What does gender really mean?

Most people see the word gender on job applications and similar documents where you're asked to check one, male or female. Technically speaking, the word gender is being misused here. A person's sex is one or the other, male or female (and this is the word that really should be used on applications). A person's gender, however, has to do with more of his or her own self-identity or roles and stereotypes that society considers normal or acceptable behaviors.

Think of it this way: male and female are sexes, but masculine and feminine are genders.

So consider the following examples:

  • A woman who shaves her head is still a woman, but she is violating her gender norm.
  • Some fathers whose wives earn enough money to allow him to stay at home with the kids experience a gender-identity crisis.
  • A person who is about to undergo sex reassignment surgery will be changing sexes, but his or her gender changed a long time before the actual surgery.

Gender is becoming a little more ambiguous as most societies place less rigid rules on acceptable gender behaviors. Forty years ago, it was not common (or especially accepted) to see a male nurse or a teen-aged girl who wanted to play football. Today, neither scenario is especially strange,. In the 1970s and 80s, gender-bending celebrities like David Bowie and Boy George were considered shocking; but today, when Lady Gaga dresses as her male alter ego, it's just performance art.

Of course, some languages — like German, Russian, Spanish, and French — specify their nouns and pronouns by gender, which changes both a word's inflection and article usage. This is mostly a means of word classification and doesn't correlate to masculinity or femininity in the human sense (or if it did, the connection would be weak and historical, at best). For example, in Spanish, a fork that you eat with is tenedor (a masculine noun), but a fork in the road is a bifurcación (a feminine noun) — not much of a connection to the sexes, is there?