Chapter 12: Sex and Gender
Chapter Overview



  1. Sex and Gender
    1. Sex: A Biological Distinction
      1. Sex and the Body
      2. Hermaphrodites
      3. Transsexuals
    2. Sexual Orientation
      1. The Origin of Sexual Orientation
      2. The Gay Rights Movement
      3. How Many Gay People?
      4. Bisexuality
    3. Gender: A Cultural Distinction
    4. Gender In Global Perspective
      1. The Israeli Kibbutzim
      2. Margaret Mead's Research
      3. George Murdock's Research
      4. In Sum: Gender and Culture
    5. Patriarchy and Sexism
      1. The Costs of Sexism
      2. Is Patriarchy Inevitable?
  2. Gender Socialization
    1. Gender and the Family
    2. Gender and the Peer Group
    3. Gender and Schooling
    4. Gender and the Mass Media
  3. Gender Stratification
    1. Working Men and Women
      1. Gender and Occupations
    2. Housework: Women's "Second Shift"
    3. Gender, Income, and Wealth
    4. Gender and Education
    5. Gender and Politics
    6. Are Women a Minority?
    7. Minority Women
    8. Violence Against Women
      1. Sexual Harassment
      2. Pornography
  4. Theoretical Analysis of Gender
    1. Structural-Functional Analysis
      1. Talcott Parsons: Gender and Complementarity
    2. Social-Conflict Analysis
      1. Friedrich Engels: Gender and Class
  5. Feminism
    1. Basic Feminist Ideas
    2. Variations Within Feminism
      1. Liberal Feminism
      2. Socialist Feminism
      3. Radical Feminism
      4. Opposition to Feminism
  6. Looking Ahead: Gender in the Twenty-First Century
  7. Summary
  8. Critical Thinking Questions
  9. Sociology Applied
  10. Web Links



This chapter begins with a description of a little girl receiving a clitoridectomy, the surgical removal of the clitoris. The genital mutilation takes place in the United States as Nigerian immigrants maintain the cultural practice of their homeland.
Culture can even define whether one will experience sexual sensation or not.


While biological differences are certainly not irrelevant, this chapter suggests that the different social standing of men and women is more a creation of social factors. Sex: A Biological Distinction Sex is defined as the division of humanity into biological categories of male and female. It is determined at the moment of conception. Each fertilized egg contains 23 chromosome pairs. One of these pairs determines sex. The female always contributes the X chromosome, and the male contributes either an X or a Y chromosome. If the male contributes an X, the embryo will develop into a female. If the male contributes a Y, the embryo will develop into a male. Sex differentiation occurs within weeks. In the male embryo, the hormone testosterone is produced which stimulates the development of male genitals. 105 males are born for every 100 females but a higher death rate in males eventually leads to a majority of females in Canadian society.

Sex and the Body: At birth, both males and females are distinguished by primary sex characteristics, the genitals, used to reproduce the human species. During adolescence, continued biological differentiation results in secondary sex characteristics, physical traits, other than genitals, that distinguish males and females.
Hermaphrodites: Hermaphrodite, a term derived from Greek mythology, refers to humans with some combination of male and female internal and external genitalia. Our culture tends to be intolerant and even hateful of such people.
Transsexuals: These are people who feel they are one sex when biologically they are the other. Some have surgery to alter their genitals since they feel "trapped" in the wrong body.

Sexual Orientation  Sexual orientation, refers to an individual's preference in terms of sexual partners: same sex, other sex, either sex, or neither sex. Although the norm is heterosexuality (other), homosexuality (same sex) is not uncommon and bisexuality (either sex) and asexuality (neither sex) are also known. In some societies homosexual relations have not only been tolerated but preferred.

