Let’s Talk About Sex and Gender


Kalkidan Shebi is a Senior Associate of the United Nations Foundation, Girls and Womens Strategy

The gains that have been made toward gender equality are under threat by the COVID-19 pandemic because it is exposing the persistent social, racial, economic and political systemic inequalities that keep certain groups of people vulnerable, particularly those who are marginalized due to their multiple intersecting social identities.

However, current movements for social justice have increased awareness of these intersections and the multiple challenges they pose during this crisis. For instance, a Black, disabled Muslim woman can face multiple layers of discrimination due to her race, disability, religion and gender. These layers of discrimination are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding these layers, and their effect on the lived experiences of people, is important to advancing equality and addressing crises like the pandemic. Thus, applying an intersectional lens toward our fight for gender equality is not only critical but urgent.

Intersectionality is an area of study and a form of critical engagement that rejects single-axial articulations of lived experiences and instead identifies and simultaneously analyzes multiple overlapping social identities such as age, sex, sexuality, class, caste and ethnic group. These concurrent social identities are subject to different systems of oppression or privilege, discrimination, domination and inequality.

It is therefore an opportune time to fully understand the terminology used in the information we consume daily about inequality and the pandemic. Doing so will help improve our knowledge and enable us to effectively communicate and advocate for girls and women and gender equality.

So, here’s how to talk about sex inclusively and accurately.

By sex, I mean the biological term society uses to refer to males, females or intersex people, based on their physical and biological characteristics at birth, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes and hormones.

The term sex is often confused with the term gender. Unlike sex, gender is actually 1) a social construct that defines the norms, roles, behaviors and attributes of masculinity and femininity in any particular context. These then determine an individual’s access to the resources, such as information, money, assets and technology, thereby shaping the balance of power, with boys and men typically having more power than girls and women; 2) a social and legal categorization of people (men, women, intersex people); and 3) an identity instituted through a repetition of gendered acts often influenced by social norms. Gender is context- and time-specific. In other words, it is not set in stone and can be fluid. For example, at one point, being a physician was not thought to be an acceptable or suitable profession for women, but as more women became doctors, it became more acceptable.

For a long time, we were also taught that gender allows for two options – you’re either a man or a woman. This type of categorization is gender binary. However, we now know there are more than two genders to consider. An umbrella term used to describe all genders that don’t identify exclusively as male or female is gender non-binary. For example, a transgender person is someone whose gender identity is not aligned with his or her biological sex assigned at birth so they may choose to identify as gender non-binary.

Gender pronouns are now integrated in our everyday vocabulary. So, what are they? Well, these are pronouns we use to describe ourselves or others in sentences and conversations. These include, but are not limited to, masculine (he/him/his), feminine (she/her/hers), or neutral pronouns (they/them/theirs). People can choose the personal pronouns that align with their gender identity. Therefore, it is advisable to first ask what people’s pronouns are and to address them using their chosen pronouns, rather than what you think their pronouns should/appear to be.

Some people think that if they are being gender blind, they are ‘treating everyone the same’. However, being gender blind means not recognizing the diverse experiences of different genders and how gender can impact access to resources and opportunity. Rather than being neutral, gender blindness often upholds the status quo and reinforces gender-based discrimination and inequalities.

Two other terms that are often confused are gender equality and gender equityand by now you must know, they are not the same:

Gender Equality is the achievement of equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities for all genders within every aspect of life.

Gender Equity is the process of applying a fair and just approach in meeting the individualized needs of all genders in achieving gender equality. This may include treatment that is either equal or different but is considered equivalent in terms of rights and opportunities. This process considers the cultural barriers, systemic oppression and past discrimination imposed on specific groups of people when addressing gender issues.

So, gender equality is the end-goal and gender equity is the means to get there.

If gender is a social construct that is taught and influences our perception and interactions, creating unequal power dynamics that lead to an unequal world, let’s think about how gender is applied and used in society:

Gender Norms are the social and behavioral norms deemed appropriate for women and men, and girls and boys, by societal and cultural standards and expectations. For example, women are expected to be nurturing and gentle, while men are expected to be bold and aggressive.

This can have real consequences in terms of access to economic opportunities and benefits. For example:

Gender-Based Division of Labor is the process by which society divides up work or tasks between sexes. The basis of this division is informed by the gender norms that assign appropriate roles for each sex within a given society. For instance, girls and women almost always bear the brunt of unpaid care work in a household and while more women work as frontline workers in healthcare, more men hold leadership positions.

Gender norms can also have serious, life-threatening consequences. For example:

Gender-Based Violence (GBV): is an umbrella term used to describe any violence perpetrated against any person because of their gender role or identity.  It includes physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, threats, coercion and economic or educational deprivation in public or private life. Girls and women are disproportionately affected by GBV, but boys, men and sexual and gender minorities are also targets for GBV. For instance, women and girls across the world face many different forms of gender-based violence including sexual assault, female genital mutilation and physical violence that sometimes leads to death. Men are often the perpetrators of such violence against women but not always.

Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG): is any act or the threat of violence perpetrated against women and girls in private or public spaces. This includes physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence.

To further understand the nuances of gender, the field of gender and development uses several methods and tools to assess its impact. Here are a few approaches commonly used to understand and address the dynamics of gender in development:

Gender Analysis: A systematic examination of how gender norms, roles and relations impact the opportunities, rights and entitlements available to an individual or group of individuals based on their sex and gender identity.

Sex-Disaggregated Data: Data that is collected and tabulated based on sex (i.e. male, female, intersex people). This classification of data is an important step towards effective gender analysis and policy making.

Gender Mainstreaming: The process of integrating a gender perspective and analysis, grounded in gender equality, into all activities, services and sectoral programs, including policy development, research, advocacy, legislation, program design and implementation, monitoring and evaluation and resource allocation, to better understand and address the needs and inequalities among sexes. Effective gender mainstreaming relies on access to data, gender expertise, sound analysis, supportive cultures, budgets and resource mobilization.

Gender-Lens Investing (GLI): The practice of investing for financial return while also considering gender differences and dynamics. Gender-lens investors prioritize companies that empower girls and women and advance gender equality, believing that such an investment will yield better financial returns.

Gender-Responsive Budgeting (GRB): A system of analyzing and monitoring government expenditure at all levels of the budgetary process to determine how close or far the expenditure is to achieving gender equality. The analysis can result in restructuring revenues and identifying needed interventions to address the gender gaps in budget allocation, projects and policies.

Understanding and using gender-sensitive and inclusive language is a key element in tackling gender inequality and laying the foundation for advancing gender equality throughout society.

This blog is a preview to a forthcoming UN Foundation Gender Equality and Identity Glossary that will provide additional definitions and resources. If you want to learn more, you can visit the UN Women Training Centre for more definitions or enroll in a course through the I Know Gender training portal to further explore these topics.

September 2020

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