deems appropriate behaviour for a “woman”). We examine how this, in turn, influences identity and social practices. We pay special focus on the power relationships that follow from the established gender order in a given society, as well as how this changes over time.

Sex and gender do not always align. Cis-gender describes people whose biological body they were born into matches their personal gender identity. This experience is distinct from being transgender, which is where one’s biological sex does not align with their gender identity. Transgender people will undergo a gender transition that may involve changing their dress and self-presentation (such as a name change). Transgender people may undergo hormone therapy to facilitate this process, but not all trasngender people will undertake surgery. Intersexuality describes variations on sex definitions related to ambiguous genitalia, gonads, sex organs, chromosomes or hormones. Transgender and intersexuality are gender categories, not sexualities. Transgender and intersexual people have varied sexual practices, attractions and identities as do cis-gender people.

People can also choose to be gender queer, by either drawing on several gender positions or otherwise not identifying with any specific gender (nonbinary); or they may choose to move across genders (gender fluid); or they may reject gender categories altogether (agender). The third gender is often used by social scientists to describe cultures that accept non-binary gender positions (see the Two Spirit people below).

Sexuality is different again; it is about sexual attraction, sexual practices and identity. Just as sex and gender don’t always align, neither does gender and sexuality. People can identify along a wide spectrum of sexualities from heterosexual, to gay or lesbian, to bisexual, to queer, and so on. Asexuality is a term used when individuals do not feel sexual attraction. Some asexual people might still form romantic relationships without sexual contact.

Regardless of sexual experience, sexual desire and behaviours can change over time, and sexual identities may or may not shift as a result.

Gender and sexuality are not just personal identities; they are social identities. They arise from our relationships to other people, and they depend upon social interaction and social recognition. As such, they influence how we understand ourselves in relation to others.


The definition of sex (the categories of man versus woman) as we know them today comes from the advent of modernity. With the rise of industrialisation came better technologies and more faster modes of travel and communication. This assisted the rapid diffusion of ideas across the medical world.

Sex roles describes the tasks and functions perceived to be ideally suited to masculinity versus femininity. Sex roles have converged across many (though not all) cultures due to colonial practices and also due to industrialisation. These roles were different prior to the industrial revolution, when men and women worked alongside one another on farms, doing similar tasks. Entrenched gender inequality is a product of modernity. It’s not that inequality did not exist before, it’s that inequality within the home in relation to family life was not as pronounced.

In the 19th Century, biomedical science largely converged around Western European practices and ideas. Biological definitions of the body arose where they did not exist before, drawing on Victorian values. The essentialist ideas that people attach to man and woman exist only because of this cultural history. This includes the erroneous ideas that sex:

  • Is pre-determined in the womb;
  • Defined by anatomy which in turn determines sexual identity and desire;
  • Differences are all connected to reproductive functions;
  • Identities are immutable; and that
  • Deviations from dominant ideas of male/female must be “unnatural.”

As I show further below, there is more variation across cultures when it comes to what is considered “normal” for men and women, thus highlighting the ethnocentric basis of sex categories. Ethnocentric ideas define and judge practices according to one’s own culture, rather than understanding cultural practices vary and should be viewed by local standards.

Social Construction of Gender

Gender, like all social identities, is socially constructed. Social constructionism is one of the key theories sociologists use to put gender into historical and cultural focus. Social constructionism is a social theory about how meaning is created through social interaction – through the things we do and say with other people. This theory shows that gender it is not a fixed or innate fact, but instead it varies across time and place.

Gender norms (the socially acceptable ways of acting out gender) are learned from birth through childhood socialisation. We learn what is expected of our gender from what our parents teach us, as well as what we pick up at school, through religious or cultural teachings, in the media, and various other social institutions.

Gender experiences will evolve over a person’s lifetime. Gender is therefore always in flux. We see this through generational and intergenerational changes within families, as social, legal and technological changes influence social values on gender. Australian sociologist, Professor Raewyn Connell, describes gender as a social structure – a higher order category that society uses to organise itself:

Gender is the structure of social relations that centres on the reproductive arena, and the set of practices (governed by this structure) that bring reproductive distinctions between bodies into social processes. To put it informally, gender concerns the way human society deals with human bodies, and the many consequences of that “deal” in our personal lives and our collective fate.

Like all social identities, gender identities are dialectical: they involve at least two sets of actors referenced against one another: “us” versus “them.” In Western culture, this means “masculine” versus “feminine.” As such, gender is constructed around notions of Otherness: the “masculine” is treated as the default human experience by social norms,  the law and other social institutions. Masculinities are rewarded over and above femininities. Men in general are paid better than women; they enjoy more sexual and social freedom; and they have other benefits that women do not by virtue of their gender. There are variations across race, class, sexuality, and according to disability and other socio-economic measures.


