Gender, gender identity, sex, and sexual orientation. These four terms deeply impact our lives, how we relate to one another, and how we see ourselves. Despite their profound impact, these concepts are often conflated, used interchangeably, or used inaccurately. With perceptions of gender changing rapidly, it’s important that organizations gain a deeper understanding of what gender is (and isn’t) and how the gender binary affects each one of us.
Let’s break it down.
“Sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably. But while connected, the two terms are not equivalent. Generally, we determine a newborn’s sex as either male or female (some US states and other countries offer a third option) based on the baby’s genitals, and we assume based on someone’s sex that they will develop certain biological traits (levels of certain hormones, specific physical characteristics appearing around puberty, etc.) While we are often taught that bodies can either be physically “female” or “male,” there are intersex traits that demonstrate that sex exists across a continuum of possibilities.
Gender and sexual orientation are two distinct, but related, aspects of self. Gender is personal (how we see ourselves), while sexual orientation is interpersonal (who we are physically, emotionally and/or romantically attracted to). While these are two different aspects of who we are, our sexual orientation is related to gender because it is defined by our gender and the gender(s) of people we are attracted to. Because of this relationship, new gender identity terms have expanded the language of sexual identities as well.
The Three Dimensions of Gender: Body, Identity and Social
We can broadly understand gender and how we experience and express it through three dimensions: body, identity and social.
How we relate to the gendering of our body by society, and the relationship between a person’s gender and their body goes beyond one’s reproductive functions and the sex assigned to them at birth. Concepts around masculinity and femininity as it relates to certain physical attributes can also inform this relationship.
While some identify their gender identity on either end of the gender spectrum, the very nature of a spectrum means increasing numbers of people’s gender identity spans outside of, or across the binary.
Gender roles and expectations which vary across societies also heavily socialize us and our understandings of gender and gender expression. A more thorough exploration of the three dimensions can be found at Reimagine Gender.
Understanding One’s Gender Story to Enact Change
Now that we have an understanding of these key terms, the next question is how we can enact crucial change to make our counsel, workplaces, and campaigns more inclusive.
Evolving a client or workplace’s understanding of gender is crucial, complex work — getting there requires a shift in thinking. Many business leaders see gender as something that affects a certain group of employees, but the truth is that gender affects all of us. In different ways and to different degrees, we are all affected by narrow understandings of gender. By exploring one’s gender story, we can better understand how our own gender identity, gender expectations, and gender norms influence our perception of gender and how we relate to others. A guide to understanding one’s gender story can be found on the Reimagine Gender website.
Once you have a better understanding of how gender has shaped your professional and personal life, you can begin to see the possibilities of truly reimagining gender across your work. Your gender story can help you understand — really understand — that gender in the workplace isn’t solely about women’s equality or the experiences of transgender or non-binary employees; instead, its depth and breadth touch every person and aspect of the company.