Understanding Sex and Gender


Article 14 of the Indian Constitution discusses the fundamental right to equality. It states the right to equality of status and opportunity irrespective of religion, caste, race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual identity and sexual orientation. With the wave of the LGBTQIA+ and the recent laws in the country, it is important to clearly understand the basic concepts of gender and sex. Often society gets confused between the two which leads to the creation of bogus dynamics of gender roles and stereotypes.
Sex refers to a set of biological elements in humans and animals. It is primarily characterized by physical and physiological features such as chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and their functioning, and reproductive anatomy. Sex is usually categorized as female or male but there is a difference in the biological features that comprise sex and how they are expressed. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of men, women, and gender diverse people. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other (gender identity), and how they communicate and act. Identity is the sense a person has of oneself, who he/she/they is and what traits are crucial in defining her/him/them.


The gender assigned to a person at birth does not define their role in society. A person may have been assigned specific sex at birth but can identify with a particular gender. Traits such as aggression, empathy, kindness, vengeance can be characterised by any person irrespective of their orientation, identity, sex or gender. These traits cannot be defined within the realm of masculinity or femininity. Besides gender identity, sexual orientation of a person can also differ.

In a recent survey by the Martha Farrell Foundation, 91% of the girls responded affirmatively when asked whether a woman’s greatest happiness lies in caring for her family. These numbers indicate a greater reality of how gender roles function. A variety of such similar stereotypes (only boys play football or girls should know how to cook well) are attached to each gender and children are taught to perform these roles from a young age. The justification provided for this allotment of gender roles is that they are being derived from the difference of biological elements between men and women.


However, this justification is often either misinformed or contrived to ensure that a particular field (say football or cooking) remains exclusive to individuals of one particular gender. By doing so they try to automatically reduce competition in the field and also ensure that the prevalent rules of society remain intact. The expertise in a particular field is skill-based and has nothing to do with  gender. For instance, there are a multitude of professional chefs who are men and women’s football is a celebrated sport. Various sociological experiments have proved that gender roles and norms are a result of cultural practices of different communities in society, and not an extension of the biological characters.   

Nonetheless, one should not believe that sex and gender classification is binary in nature because like gender, sex too is to some extent a social construct. Often a certain sex category is attached to a particular set of biological characteristics. However, the simple division of biological characteristics is exclusive since it fails to consider the biological characteristics of the transgender community. A multitude of medical literature still insensitively identifies the genital characteristics of the transgendered people as ‘ambiguous’ and recommends for them a corrective surgery to allocate to them a ‘right’ gender. 

It cannot be denied that sex and gender are often used interchangeably, however, these two terms have completely different meanings. To conclude, sex is the anatomical or physiological characteristic of a person that determines its biological maleness or femaleness while gender is a social and psychological construct that causes this biological male/female to identify as a man or a woman. Gender is a social construct that refers to the social roles, behaviors, and traits that society may assign to men (masculine) or to women (feminine). Gender is a working definition, it changes with different narratives.   


Moksha Sharma is currently pursuing Bachelor’s in Philosophy (Hons.) from Miranda House, Delhi University. She is currently interning at Pro Sport Development.

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