The Origin of Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation is probably not established in exactly the same way for every person but mounting evidence suggests biological factors at birth are very important but are accompanied by hormone imbalance and social experience as people age.
The Gay Rights Movement: Homophobia, a fear of homosexuals, is still common in Canada but on the decline. In the 1960s homosexuals began to refer to themselves as gay, made public declarations of their sexual orientation (came out of the closet) and challenged the narrow stereotypes of their behaviour. The calamity of AIDS reinvigorated prejudice and discrimination in the 1980s but Canada has become much more tolerant of late.
How Many Gay People?: Attempting to estimate proportions of gays is difficult given that not all have come out of the closet, but social scientists in the 1960s suggested that 10% of the population may be gay. Other studies suggest that how gay is defined is important and that the numbers may be considerably smaller. Montreal has been identified as a comfortable place for gays to live.
Bisexuality: A small portion of society, perhaps 1%, are neither heterosexual nor homosexual, as they feel strong attraction to people of both sexes.

Gender: A Cultural Distinction  Gender refers to the significance a society attaches to the biological categories of female and male. Although significant biological differences do exist, the culturally defined roles and social inequality which prevail are seen to be a product of socialization. Figure 12-1 (p. 297) indicates, however, that even the physical abilities of the sexes may be more alike than we have thought.

An Unusual Case Study: A case study of twin boys, one of whom had his penis severed during surgery at seven months of age, clearly reveals the significance of socialization. He was raised a girl, having further surgery to change his sex. The twins learned different gender identities, or the ways males and females, guided by culture, learn to think of themselves, but at adolescence "she" was showing signs of resisting feminine identity, suggesting that some biological forces were still at work. In fact "she" has now changed back to "he" and is living comfortably as a married man. Social construction obviously does not eliminate the influence of biology.

Gender in Global Perspective

The Israeli Kibbutzim: The significance of culture is revealed using studies which focus on egalitarian gender role patterns in Israeli kibbutzim. Although there is evidence of some more traditional gender patterns re-emerging, the effort to share roles equally is noteworthy.
Margaret Mead's and George Murdock's Research and Conclusions to be Drawn: Research by Mead and Murdock indicates that what is defined as feminine or masculine varies widely across different cultures. Behaviour by males and females is clearly more a matter of social definition than biological imperative. The Global Sociology box (p. 300) also indicates that men's and women's lives are subject to change even in traditional societies such as Botswana.

Patriarchy and Sexism  While conceptions of gender vary cross-culturally and historically, there is an apparent universal pattern of patriarchy, a form of social organization in which males dominate females. Matriarchy, defined as a form of social organization in which females dominate males has never been documented. The relative power of males over females does however vary significantly between societies. Global Map 12-1 (p. 301) shows that variation. Patriarchy is based on sexism,the belief that one sex is innately superior to the other sex. Institutionalized sexism, or sexism built into the various institutions of our society, is evident in the lack of attention paid historically to violence against women and their concentration in low-paying jobs.

The Cost of Sexism: The costs to women who are denied opportunities and the cost to society of loss of talent are clear. There are also costs to men who die younger and experience less intimacy. The Controversy and Debate box (p. 318) also outlines the privilege of men to experience more violent crime, lose custody of their children and feel the effects of affirmative action policies.
Is Patriarchy Inevitable?: This discussion illustrates that patriarchy in societies with simple technology tends to reflect biological sex differences. In industrialized societies, technology minimizes the significance of any biological differences.
Generally, the opinion of sociologists is that gender is principally a social construction and therefore patriarchy is subject to change.


Males and females are encouraged through the socialization process to incorporate gender into their personal identities. Table 12-1 (p. 302) identifies the traditional gender identity characteristics along the dimensions of masculinity and femininity. Studies show, however, that most young Canadians do not develop consistently "feminine" or "masculine" characteristics.
Gender roles are attitudes and activities that a society links to each sex. Males are expected to be ambitious and competitive while women are expected to be deferential and emotional.

Gender and the Family  In many societies gender is at work before birth as the preference is to have a male child. At birth families usher girls and boys into different "pink" and "blue" worlds. These differences are accentuated over time as parents stress independence and action for their boys and passivity and emotion for their girls.

Gender and the Peer Group  Janet Lever's research on peer group influences on gender suggests that the cultural lessons being taught to boys and girls are very different. Boys are more likely to play in team sports with complex rules and clear objectives. Girls are more likely to be engaging in activities in smaller groups involving fewer formal rules, more spontaneity, and rarely leading to a "victory."
Carol Gilligan has conducted research on moral reasoning and has demonstrated differences between boys and girls. Girls seem to understand morality in terms of responsibility and maintaining close relationships. Boys, on the other hand, reason according to rules and principles.

