Learning about Gender

This activity will help to clarify some of the terminology that we will be using throughout this guide. It will also help you reflect on what these terms mean in your own life.

Learning about Gender

What does the term "sex" refer to? What does the term "gender" refer to? Think about this a bit, and keep in mind that for this definition of sex we do not mean the actual act of having sexual intercourse.

Learning about Gender

Can you think of how these two terms (sex and gender) relate to each other? Do sex and gender mean basically the same thing? Yes or No?

Learning about Gender

The answer is no, they mean very different things. Can you think of the differences between them?

Learning about Gender

Here are definitions for sex and gender.

Sex: Sex refers to one’s biological characteristics—anatomical (breasts, vagina; penis, testes), physiological (menstrual cycle; spermatogenesis) and genetic (XX; XY) that identify a person as male or female.

Gender: Gender refers to the widely shared ideas and expectations concerning women and men. These include ideas about typically feminine/ female and masculine / male characteristics, abilities and commonly shared expectations about how men and women should behave in various situations.

Learning about Gender

Now we are going to do a short quiz to better understand the difference between both terms. Read each term then decide if that statement refers to a sex characteristic or a gender characteristic.

Statement Gender Sex
1. Women give birth to children; men don’t.
2. Girls are gentle; boys are tough.
3. Women are paid less than men for doing the same work.
4. Many women do not have the freedom to make decisions about their lives, especially regarding sexuality and relationships with their partners.
5. Men’s voices change during puberty; women’s voices don’t.
6. Worldwide, more men abuse alcohol than women.
7. Women breastfeed babies; men do not.
8. Women are generally responsible for feeding and cooking for small children and infants.
9. Parents sometimes prefer male children.
10. Women or girls are responsible for caring for ill family members.
11. Men are the providers (of income/resources) in most families.

Learning about Gender

This test should have helped to clarify the terms “sex” and “gender.” You may have noticed that there were more gender characteristics than sex characteristics in the quiz. This is because sex or biological characteristics are really only a very small portion of what we attribute to being male or female. Most characteristics which we think of when defining men and women are in effect gender characteristics. They are constructions about what it means to be a man or woman in our society. Those constructions are not fixed (as biological characteristics can be). They can vary between cultures, and if you think about it, they have varied quite a bit over generations.

Learning about Gender

Being able to understand that a large part of what we perceive as being masculine or feminine is really culturally or socially determined (gender) is crucial to being able to work with men and women around reproductive health. Since expectations or social constructions change over time, we can engage in promoting even quicker change in these constructions. After all, they are constructed and passed on by men and women in their own families and societies.

Learning about Gender

Related to the terms “sex” and “gender,” we want to review a couple of other terms. What does gender equality mean to you? How would you define it? Here is a standard definition for gender equality.

Gender equality means that men and women enjoy the same status. They share the same opportunities for realizing their human rights and potential to contribute and benefit from all spheres of society (economic, political, social and cultural). It does NOT mean that men and women are exactly the same or have to be exactly the same.

Learning about Gender

Does that definition make sense? Do you believe that gender equality actually exists in your community or in your country or even globally?

Here are some statements that reflect that we are still very far from a gender equal world:

  • Women in our communities are more likely than men to experience sexual and domestic violence.
  • Men are in more positions of power within the business sector.
  • Women bear the brunt of risks associated with pregnancies.

Learning about Gender

Have you ever heard the term “gender equity?” What do you think it means, and how is this term different from “gender equality”?

Here is a definition of gender equity:

Gender equity is the process of being fair to men and women. Gender equity leads to gender equality. For example, an affirmative action policy which promotes increased support to female-owned businesses may be gender-equitable because it leads to ensuring equal rights among men and women.

Learning about Gender

Here are some questions for you to think over a bit before moving on:

  • What are some examples of gender equitable behaviour between men and women?
  • Why should men work towards achieving gender equality?
  • What benefits does gender equality bring to men’s lives?
  • How does gender inequality contribute to unintended pregnancy?
  • How can gender equity contribute to preventing unintended pregnancy?

Closing

This activity should have helped you to understand how much of what we attribute to being inherently male or female is in fact learned behaviour, not “natural” or biological. We often tend to naturalize male and female behaviours with statements like “boys will be boys” or “all men are like that” or “just like a woman.” Understanding that much of our behaviour is socially constructed makes it easier to question those behaviours and to question how we as a community or society construct the differential (and often unequal) expectations around men and women. Also, as we will see later, this is a first step towards encouraging communities to be more gender-sensitive, so that men and women can live healthier and happier lives. To achieve this, we can encourage gender-equitable behaviours, such as men and women making joint decisions about their health, men respecting women’s right to say no to sex, men and women settling differences without violence, and men and women sharing responsibility for family planning, parenting and care for others.