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25.1: Introduction

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    This module discusses gender and its related concepts, including sex, gender roles, gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexism. In addition, this module includes a discussion of differences that exist between males and females and how these real gender differences compare to the stereotypes society holds about gender differences. In fact, there are significantly fewer real gender differences than one would expect relative to the large number of stereotypes about gender differences. This module then discusses theories of how gender roles develop and how they contribute to strong expectations for gender differences. Finally, the module concludes with a discussion of some of the consequences of relying on and expecting gender differences, such as gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and ambivalent sexism.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Gender refers to the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that are associated with masculinity and femininity. [“Uniquely Bhutanese” by Michael Foley/Flickr is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

    Before we discuss gender in detail, it is important to understand what gender actually is. The terms sex and gender are frequently used interchangeably, though they have different meanings. In this context, sex refers to the biological category of male or female, as defined by physical differences in genetic composition and in reproductive anatomy and function. On the other hand, gender refers to the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that are associated with masculinity and femininity (Wood & Eagly, 2002). You can think of “male” and “female” as distinct categories of sex (a person is typically born a male or a female), but “masculine” and “feminine” as continuums associated with gender (every- one has a certain degree of masculine and feminine traits and qualities).

    Beyond sex and gender, there are a number of related terms that are also often misunderstood. Gender roles are the behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits that are designated as either masculine or feminine in a given culture. It is common to think of gender roles in terms of gender stereotypes, or the beliefs and expectations people hold about the typical characteristics, preferences, and behaviors of men and women. A person’s gender identity refers to their psychological sense of being male or female. In contrast, a person’s sexual orientation is the direction of their emotional and erotic attraction toward members of the opposite sex, the same sex, or both sexes. These are important distinctions, and although we will not discuss each of these terms in detail, it is import- ant to recognize that sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation do not always correspond with one another. A person can be biologically male but have a female gender identity while being attracted to women, or any other combination of identities and orientations.


    In recent years, there has been much cultural and political debate over the right of transgender individuals to use the public bathroom of their choosing. This debate made major headlines in 2016 when North Carolina passed the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act (commonly called House Bill 2 or HB2). This law required individuals to use the restroom that corresponded with their birth sex, meaning that transgender individuals could not use the bathroom that matched their gender identity. This law and the similar “bathroom bills” proposed by other states were met with widespread controversy, with opponents arguing that they were discriminatory and perpetuated inequality (Barnett et al., 2018). HB2 has since been repealed, but many states still do not protect the rights of transgender individuals to use their restrooms of choice. ■

    This page titled 25.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.

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