Definition: Gender—a socio-cultural process—refers to cultural and social attitudes that together shape and sanction "feminine" and "masculine" behaviors, products, technologies, environments, and knowledges.
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. Gender norms, gender relations, and gender identities are constantly in flux. They change by historical era, culture, and place, such as the 1950s versus the 2010s, Spain versus Germany, urban versus rural areas. Gender also differs by specific social contexts, such as at work versus at home. Gender identities interact with other identities, such as ethnicity or class (see Analyzing Factors Interacting with Sex and Gender).
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 aspect 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 refer to attitudes about what behaviors, preferences, products, professions, or knowledge is appropriate for women and men. Gender norms influence the development of products and technologies (see Case Studies: Exploring Markets for Assistive Technologies for the Elderly, Machine Translation, Making Machines Talk and Video Games):
2. Gender Relations refer to empirical observations of the actual roles women and men take on and how they interact in a particular culture or social context—such as in the home, in the lab, or on the design team.
- ● Gender norms draw upon and reinforce gender stereotypes, which are widely held, idealized beliefs about women and men, femininities and masculinities.
- ● Gender norms and behaviors 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—see Rethinking Language and Visual Representations).
3. 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 engages 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. Note that:
- ●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 Rethinking Language and Visual Representations; see also Case Study: Public Transportation).
- ●Gender identities can influence research (see Analyzing Gender).
- ●Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming are terms that describe “expression of gender characteristics, including identities, that are not stereotypically associated with one’s assigned sex at birth.” These forms of expression are common and are not considered inherently pathological (WPATH, 2011). Nevertheless, prejudice against gender-nonconforming people can cause harm (Meyer, 2003).
- ●Gender Dysphoria or Gender Identity Disorder (GID) is “discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics)” (WPATH, 2011). It is experienced by a subset of gender-nonconforming people. GID is classified as a medical disorder by major organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) (APA, 2000; WHO, 1990). Available treatments include hormonal and surgical interventions (WPATH, 2011).
American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). Arlington: APA.
Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing Gender in Engineering Workplace Cultures: Part I — Observations from the Field. Engineering Studies, 1 (1) 3-18.
Meyer, I. (2003). Prejudice as Stress: Conceptual and Measurement Problems. American Journal of Public Health, 93 (2), 262-265.
Schiebinger, L. (1999). Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge: Harvard University Press
World Health Organization (WHO). (1990). International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD)—10th Revision. Geneva: WHO.
World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). (2011). Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People. Minneapolis: WPATH.