Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in the definition of Gender

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Biologists and sociologists define gender in different ways. Whereas biologists argue that gendered behaviour is due to biological traits and physiological features, sociologists believe that it is a social construct. These different views cause tension between the two disciplines.

A case study that illustrates this tension is that of Christie Lee Cavazos[1] : when filing a medical malpractice suit on a doctor who allegedly misdiagnosed her husband in 1996, she experienced the impact of these different views. She had undergone a sex change operation in the 1970s and had legal documents and the testimony of medical experts stating that she was both physically and psychologically female. Despite this, under the premise that Cavazos would always have male chromosomes, Chief Justice Hardberger ruled that she was unable to file the suit as his spouse, suggesting that the marriage was illegitimate. This shows that socially she could be female, but still be considered biologically male, causing a strain on her rights as a woman; evidently, there is a dichotomy between truth in biology and sociology.

This chapter will further explore this tension through observing the views of the opposing sides and their respective critiques. This kind of analysis is important as gender has such a huge impact on the lives of individuals, as exemplified through Christie Lee Cavazos’ story.

Gender defined by Biology[edit | edit source]

Within the discipline of biology, gender is considered binary, as it is assumed to follow after one's biological sex.[2] According to Oxford Dictionary, sex is defined as, “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.”[3] The physiological distinctions between men and women include differences in chromosomes, sexual organs and hormones.

Female and male chromosomes

Both sexes have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes; however, women only have X chromosomes, whilst men have both X and Y. The presence or absence of the Y chromosome enables biologists to determine the sex of an individual.[4] In the first stages of embryonic development, male and female embryos are almost morphologically identical, however, eventually, due to the expression of the sex-determining gene, on the Y chromosome, the testes begin to develop. In females, the absence of this gene, in collaboration with the presence of other genes, leads to the development of the ovary. The gonads which develop – the ovary and testes – are essential for the development of secondary sexual characteristics in the sexes, as they secrete sex-specific hormones.[4] These include oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Males and females produce all three of these hormones, but in different concentrations within the blood: females have higher levels of oestrogen and progesterone, whilst males have higher levels of testosterone.[5]

In some capacity, the recognition of specific sex-related differences could be highly advantageous, as it would improve the quality of gender-specific medicine.[6] Before the 1800s, men were considered the blueprint of humankind, and women's health was therefore grossly misunderstood[7].

In essence, within biology, the definition of gender is limited to the physiological, with the truth of one's gender being determined by the sexual organs which they possess.

Despite the undeniable biological truths which separate males from females, scientific data which seeks to prove gender as biological is often flawed.[8] Scientists have often interpreted results to studies with bias[9], or have chosen to only answer certain questions which serve the biological sex narrative they had assumed true[9]. The study of neurological differences between the sexes also poses a problem as in fact our brains develop according to our use of it, which since the earliest stages of life is culturally determined[9].

Gender defined by Sociology[edit | edit source]

According to the Oxford Dictionary[10], gender refers to the “state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones”. This source of information is recognised as being reliable and it removes the biological discipline from the definition of gender. This would mean that someone’s gender could differ from their birth sex, which is an idea also accepted by official bodies such as the Office for National Statistics [11].However, in most cultures, we assume that people follow a particular behaviour according to their sex. The French sociologist Anne Dafflon Novelle, in Filles-garçons: socialisation différenciée? (Girls-Boys: differentiated socialisation? ), argues that society pushes individuals to act in a stereotyped gendered way. She explains that places of socialisation such as schools or families unconsciously orientate children to different roles and behaviours, depending on their birth sex[12].

Social scientists argue that gender is socially constructed, exemplified by Judith Butler's notion of ‘performative gender’[13], or the one of "doing gender" by West and Zimmerman (1987)[14]. These concepts refer to gender as repeated actions and behaviour rather than something which we irrevocably are. The famous quote of the French sociologist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, “One is not born but rather become a woman” in her book The Second Sex (1949)[15], illustrates her point of view that one’s gender is defined over time through a process of socialisation which begins at birth. She implies that we perform and embody our gender by respecting and internalizing the stereotyped social roles and norms expected from our sex by society.