Raewyn Connell defines masculinity as a broad set of processes which include gender relations and gender practices between men and women and “the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture.” Connell argues that culture dictates ways of being masculine and “unmasculine.” She argues that there are several masculinities operating within any one cultural context, and some of these masculinities are:

  • hegemonic;
  • subordinate;
  • compliant; and
  • marginalised.

In Western societies, gender power is held by White, highly educated, middle-class, able-bodied heterosexual men whose gender represents hegemonic masculinity – the ideal to which other masculinities must interact with, conform to, and challenge. Hegemonic masculinity rests on tacit acceptance. It is not enforced through direct violence; instead, it exists as a cultural “script” that are familiar to us from our socialisation. The hegemonic ideal is exemplied in movies which venerate White heterosexual heroes, as well as in sports, where physical prowess is given special cultural interest and authority. A 2014 event between the Australian and New Zealand ruby teams shows that racism, culture, history and power complicate how hegemonic masculinities play our and understood.

Masculinities are constructed in relation to existing social hierarchies relating to class, race, age and so on. Hegemonic masculinities rest upon social context, and so they reflect the social inequalities of the cultures they embody.

Similarly, counter-hegemonic masculinities signify a contest of power between different types of masculinities. As Connell argues:

“The terms “masculine” and “feminine” point beyond categorical sex difference to the ways men differ among themselves, and women differ among themselves, in matters of gender.”

Sociologist CJ Pascoe finds that young working-class American boys police masculinity through jokes exemplified by the phrase, “Dude, you’re a fag.” Boys are called “fags” (derogative word for homosexual) not because they are gay, but when they engage in behaviour outside the gender norm (“un-masculine”). This includes dancing; taking “too much” care with their appearance; being too expressive with their emotions; or being perceived as incompetent. Being gay was more acceptable than being a man who did not fit with the hegemonic ideal – but being gay and “unmasculine” was completely unacceptable. One of the gay boys in Pascoe’s study was bullied so much for his dancing and clothing (wearing “women’s clothes”) that he was eventually forced to drop out of school. The school’s poor management of this incident is an unfortunately all-too-common example of how everyday policing of gender between peers and inequality within institutions reinforce one another.


Judith Lorber and Susan Farrell argue that the social constructionist perspective on gender explores the taken-for-granted assumptions about what it means to be “male” and “female,” “feminine” and “masculine.” They explain:

women and men are not automatically compared; rather, gender categories (female-male, feminine-masculine, girls-boys, women-men) are analysed to see how different social groups define them, and how they construct and maintain them in everyday life and in major social institutions, such as the family and the economy.

Femininity is constructed through patriarchal ideas. This means that femininity is always set up as inferior to men. As a result, women as a group lack the same level of cultural power as men. Women do have agency to resist these ideals. Women can actively challenge gender norms by refusing to let patriarchy define how they portray and reconstruct their femininity. This can be done by rejecting cultural scripts. For example:

As women do not have cultural power, there is no version of hegemonic femininity to rival hegemonic masculinity. There are, however, dominant ideals of doing femininity, which favour White, heterosexual, middle-class cis-women who are able-bodied. Minority women do not enjoy the same social privileges in comparison.

The popular idea that women do not get ahead because they lack confidence ignores the intersections of inequality. Women are now being told that they should simply “lean in” and ask for more help at work and at home. “Leaning in” is a limited way of overcoming gender inequality only if you’re a White woman already thriving in the corporate world, by fitting in with the existing gender order. Women who want to challenge this masculine logic, even by asking for a pay rise, are impeded from reaching their potential.

Some White, middle-class, heterosexual cis-women may be better positioned to “lean in,” but minority women with less power are not; they’re fighting sexism and racism and class discrimination all at once.

Cross-national studies show that social policy plays a significant role in minimising gender inequality, especially where publicly funded childcare frees up women to fully participate in paid work. Cultural variations of gender across time and place also demonstrate that gender change is possible.

Transgender and Intersex Australians

Nationally representative figures drawing on random samples do not exist for transgender people in Australia. The Sex in Australia Study organised a sub-set of questions to address transgender or intersex issues, but these were not used as no one in their survey specified that they were part of these groups. The researchers think that transgender and intersex Australians either nominated themselves broadly as woman or men, and as either heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual. Alternatively, transgender and intersex Australians may have declined to participate in the survey. The researchers note that around one in 1,000 Australians are transgender or intersex. The Private Lives study, which surveyed over 3,800 LGBT Australians finds that 4.4% identify as transgender (and a further 3% prefer another term to describe their sex/gender other than male, female or transgender).

American and British estimates are no more exact. Smaller or specialised surveys on issues such as surveillance and tobacco estimate that between 0.2% and 0.5% of Americans are transgender, while surveys in the UK identify that up to 0.1% of the population has began or undergone gender transition (noting this does not capture other people who may be considering transgender options).

