I was at a women’s health event on Thursday and we spent most of the morning talking about the defintions of “sex” and “gender.” Sex and gender, you may be surprised to hear1, are not the same thing.
Sex is a biological construct – based on our genes/hormones/anatomy/physiology, we are classified as “male” or “female,” although research shows that things are not quite as clear cut as this. For example, we tend to think of sex chromosomes as being XX = female, XY = male, but there are people with different chromosomal combinations (e.g., XO, XXX, XXY, XYY); similarly, we think of vagina = female, penis = male, but there are people born with indeterminate genitalia, or both sets, or incongruous external and internal anatomy.
Gender is a social construct, something that we humans create. We can think of “gender roles” (the way that society expects us to behave) and “gender identities” (what gender we personally identify ourselves with). We talked a lot about how there are many genders, not just “male” or “female”, and even within the groups “male” and “female”, there really are multiple “masculinities” and “feminities)2.
We spent a considerable amount of time exploring these concepts of multiple and complex sexes and genders, specifically regarding how this complexity affects our research.
What happened at the break after this enriching and thoughtful discussion really struck me as rather funyy. The women’s health field is, not surprisingly, dominanted by women researchers. The group at this event was made up of probably 100 or so participants, of which there were maybe 2 or 3 males. At the break, many participants, myself included, headed to the bathroom. As I walked down the hall, I noticed a large lineup of women at the door to the “women’s” washroom, and no one going into the men’s washroom. Hadn’t we just discussed that “male” and “female” is a false binary??
So I knocked on the door to the “men’s” room (because I realize that societal norms do dictate that it would be “strange” for a woman to walk in on a man at the urinal and that might make some men uncomfortable), and getting no response, I said something nonchalant to the women lined up for the “ladies’s room” and marched on into the unoccupied “men’s” washroom. I’m not sure if any of the other women saw the poignancy of my actions and certainly no one followed me. I guess it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk sometimes.
Wow, this posting turned out far more cerebral than what I usually post here. It’s almost like something you’d expect to see here or here or here. Perhaps I should nerdify it a bit by adding in a few more big words4 and post it on my “professional” blog… yup, I’ve started a professional blog for work/education purposes… I’m trying to inform others of the benefits of blogging for reflective practice/educational purposes/community building, so I figured that I should be practising what I preach and blogging my own reflections on my professional practice. But I’m not linking it to this blog which, if you know what I did for a living, would probably make a lot of sense to you.
1or maybe not, depending on your background.
2As an aside, this issue of “masculinities” and “feminities” got me thinking about how I have never really felt that I fit into any predefined gender roles – when asked “are you a girly girl or a tom boy?”3, I’ve basically come to the point of giving the answer “I’m a tom boy who likes to dress like a girly girl.” In many ways, I have some very stereotypically “male” characteristics. I love both watching and playing sports, although I think it is somewhat outside of the “male” gender role to want to bed your favourite NHL hockey player. Another example – I’m very career focussed, but I like to wear short skirts and high heels while I go about my career. Hell, I wore CFM boots to my PhD defence!! I like pretty, sparkly jewellry and wearing makeup, which I think contrasts nicely with my pig-sty of an apartment and my trucker mouth. We are all aware of my obsession with pretty shoes , but are you aware that I will wear my pretty shoes to watch action and horror movies but wouldn’t be caught dead watching a chick flick? It’s never actually bothered me that don’t fit into some stereotypically “female” roles, while I do partake of other “girly” behaviours that would make some feminists look down their nose at me… I actually like picking and choosing my behaviours regardless of what society feels I should do. But it was an interesting phenomenon to think about in a group of predominantly feminist scholars and strengthened my confidence in being who I am, regardless of whether mainstream society accepts it or not.
3Which I’ve been asked more times that you’d believe.
4and remove the part about bedding Taylor Pyatt.