Gender, Equality and Development

Basic Concepts and Definitions

What is Gender?

The term 'termGender' refers to the range of socially constructed roles and relationships, personality traits, attitudes, behaviors, values, relative power and influence that are ascribed to women and men on the basis of their termsex. (United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women 2004)
Such term may look as a complex one, as it takes into account a wide range of social and cultural factors that may vary across time and space. The distinction between 'gender' and 'sex' may help us to reach a clearer definition of the term.

  • 'Sex' refers to the genetically determined biological and anatomical characteristics of women and men, which are manifest in their different roles with regards to biological reproduction.
  • 'Gender' refers to the socially determined roles and responsibilities that are attributed to women and men in a given social and cultural context, in virtue of their biological characteristics.

Whereas sex differences are determined before birth and cannot be modified by environmental or cultural influences, gender is an acquired identity that is learned, and which, therefore, changes over time, within and across cultures.

Gender or Sex?

Statements such as:
"only women can give birth" and
"only men can get prostate cancer"
refer to the biological characteristics of women and men. They are true today as well as they were true a decade ago, whether they are uttered in the east, west, north or south.

On the other hand, the statements:
"only women can take care of children" or
"only men can drive trucks"
refer to the socially determined characteristics assigned to women and men. As much as one can regard them as true, they are not universal, and can be agreed or disagreed upon, according to where and when they are uttered and to whom they are presented to.

Gender has to do with how our society defines masculinity and femininity, that is, what is appropriate for men and women respectively. Such concepts can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as cultural and religious beliefs, myths, proverbs, jokes, popular traditions, the media, advertising, films, family, kin, community etc.

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