What is the concept of gender? The answer may vary depending on one’s identity and cultural background!
When people talk about “gender,” they could be referring to grammar. In certain languages, nouns are assigned a gender, and other words in a sentence must align with that gender. For instance, nouns in Spanish are either masculine (“el”) or feminine (“la”). Some languages, like Russian or German, have three genders – masculine, feminine, and neuter.
Although learning new languages can be enjoyable, when most people discuss “gender,” they are not referring to grammar. Often, they are inquiring about a newborn baby’s gender: “Do you know the gender yet? Are you having a boy or a girl?” Alternatively, they may be asking if a certain activity is intended for one gender or open to both. In these contexts, gender typically means male or female, which is essentially biological sex. Biological sex encompasses various aspects, ranging from chromosomal makeup to physical characteristics. For instance, ultrasounds or blood tests can determine a baby’s biological sex before birth.
Gender, however, is more complex than what is determined by DNA, as it is influenced by culture. How is that possible? Consider when you meet a new friend at the park or school. How do you determine their gender? You might observe their hair, clothing, jewelry, and the toys they play with or activities they enjoy. These indicators can provide clues about their gender. For example, if someone is wearing a dress and playing with a doll, you might assume they are a girl. This assumption stems from gender norms prevalent in many communities, where girls are expected to wear dresses and play with dolls. It is important to note that not everyone conforms to these norms, but they are widely recognized and followed within a particular culture. We acquire knowledge of these gender norms through cultural immersion, and they can pose challenges for individuals who do not fit into traditional gender expectations. Have you ever been told that you shouldn’t like something because it doesn’t align with your gender? How did it make you feel?
There are a variety of cultures worldwide, each with its own unique characteristics. Even within a single country, there can be multiple cultures. Consequently, aspects like gender can vary across different locations or groups due to cultural influences. While some societies adhere to the belief that there are only two genders, male and female, other cultures, such as certain Native American and Indigenous communities, recognize the existence of three or four genders. These individuals who do not fit into traditional gender categories are often referred to as “two-spirit.” Hindu culture in India also acknowledges a third gender known as hijra, which has been an integral part of Hindu society for over two millennia.
Even within the same culture, gender norms are not fixed and unchanging. Otherwise, we would all behave and dress exactly as our ancestors did in the distant past. For instance, it used to be considered a gender norm for girls and women not to wear pants, but that norm has evolved over time. Can you think of any other gender norms that have changed or might change in the future? Are there any gender norms that you would like to see change?
Try It Out
Invite a friend or adult family member to participate in one or more of these activities:
1. Reflect on the people you know and the jobs they have. Consider the gender typically associated with those jobs in your area. Do you know someone who works a job that is traditionally associated with a different gender? Ask them if they would be willing to be interviewed by you. Create a list of five to eight questions that you believe are important for understanding their job and how their gender impacts their work. Then, use art supplies or explore infographics on Canva to share what you have learned.
2. Think about the activities you enjoy. Are any of them considered “boy things” or “girl things” in your community? If so, which ones? Write a persuasive paragraph explaining why you do not view these activities as gendered. Alternatively, write a paragraph expressing why you enjoy engaging in these activities and how it feels when someone assigns a gender to them. Share your writing with a friend or family member.
3. Everyone is unique in their own way. Create a list that highlights the ways in which your friends or family members differ from you. How do these differences make you feel? Choose three songs and either write out some of the lyrics or find the songs online that describe your emotions regarding these differences. Play the songs for a friend or family member and discuss your feelings.
– Britannica Dictionary (accessed August 30, 2022)
– Britannica Gender Identity (accessed August 30, 2022)
– Indian Health Service: Two-Spirit (accessed August 30, 2022)
– Harvard Divinity School: Third Gender and Hijras (accessed August 30, 2022)
– Healthline: Sex vs. Gender (accessed August 30, 2022)
– Britannica Gender Grammar (accessed August 31, 2022)