Sex and/or gender in academic writing

TL;DR

Many people confuse the terms for sex (“male”, “female”, “intersex”, etc.) and the terms for gender (“man”, “woman”, “non-binary”, etc.), even though sex and gender are different constructs. This sounds like a pedantic point, but it leads to imprecise writing and theorising: Is the nature of your proposed mechanism biological, social, or both?

What is the issue?

This is an other post brought on by grading student writing! (A previous entry was on using abbreviations.) However, the issue of confused gender and sex terms is pervasive in academic literature and even increasingly so in common parlance. I cringe every time someone talks about “females” where they actually just mean “women”.

What are sex and gender?

Both sex and gender are complex constructs, and while they are related, they are also fundamentally different. It doesn’t help that for many people, sex and gender identity overlap. So you might feel entirely comfortable talking about “male” and “man” interchangeably. However, such imprecise language can be an issue in scientific writing. Here is an excerpt from Prof Kay Deaux (1985) on the matter:

By sex, I will be referring to the biologically based categories of male and female. In the use of gender, I refer to the psychological features frequently associated with these biological states, assigned either by an observer or by the individual subject. Thus studies that select two groups of subjects based on their biological characteristics will be considered appropriate for use of the word sex. In this context, one is studying sex differences rather than gender differences. In contrast, if judgments are made about nonbiological characteristics or social categories, then gender will be used as a referent; hence the appearance of such terms as gender identity, gender stereotypes , and gender roles.

As outlined, sex is a biological category, typically assigned at birth (or even before that by peeping at a foetus’ bits on a scan). Often this will be “male” or “female”, but it also incorporates identities like “intersex”. Note that biology is messy: While individuals can be sexed on their external genitalia, internal organs, genetic makeup, or hormone levels, these differentiations are done by comparing to group averages. The nature of distributions means that individuals exist who might be sexed as “female” on one category (e.g. by having a vagina), but as “male” on another (e.g. by having high testosterone). This is complicated, and cannot be as easily resolved as “there are only two sexes!!1!” as some corners of social media will tell you.

This is where we hit on “gender”, which is a social category. Often individuals will be identified as “man”, “woman”, or “non-binary” based on appearance; and/or individuals might tell you what they themselves prefer to identify as. While many “females” will identify and/or be identified as “woman” and many “males” as “man”, the overlap is not absolute, and the judgement is a social construct.

When to use sex or gender terms?

Why is the difference between sex and gender terms important, and not just a pedantic distinction? Because sex and gender do not always overlap, and they have different consequences.

For example, an individual assigned “male” (sex) at birth can identify as “woman” (gender). If they present as such to society, they will be identified as “woman” in daily life and thus face biases and stereotypes related to women. If your study is on such social phenomena, I would argue that this individual’s gender is a more important factor than this individual’s sex.

On the flip side, there are people whose gender identify is “man” and who have a womb (which aligns with the sex “female”). If your study is on pregnancy, you are probably going to want to record this individual’s sex.

What should I do in my study and writing?

Before you even start asking your participants’ sex or gender, maybe ask yourself why you’re asking in the first place. Are you worried about drug effects being different due to underlying biological differences? Sounds like a sex question. Are you interested in bias against perceived categories? Sounds like a gender question.

In many studies, you might simply be asking about sex or gender so you can report your sample make-up. This is important, as it helps readers determine the generalisability of your study to other populations. If you are in this position, and you are unsure what to ask, you could opt to ask both. However, please do ensure that you do so sensible. For example, you could follow the approach from the UK census, and ask the following:

  • What is your gender?
    • Man
    • Woman
    • Non-binary
    • Other (please describe):
    • Prefer not to say.
  • Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Prefer not to say.

The above approach captures both gender and sex. In addition, it includes an option for trans individuals to indicate that they are. Another advantage is the open option for gender, for individuals who do not identify as one of the listed options. Finally, this approach allows people to refuse to tell you, which is important as this information can be very sensitive to individuals and in societal contexts.

Should I even ask about sex or gender?

While I appreciate that asking about participants’ sex and/or gender can be important for the reasons outlined above, you may just be asking out of habit. For example, if you’re creating a reimbursement form, you really only need individuals’ names and bank details. By unnecessarily asking about sex and gender, you might accidentally perpetuate the societal notion that sex and gender are somehow super important and deterministic factors in who people are.

Conclusion

If you mean to refer to individuals’ sex, use “male”, “female”, “intersex”, etc. If you mean to refer to individuals’ gender identity, use “man”, “woman”, “non-binary”, etc. More generally, be sensitive and sensible about asking these details. You don’t always need them, but if you do, ensure you ask in a way that offers people to identify as who they are and ensure that they can refuse to tell you.

References

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