Definition: Gender refers to cultural attitudes and behaviors that shape "feminine" and "masculine" behaviors, products, technologies, environments, and knowledges. "Femininities" and "masculinities" are multidimensional and can be practiced in different ways by biological females or males; gender does not necessarily match sex. Gendered attitudes and behaviors are not binary but slide along multiple continua.

Background: The term gender was introduced in the late 1960s to reject biological determinism that links biology with rigid sex roles and expectations. "Gender" is used to distinguish socio-cultural factors shaping behaviors and attitudes from biological factors related to sex (see Terms: Sex and Sex and Gender are Distinct Terms). Gendered behaviors and attitudes are learned; they are neither fixed nor universal.

How Gender Functions:
Humans function in large and complex societies through learned behaviors. The ways we speak, our mannerisms, the things we use, and our behaviors all signal who we are and establish rules for interaction. Gender is one of these sets of behaviors and attitudes. As such, gender can be an important aspect of research and design (see Analyzing Gender, Rethinking Research Priorities and Outcomes, Formulating Research Questions, Rethinking Concepts and Theories, Engineering Innovation Processes, Designing Health and Biomedical Research, Rethinking Standards and Reference Models, and Rethinking Language and Visual Representations).

1. Gender Norms are produced through social institutions (such as families, schools, workplaces, laboratories, universities, or boardrooms) and wider cultural products (such as textbooks, literature, film, and video games.)

  • Gender norms refer to social attitudes about what behaviors, preferences, products, professions, or knowledges is appropriate for women and men, and may influence the development of science and technology.

  • ●   Gender norms draw upon and reinforce gender stereotypes, which are widely held, idealized beliefs about women and men, femininities and masculinities.
  • Gender norms are constantly in flux. They change by historical era, culture, and place, such as the 1950s vs. the 2010s, Korea vs. Germany, urban vs. rural areas. Gender also differs by specific social contexts, such as at work versus at home.
2. Gender Identities refer to how individuals and groups perceive and present themselves, and how they are perceived by others (Schiebinger, 1999). Gender identities are context-specific. Any individual may engage in multiple femininities and masculinities (consciously or unconsciously), depending on the particular context. For example, a man directing a lab meeting may use masculine-identified leadership skills, but he may employ more feminine-identified qualities when helping his child with math. Gender identities also interact with other identities, such as ethnicity or class (see Analyzing Factors Interacting with Sex and Gender). Note that:

  • Transgender describes "expressions of gender characteristics, including identities that are not stereotypically associated with one's assigned sex at birth" (WPATH, 2011).
  • Cisgender refers to people whose sex assigned at birth is aligned with their gender identity.
3. Gender Relations refer to the power relations between individuals of different gender identities, for example, the social interactions between a man patient and woman physician.
  • Social divisions of labor are an important aspect of gender relations where women and men are concentrated in different types of (paid or unpaid) activities. One consequence of such gender segregation is that particular occupations or disciplines become 'marked" symbolically with the (presumed) gender identity of the numerically dominant group: for example, nursing is seen as a "feminine" profession, engineering as "masculine" (Faulkner, 2009).
  • Women and men who work in highly segregated roles acquire different kinds of knowledge or expertise, which can sometimes be usefully accessed for gendered innovations (see Participatory Research and Design; see also Case Study: Water Infrastructure).
  • Gender relations can also become embodied in products or built environments, such as transportation systems (see Case Study: Public Transportation).

Works Cited

Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing Gender in Engineering Workplace Cultures: Part I — Observations from the Field. Engineering Studies, 1 (1) 3-18.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). The Dynamic Development of Gender Variability. Journal of Homosexuality, 59, 398-421.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World. New York: Routledge.

Kessler, S. (1990). The Medical Construction of Gender: Case Management of Intersexed Infants. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 16 (1), 3-25.

Schiebinger, L. (1999). Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge: Harvard University Press

World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). (2011). Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People. Minneapolis: WPATH.



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