The research on transgenderism shows that transgender people face various gender inequalities. They lack access to adequate healthcare; they are at a high risk of experiencing mental illness as a result of family rejection, bullying and social exclusion; and they face high rates of sexual harassment. They also face much discrimination from doctors, police, and other authority groups. Work colleagues discriminate against transgender people through informal channels, by telling them how to dress and how to act. Employers discriminate in tacit ways, which might manifest as gender bias leading managers to question how gender transition may impact on work productivity. Employers also discriminate in overt ways, by promoting and affirming transgender men only when they conform to hegemonic masculinity ideals, and generally holding back or otherwise punishing transgender women. Feminism has yet to fully embrace transgender inclusion as a feminist cause. Transgender advocacy groups have made great strides to increase visibility and rights of transgender people. Nevertheless, mainstream feminism’s reticence to take up transgender issues serves only to perpetuate gender inequality.

Intersex people have been, up until recently, heavily defined in popular culture by largely damaging ideas from medical science. Practitioners tend to present intersex conditions through a pathological lens, often leaving individuals and families feeling that they have little choice other than surgical intervention to “correct” gender. Sharon Preves’s research shows that medical interventions often have devastating effects on gender identity and sometimes on sexual function. Girls with an enlarged clitoris or boys with a micro-penis are judged by doctors to have an ambiguous sex and might be operated on early in life. What is meant to be a cosmetic fix to make bodies “normal” can sometimes lead to harmful self-doubt and relationship problems for some intersex people. Others do not experience such trauma, and they feel more supported especially when parents and families are more open to discussing intersexuality rather than hiding the condition. Much like transgender people, intersex people have also been largely ignored by mainstream feminism, which only amplifies their experience of gender inequality.

Gender Across Time and Place

Behaviours that come to be understood as masculine and feminine vary across cultures and they change over time. As such, the way in which we understand gender here and now in the city of Melbourne, Australia, is slightly different to the way in which gender is judged in other parts of Australia, such as in rural Victoria, or in Indigenous cultures in remote regions of Australia, or in Lima, Peru, or Victorian era England, and so on. Still, the notion of difference, of otherness, is central to the social organisation of gender. As Judith Lorber and Susan Farrell argue:

“What stays constant is that women and men have to be distinguishable” (my emphasis).

Gender does not look so familiar when we look at other cultures – including our own cultures, back in time. Here are two examples where hegemonic masculinity (issues of gender and power) look very different to what we’ve become accustomed to in Western nations. Let’s start with an historical example from Western culture.

16th Century Europe

European nations have not always adhered to the same ideas about feminine and masculine. As I noted a few years ago, aristocratic men in Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries wore elaborate high-heeled shoes to demonstrate their wealth. The shoes were impractical and difficult to walk in, but they were both a status symbol as well as a sign of masculinity and power. In Western cultures, women did not begin wearing high heeled shoes until the mid-19th Century. Their introduction was not about social status or power, but rather it was a symptom of the increasing sexualisation of women with the introduction of cameras.

The cultural variability of how people “do gender” in different parts of the world demonstrates the cultural specificity of gender norms. Gender has different norms at different places at different points in time. The Wodaabe nomads from Niger are a case in point.

Wodaabe (Niger)

Wodaabe men will dress up during a special ceremony in order to attract a wife. They wear make-up to show off their features; they wear their best outfits, adorned with jewellery; and they bare their teeth and dance before the single women in their village. To the Western eye, these men may appear feminine, as Western culture associates make up and ornamental body routines with women. Yet in this pastoral culture, the men’s elaborate make-up, dress and behaviour are a show of virility. The women pick the men according to their costume and dance. This is another custom that is contrary to dominant models of gender in the West, which demand that women be more passive, and wait until a man approaches her for romantic or sexual attention.

There are various other examples of cultures and religions where gender is done in alternative ways which recognise genders beyond the binary of male/female.

“Two Spirit” (Navajo Native American)

I wrote about the “Two Spirit” People found amongst the Navajo Native American cultures, who make up two additional genders: the feminine man (nádleehí) and masculine woman (dilbaa). They are traditionally considered to be sacred beings embodying both the feminine and masculine traits of all their ancestors and nature. They are chosen by their community to represent this tradition, and once this happens, they live out their lives in the opposite gender, and can also get married (to someone of the opposite gender to their adopted gender). These couples have sex together and they may also have sex with other partners of the opposite gender. If they have children, they are accepted into the Two Spirit household without social stigma.