This shows that from a sociological perspective, the truth of the definition of the term 'gender' is that it is a socially constructed set of actions that are not necessarily tied to one's biological sex, as biology would assume.

However, David Reimer's case can be used to criticise the sociological view. Reimer was born as a biological male, and due to an incident at birth, his parents raised him as a female following the advice of a psychologist. Reimer underwent sexual reassignment surgery, also taking female hormones as he developed through puberty. He found himself depressed and uncomfortable as a woman and, ignorant of his birth sex, felt as if he should be male, making this transition as a teenager[16]. This suggests that the socialisation of Reimer into the female gender was irrelevant and that it was his biological sex which defined his gender, meaning that it is not entirely a social construct.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Truth in the definition of gender is not absolute; it varies according to disciplines. Biologists and social scientists, respectively, assume that gender can be defined through biological features and social ones. Their definitions differ because they don’t exercise in the same field, and are not confronted by the same data and evidence. Therefore, the truth of gender's definition is subjective.

Scholars such as Wendy Wood and Alice H. Eagly have worked on a theory that joins these approaches on gender together: the ‘biosocial theory’[17]. This psychological perspective claims that the division of labour is the cause of the emergence of gendered behaviour and differences in the sexes. This division of labour would be due to the socialisation of children that internalise a specific and expected behaviour depending on their sex, but also because of hormones and biological traits that differ slightly, such as size or role in reproduction.

Unfolding the truth about the definition of gender can benefit from an interdisciplinary approach, as different disciplines provide subjective truths which can complement and verify each other, making the final outcome more nuanced.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Westbrook L, Schilt K. DOING GENDER, DETERMINING GENDER: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System. Gender and Society [Internet]. 2014 [cited 23 November 2020];28(1):33-35. Available from:
  2. Morgenroth T, Sendén M, Lindqvist A, Renström E, Ryan M, Morton T. Defending the Sex/Gender Binary: The Role of Gender Identification and Need for Closure. SAGE Journals [Internet]. 2020 [cited 8 December 2020]. Available from:
  3. sex, n.1 : Oxford English Dictionary [Internet]. 2020 [cited 8 December 2020]. Available from:
  4. a b Rigby N, Kulathinal R.J. Genetic Architecture of Sexual Dimorphism in Humans. Journal of Cellular Physiology [Internet]. 2015 [cited 8 December 2020];(230):2304-2310. Available from:
  5. Sex and gender: Meanings, definition, identity, and expression [Internet]. 2018 [cited 8 December 2020]. Available from:
  6. Tunç B, Solmaz B, Parker D, Satterthwaite T, Elliott M, Calkins M et al. Establishing a link between sex-related differences in the structural connectome and behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences [Internet]. 2016 [cited 5 December 2020];371(1688):1-6. Available from:
  7. Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987. ‌
  8. Jordan-Young, Rebecca M. Brain Storm : The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2011.
  9. a b c Malin Ah-King. Challenging Popular Myths of Sex, Gender and Biology. Springer International Pu, 2016.
  10. sex, n.1 [Internet]. OED Online. Oxford University Press; 2020 [cited 19 November 2020]. Available from:
  11. Office for National Statistics. What is the difference between sex and gender?. [Internet]. 2019 [cited 19 November 2020];. Available from:
  12. Anne Dafflon Novelle. Colloque « Filles, garçons : une même école ? » [Internet], 2009, Belgium: EGALITEcfwb; 2012 [cited 9 November 2020]. Available from:
  13. Butler J. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal. 1988;40(4):519.
  14. Berkowitz D, Manohar N, Tinkler J. Walk Like a Man, Talk Like a Woman: Teaching the Social Construction of Gender. Teaching Sociology [Internet]. 2010 [cited 20 November 2020];38(2):132-133. Available from:
  15. Beauvoir S de. The Second Sex. London, England: Vintage Classics; 2015
  16. Gaetano, Phil. “David Reimer and John Money Gender Reassignment Controversy: The John/Joan Case | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia.” Embryo.Asu.Edu, 15 Nov. 2013, Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.
  17. Wood W, Eagly AH. Biosocial Construction of Sex Differences and Similarities in Behavior. In: Olson JM, Zanna MP, editors. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 46. Burlington: Elsevier Inc; 2012. p. 55-123.