Gender and Schooling  Historically school texts have shown males doing more interesting things than females. This has begun to change but sex-stereotyping persists.
At the high school and university levels females and males still tend to choose different majors and new areas of study are often sex-linked with males studying computer science and females taking gender studies.

Gender and the Mass Media  The mass media have placed males at centre stage. Women have been shown as less competent than men, and often as sex objects. Changes are occurring, but very slowly. This is particularly true in advertising which has clung to traditional cultural views of women and men.
Erving Goffman's research on how men and women are presented in photos for advertisements reveals many subtle examples of sexism such as men focusing on products while women focus on men. The "beauty myth" as presented in the Critical Thinking box (p. 304) remains a part of the culture of advertising.
The Social Diversity box (p. 312) indicates that women have begun to shed the image of "soft and beautiful" as the Canadian women's hockey team competes for gold in Nagano.


Gender stratification refers to the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privilege between the sexes.

Working Men and Women  Working women have become the norm in Canada. In 1996 while 72.7% of men over fifteen were in the labour force, 58.6% of women were as well. Global Map 12-2 (p. 305) indicates that this pattern is similar in the industrialized world but not in poorer societies.
Women who work are not typically single or childless. Indeed married women with children under sixteen at home have a higher employment rate than those without children living at home.

Gender and Occupations: While the movement of women into the workforce has been impressive, they are still positioned primarily in lower-paying, traditionally female occupations. Although the numbers are declining we still see 44% of working women in the "pink collar" positions of clerical or service as indicated in Table 12-2 (p. 306). Men dominate in all other job categories except health, teaching and social science. They predominate in salary as well. Table 12-3 (p. 307) shows that in almost all occupational categories, men receive more income than women.

Housework: Women's "Second Shift"  Despite women's rapid entry into the labour force they continue to do most of the shopping, cooking and cleaning, amounting to what sociologists call a "second shift," a shift which introduces considerable stress to their lives. Global Map 12-3 (p. 308) outlines the proportions of housework performed by women globally.

Gender, Income, and Wealth  At all levels of completed education women earn less than men. Even female university graduates who work full time earn 3/4 of the income of their male counterparts. Although the differences have been declining in recent decades, it may have more to do with a decline in men's earnings rather than an increase for women.
Part of the disparity is accounted for in the different kinds of jobs held by women and men, as we have already seen. In some jurisdictions, including Ontario under the recent N.D.P. government, pay equity legislation has attempted to correct the imbalance by evaluating the "comparable worth" of various jobs. The second cause is related to family responsibilities which are accepted primarily by women, thereby affecting their time devoted to the job and perhaps their seniority. "Mommy tracks" have been proposed to allow women less intense periods in their occupations but critics suggest this may further label women as less reliable. Finally, discrimination accounts partly for the disparity as many women encounter the barrier of the "glass ceiling." Table 12-4 (p. 310) outlines women's and men's earnings in a variety of job classifications.

Gender and Education  Women were traditionally discouraged from participating in higher education. Recently, however, more than half of all BAs and slightly less than half of all MAs were earned by women. More of these have been in fine arts, education and the humanities but a growing number of women are entering the fields of medicine, engineering and science.

Gender and Politics  Before 1918 women could not vote in federal elections, but by 1940 all eligible women could vote in both federal and provincial elections. Table 12-5 (p. 311) cites the milestones in women's movement into Canadian political life.
Today women are involved in politics at all levels but primarily at the municipal level. Change is occurring however; currently 20% of M.P.s are women, the national leader of the N.D.P. is a woman and many women have taken dominant roles in both federal and provincial cabinets. A recent global survey finds that only in the Nordic nations does the share of parliamentary seats held by women even remotely match their share of the population.

Are Women a Minority?  As a category women can be viewed as a minority group because of being socially disadvantaged. However, subjectively, most white women in Canada do not perceive themselves as such because they live at a higher social level.

Minority Women  Minority women, especially Aboriginals, face a double disadvantage of gender and race or ethnicity. Aboriginal women have the lowest labour force participation, the second highest unemployment rate and a 1990 income level that places 33 percent of them below the low income cutoff.

