What is Gender?

The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute describes itself as devoted to the study of Jews and Gender, but what does gender actually mean?  Gender refers to a description of masculinity or femininity.  Normally, gender refers to people, dividing everyone as belonging to one group or the other in a strict binary fashion.  However, words, emotions, personal characteristics, organizations, power structures, and social structures can all also be described as gendered.  For example, gender could describe the association of a particular company with a masculine or feminine management style.

Decades of sociological and feminist theory have drawn a distinction between sex and gender.  Sex describes biological features, while gender describes the social construction and presentation of masculinity or femininity.  This distinction rejects an essentialist argument, which attributed all gender differences to natural biologically occurring differences.  The essentialist argument tries to uphold a strict binary gender division, a system that demands every individual adhere to a standard model of masculinity or femininity.  In rejecting this essentialist argument, sociological theory has considered how gender norms are created, defined, and enforced under varying social contexts.  This research has shown that there are greater differences within the genders (that is, the differences between women) than there are between the genders.

Working from this social construction definition of gender, feminist and gender scholars have challenged the use of gender as a static description of a person.  Rather, they have suggested, gender is performed.  Thus, individuals would be described as performing masculinity or femininity, rather than being male or female.  While the theory is complex, in practical terms it means recognizing how gender is continuously reconstructed through simple everyday actions.  For example, a woman might defer to a man while discussing business, but would have authority in discussing the family.  Rather than describing these as natural sex-role differences, gender theory describes these as examples of performing gender.

Socialization of gender roles has traditionally been described as a simple process, with influence moving from society to children.  Some sociological research has challenged this model, asserting that children’s agency is equally important in the process of acquiring gender.  This research builds on the idea of performing gender by considering how children and kids are equally involved in expressing and creating their own gender systems through their interactions.  While adults, television, and other social factors surely influence children, their own agency in performing gender cannot be ignored.  This research reinforces the performative theory of gender and also implies the mutability and flexibility of gender systems that are continuously reconstructed.

Further Reading:

Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  New York: Routledge, 1990.

Connell, R. W.  Gender.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Demetriou, Demetrakis Z.  “Connell’s Concept of Hegemonic Masculinity: A Critique.”  Theory and Society, 30.3 (Jun 2001): 337-361.

Thorne, Barrie.  Gender Play: Boys and Girls in School.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

A special thanks to Jeff Kosbie (Brandeis, '06) for putting this together!