In the social sciences, since the 1980’s we have been using the word “gender” instead of sex. The use of the term “gender” is not only politically correct – it is more precise, acute and scientifically accurate. The use of the term first and foremost conveys the idea that differences are not natural, nor biological or physically located in the body, but they are socially and historically constituted. What it means to be a man or a woman is not in any way determined by our bodies – whether you might think of genitals, brains, muscles or genes – because our bodies are also socially trained and constituted.

As social anthropology has shown, humanity is varied in culture and society, but biology and “natural” needs do not explain social lives or the differences among cultures, nor genders, nor race. Being a woman (or a man) in 21st century London means and accounts for different possibilities and features than being a woman in Brazil, or two centuries ago in London, but there are also differences in terms of race, social class, education, religion, age, and so on. We are all an intersection of social markers of difference – there’s no such thing as “a woman”, or “a man”, in general. Therefore, gender is a better word.

More than just allowing us to see that biology is not a destiny, gender theory also reflects on classificatory patterns: the fact that “feminine” and “masculine” are classificatory aspects of the social world, and they are used to classify activities, places, goods, and professions. Some sports or jobs are masculine, as other professions are seen as feminine – and those categorisations change in time. Some people still think of washing machines or taking care of children as “naturally” women’s capacities, as consumption itself is classified as feminine, and so are romantic films. Finance – as action movies – is a more masculine field than, let us say, marketing – although you do not need any part of a man’s body, as one could think when seeing some sports as “masculine” (rugby, for instance), or ballet as feminine. Doctors, engineers, construction workers are usually seen as a male activities, as nurses, primary school teachers or secretaries are more imagined to be females. Even a male nurse is seen as more “feminine”, or the activity of taking care of someone is also categorised as feminine, even though there may be male caretakers.

But some women can be much stronger physically than some men – gender is not intrinsically defined by body capacities. And inequalities appear visibly when a former masculine field gets more feminised, and tend to be devalued, and salaries get lower in that area. This was very clear in Brazilian history – when education was a masculine field, teachers had better salaries, as in the first half of the 20th century. As teaching, particularly in primary schools, got more and more feminised, education itself was devalued, and salaries got worse.

Gender allows us to understand other matters in social life, such as the fact that there’s a proportion of people who are born neither a girl nor a boy (intersex); or that there are people who, being born with one genital, feel as belonging to the other gender. Intersex people were formerly called hermaphrodites, and are still quite invisible as a social group – not even nature is so binary. The acknowledgement (and recognition) of intersex is a growing concern in gender studies, and there are also the multiple possibilities of trans people, those UK law names as transsexual (nomenclatures vary in each country), or people who fight for the right of gender reassignment — the T, in LGBT. We could add Q for queer and I for intersex.

For social scientists, issues of sexual orientation have a similar aspect. Sexual intercourse between people of the same gender has always existed in history (ancient Greeks are often the example that comes to mind), and so have people living lives imagined for the other gender. Nevertheless, the idea of a gay or lesbian identity and way of living is something a little more recent in history. In the UK it was a crime not so long ago, but nowadays laws such as the Equality Act are designed to guarantee survival, respect and rights for gays, lesbians or bisexuals.

However, as gay and lesbian couples and same-sex marriage get more socially accepted, with formal laws in many European countries, there is also a growing attack on those rights, and many forms of violence persist in many societies – and in schools, workplaces, public spaces as well. Even nowadays it is not unusual that people feel they cannot mention their sexual orientation in their jobs, and a whole set of traditional jokes and threats persists in many social settings.

Particularly when dealing with trans people, prejudice can be stronger and more pervasive in everyday unthinked actions, such as the division of men’s and women’s toilets. Therefore comes the importance of the right to choose the bathroom of the gender the person feels they belong to (no matter the genitals at birth), and creating a respectful environment.

Rights for equality both in terms of gender and sexuality are still a contentious struggle, and there is a gap on what the law says and what is lived daily. Gender theory itself is being attacked in the anti-gender campaigns, particularly one that started in the heart of the Catholic church. Inequalities in terms of gender are expressed largely in unequal payment, rates of domestic and sexual violence, lack of childcare, and strong and minor prejudices that take form in everyday settings, from “mansplainning” to sexual harassment.

In LGBT groups, prejudices also account for higher rates of suicide among non-heterosexual youngsters, intrafamilial violence, and we still see in many settings, including schools, “jokes” against a “too feminine boy”, or a “masculine girl”, or any other that does not fit the heterosexual imaginary pattern. Those jokes, nevertheless, can be classified as violence and harassment.

(Hence the importance of celebrating LGBT History Month.)



  • The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image: Chevalier d’Eon, painting by Thomas Stewart (c.1758-c.1801), after Jean-Laurent Mosnier, detail of a photograph by Philip Mould, in the public domain. More information here.
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Heloisa Buarque de Almeida is a visiting fellow at LSE’s department of media and communications, professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, and a member of the Centre for the Study of Social Markers of Difference. She was regional director of the Brazilian Anthropological Association, where she is also a member of the gender and sexuality committee.