Violence Against Women  Because violence is commonplace in our society, and closely linked to gender, it is often found where men and women interact most intensively (i.e., dating and the family). Sexual violence, it is argued, is mostly about power

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is defined as comments, gestures, or physical contact of a sexual nature that is deliberate, repeated, and unwelcome. Most victims of sexual harassment are women, probably because men are socialized to be sexually assertive and are more likely to be in positions of power. While some of it is blatant, it can also be subtle but seen as creating a hostile environment.
Pornography: The definition of pornography is very ambiguous as well. Current law requires different jurisdictions to decide for themselves what violates "community standards" of decency and lacks any redeeming social value. There seems to be a pattern in our society now of seeing pornography as a political issue as well as a moral one. Like sexual harassment, pornography raises complex and conflicting concerns including discrimination against women and the exercise of freedom of expression.


Structural-Functional Analysis  Theorists using this perspective understand gender role patterns over history to be the result of the functional contributions these patterns make to the survival of society. Although industrial technology has allowed greater variation in gender roles, they still reflect long-standing social mores.

Talcott Parsons: Gender and Complementarity: Talcott Parsons theorized that gender plays a part in maintaining society by providing men and women with a set of complementary roles (instrumental and expressive) which they learn through the socialization process. The primary societal responsibility of women, in this view, is child-rearing. Thus, they are socialized to display expressive qualities. Men are responsible for achievement in the labour force and therefore are socialized to exhibit instrumental traits.
Criticisms of this approach include the lack of recognition that many women have traditionally worked outside the home, the neglect of the personal strains associated with such a family orientation and the fact that what is reinforced is simply male domination.

Social-Conflict Analysis  Social-conflict analysis of gender stratification focuses on the inequality of men and women. This theoretical view holds that women are disadvantaged while men benefit by the distinction of gender.

Friedrich Engels: Gender and Class: Friedrich Engels saw technology leading to a productive surplus and a class system to dispose of the surplus wealth. With agricultural surplus gender inequality was created, as monogamous marriage and progeny were necessary to maintain control of private property and women built their lives around husbands and children. Engels contended that capitalism intensified this male domination.
Criticisms of this approach suggest that cooperative, happy families are ignored and that gender stratification exists everywhere, not just in capitalist societies.


Feminism is defined as the advocacy of social equality for the sexes, in opposition to patriarchy and sexism. Its first wave in this country occurred in the nineteenth century, culminating with women's right to vote.

Basic Feminist Ideas  Feminists suggest that personal experiences are linked to gender. How we think of ourselves, how we act and how we are stratified in society relative to the opposite sex, are seen as products of how our society attaches meaning to gender. Five ideas considered central to feminism are:

  1. The importance of change.
  2. Expanding human choice.
  3. Eliminating gender stratification.
  4. Ending sexual violence.
  5. Promoting sexual autonomy.

Figure 12-2 (p. 316) provides a snapshot of the global use of contraception by married women of childbearing age. Variations Within Feminism
Liberal Feminism: Liberal feminism accepts the basic organization of society, but seeks the same rights and opportunities for women and men.
Socialist Feminism: Socialist feminism supports the reforms of liberal feminism, but believes they can be gained only through the elimination of the capitalist economy and the success of a socialist revolution.
Radical Feminism: Radical feminism advocates the elimination of patriarchy altogether by organizing a gender-free society.
Opposition to Feminism: Feminism has encountered resistance from both men and women. Some men do not wish to lose their privilege, others are concerned about the traditions of marrige and family life and still others see feminism as a threat to their masculinity. Women who centre their lives in their families see feminism as a threat to their values and others see women as losing rather than gaining identity. Some academics are also concerned that feminism ignores any evidence that men and women are innately different and ignores the contribution of women to child-rearing. Generally speaking, there is broad support in Canada for the ideals of liberal feminism but not for socialist and radical feminism.


There has been a trend over the past century to greater gender equality. Industrialization has reduced the necessity for physical strength in most occupations and medical technology allows people to control reproduction. As well more men and women are deliberately pursuing equality. Opposition to this shift persists but the trend to greater equality for women is likely to grow.

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