Female Husbands (Various African Cultures)

Over 30 cultures in African regions allow women to marry other women; they are called “female husbands.” Typically they must already be married to a man, and they are almost exclusively wealthy as they need to pay a “bride-price” (as do men who marry women). The women do not have sexual relations, it is more of a family and economic arrangement. (Human rights activists challenge this saying that because homosexuality is shrouded in secrecy, these women may not want to admit to sexual relationships; however, there is no empirical evidence to this effect.)

The Nandi people of Kenya allow this tradition. It is permissible when an older woman has not borne a son, and she will marry a woman to bear her a male heir. The “female husband” will now see herself as a man, and will abscond from feminine duties, such as carrying objects on her head, cooking and cleaning. The female husband takes on male roles, such as entertaining guests while her wife waits on them.  The Abagusii people of Western Kenya allow a female husband to take  a wife to bear her children, and the biological father has no rights over them. The Lovedu of South Africa and the Igbo of Benin and Nigeria also practice a variation of female husband, where an independently wealthy woman will continue to be a wife to her male husband, but she will set up a separate home for her wife, who will bear her children. These arrangements continue in the present-day and can be ideal for young single mothers who need security.

Amonst the Igbo Land in Southeast Nigeria, both women will continue to have sexual relations with men, however, the female husbands must do this discreetly. If she becomes pregnant, her children are considered “illegitimate” and are treated as outcasts. The children of her wife remain her responsibility and they are not shunned. The female-husband tradition preserves patriarchal structure; without an heir, women cannot inherit land or property from their family, but if her wife bears a son, the female wife is allowed to carry on the family name and pass on inheritance to her sons. Nigerian historian, Dr Kenneth Chukwuemeka Nwoko calls this arrangement a patri-matriarchy. The female husband would be left without status if she fails to produce a male heir, yet once assuming their role as husband, she receives authority over her family.

Kathoey (Thailand)

The Kathoey from Thailand are born biologically male but around half identify as women while the rest identify as “sao praphet song” (“a second kind of woman”). Alternatively, they see themselves as transgender women; and others still see themselves as a “third sex.”Monarchy rule and resistance to external colonialism led to an aggressive modernisation campaign that made traditional Kathoey gender practices more difficult. While Thailand generally has less punitive laws about homosexuality (it is not illegal to be gay), LGBTQI people do not have the same rights as heterosexual couples, and the Kathoey struggle for social recognition of their gender identity.

Kathoey (Ladyboys) – Documentary from faithjuliana on Vimeo.

While the Kathoey are tied to older gender traditions, Peter Jackson, Professor of Thai culture and history at the Australian National University, argues that present-day identities and activism amongst Kathoey are informed by both modern and global sensibilities that arose after World War II. Kathoey women have become a large tourism attraction which stands at odd with their own legal struggles as well as those of other LGBTQI people in Thailand. Jackson writes:

“My research on Thai queer genders and sexualities reveals that contemporary patterns of kathoey transgenderism are just as recent and as different from premodern forms as Thai gay sexualities, with Thailand’s kathoey cultures taking their current forms as a result of a 20th century revolution in Thai gender norms… The cultural prominence of gender in Thailand is reflected in the intense popular fascination with the transgender kathoey and the relative invisibility of Thailand’s large population of gender-normative gay men in both local and international media representations of queer Thailand.”

Celebrity Kathoey, Nok, is fighting for legal and medical support of poor and rural transgender women in Thailand. She has a Masters degree and is a successful business woman. She feels lucky to have always had her family’s support, but that did not stop her from being jailed as a youth for carrying fake female identification. She now runs a charity helping underprivileged transgender women gain access to medical treatment to support their gender transition. She is also seeking to challenge the law to recognise transgender people’s gender identity, as official documentation currently forces them to legally identify as their biological sex.

From the Documentary Ladyboys, Episode, “Celebrity Ladyboys.”

Studying Gender Sociologically

We can study how people “do” gender using ethnographic methods, such as fieldwork and observation. If we are interested in understanding how people make sense of their identities, or we want to go in-depth into their gender experiences, we would use other theories or methods, such as qualitative methods, like one-on-one interviews. If we wanted to study direct measures of gender inequality, we might use quantitative methods such as population surveys to cross-reference how people from different genders are paid at work; or we might get people to carry out time-use diaries to collect data about how much housework they do or how much time they spend doing tasks at work relative to their colleagues; and so on.

Mixed methods can be ideal when studying gender inequality. For example, in domestic labour within families, in order to “go beneath the cover story” of domestic equality and domestic labour. This might involve carrying out time use diaries in addition to interviews, or conducting extended interviews with each member of the family to get a holistic picture of how their gender identities, gender practices and family “cover story” diverge.

Learn More

Read more of my research on gender and sexuality.


To cite this article:

Zevallos, Z. (2014) ‘Sociology of Gender,’ The Other Sociologist, 28 November.

Note: This page is a living document, meaning that I will add to it over time.

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