Note: Several European languages do not have a word for "gender." It is important to device a language-specific word or use the English correctly.

Definition: Gender—a socio-cultural process—refers to cultural and social attitudes that together shape and sanction "feminine" and "masculine" behaviors, products, technologies, environments, and knowledges. "Feminine" and "masculine" describe attitudes and behaviors on a continuum of gender identities. Gender does not necessarily match sex.

Background: The term gender was introduced in the late 1960s to reject biological determinism that links biology with rigid sex roles and expectations. "Gender" is used to distinguish socio-cultural factors shaping behaviors and attitudes from biological factors related to sex (see Terms: Sex and Sex and Gender are Distinct Terms). Gendered behaviors and attitudes are learned; they are neither fixed nor universal. Gender norms, gender relations, and gender identities are constantly in flux. They change by historical era, culture, and place, such as the 1950s versus the 2010s, Spain versus Germany, urban versus rural areas. Gender also differs by specific social contexts, such as at work versus at home. Gender identities interact with other identities, such as ethnicity or class (see Analyzing Factors Interacting with Sex and Gender).

Problems to Avoid when Analyzing Gender

Problems can arise if researchers assume that:

  • all women as a group or all men as a group (their attitudes, preferences, needs, behaviors, and knowledge) are the same.
  • women and men are different.
  • observed differences between women and men are solely biological in origin.
  • observed differences between women and men hold across cultures.

How Gender Functions:
Humans function in large and complex societies through learned behaviors. The ways we speak, our mannerisms, the things we use, and our behaviors all signal who we are and establish rules for interaction. Gender is one aspect of these sets of behaviors and attitudes. As such, gender can be an important aspect of research and design (see Analyzing Gender, Rethinking Research Priorities and Outcomes, Formulating Research Questions, Rethinking Concepts and Theories, Engineering Innovation Processes, Designing Health and Biomedical Research, Rethinking Standards and Reference Models, and Rethinking Language and Visual Representations).

  • Gender Norms refer to social attitudes about what behaviors, preferences, products, professions, or knowledge is appropriate for women and men. Gender norms influence the development of products and technologies (see Case Studies: Exploring Markets for Assistive Technologies for the Elderly, Machine Translation, Making Machines Talk and Video Games):
  • Gender Relations refer to empirical observations of the actual roles women and men take on and how they interact in a particular culture or social context—such as in the home, in the lab, or on the design team.
    • Social divisions of labor are an important aspect of gender relations where women and men are concentrated in different types of (paid or unpaid) activities. One consequence of such gender segregation is that particular occupations or disciplines become “marked” symbolically with the (presumed) gender identity of the numerically dominant group: for example, nursing is seen as a “feminine” profession, engineering as “masculine” (Faulkner, 2009).
    • Women and men who work in highly segregated roles acquire different kinds of knowledge or expertise, which can sometimes be usefully accessed for gendered innovations (see Participatory Research and Design; see also Case Study: Water Infrastructure).
    • Gender relations can also become embodied in products or built environments, such as transportation systems (see Rethinking Language and Visual Representations; see also Case Study: Public Transportation).
  • Gender Identities refer to how individuals and groups perceive and present themselves, and how they are perceived by others (Schiebinger, 1999). Gender identities are context-specific. Any individual engages in multiple femininities and masculinities (consciously or unconsciously), depending on the particular context. For example, a man directing a lab meeting may use masculine-identified leadership skills, but he may employ more feminine-identified qualities when helping his child with math. Note that:
    • Gender identities can influence research (see Analyzing Gender).
    • Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming are terms that describe “expression of gender characteristics, including identities that are not stereotypically associated with one’s assigned sex at birth.” These forms of expression are common and typically are not treated clinically (WPATH, 2011). Nevertheless, prejudice against gender-nonconforming people can cause harm (Meyer, 2003).
    • Gender Dysphoria or Gender Variance is “discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics)” (WPATH, 2011; DSM, 2013). Gender variations exist along a continuum of gender identities, and individuals may or may not seek treatment (Fausto-Sterling, 2012).

Works Cited

  • American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). Arlington: APA.
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), 5th edition (2013).
  • Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing Gender in Engineering Workplace Cultures: Part I — Observations from the Field. Engineering Studies, 1 (1) 3-18.
  • Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). The Five Sexes, Revisited. The Sciences, 40 (4), 18-23.
  • Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). The Dynamic Development of Gender Variability. Journal of Homosexuality, 59, 398-421.
  • Kessler, S. (1990). The Medical Construction of Gender: Case Management of Intersexed Infants. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 16 (1), 3-25.
  • Meyer, I. (2003). Prejudice as Stress: Conceptual and Measurement Problems. American Journal of Public Health, 93 (2), 262-265.
  • Schiebinger, L. (1999). Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • World Health Organization (WHO). (1990). International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD)—10th Revision. Geneva: WHO.
  • World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). (2011). Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People. Minneapolis: WPATH.