Gender Identity

Gender Identity 2384
Photo by: Diane Keys

Gender is the category to which a person is assigned on the basis of sex. Gender is a term used in discussing the different roles, identities, and expectations that our society associates with males and females. Gender identity refers to a person's own sense of being male or female.


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Gender roles


There are psychological, cultural, and social characteristics associated with a person's gender identity. The terms feminine or masculine often are used to describe behaviors generally associated with females or males. For example, contact sports have long been considered primarily masculine activities, and taking care of babies has been thought of as a feminine activity. Gender is different from sex. Sex specifically refers to the biological (physical) differences between females and males.

What Do We Know About Ourselves?

In the broadest sense, gender identity refers to each person's own sense of being male or female. We form our gender identities quite naturally. Almost always our gender identities match up to the sexual body parts we have. Most people develop a sense that they are male or female within the first few years of life, and it is generally believed that the majority of children have acquired this sense by the age of 3. It just seems like something that we know automatically! Some people, however, experience confusion over their gender identities. This confusion sometimes leads to a condition known as gender identity disorder. Gender or sex role identity refers to the various attitudes and behaviors that are considered normal and appropriate for people of a particular sex. These attitudes and behaviors vary between cultures and societies and involve a set of expectations about how females and males should think, act, and feel.

* chromosome (KRO-mo-zom) is a threadlike structure inside cells on which the genes are located. Human beings have 46 chromosomes (23 pairs). The X and Y chromosomes determine whether a person is male or female. If you have two X chromosomes, you are female; if you have one X and one Y chromosome, you are male.

What Roles Do Biology and Environment Play
in Gender Identity?

Both biological and environmental factors influence the behavior of all individuals as male or female. The most basic biological influence is chromosome * pair 23, the sex chromosomes that mark females and males. These chromosomes influence the development of male or female sex organs in the fetus.

The locker room can become a place of fear, shame, and alienation during adolescent years, when teens may be insecure about their bodies and compare themselves to others. Boys may feel pressure to be good at sports and other activities traditionally seen as "masculine." Photex/Corbis
The locker room can become a place of fear, shame, and alienation during adolescent years, when teens may be insecure about their bodies and compare themselves to others. Boys may feel pressure to be good at sports and other activities traditionally seen as "masculine."

The environmental influences include cultural expectations of males and females. In many countries this begins as early as the child's birth, when boys are clothed in blue and girls in pink. This is followed by differences in hairstyles, clothes, and toys for most children.

Gender identification

One of the strongest influences on the development of gender identity occurs when the child identifies with the same-sex parent. Boys and girls also learn gender roles through imitating the behavior of other adults and watching what adults say and do. Parents, other family members, peers, people at school and in the media, and people from just about every aspect of life with which a child comes into contact exert cultural influences on gender identity.

* sexist means promoting stereotypes of social roles based on a person's sex.


Considerable attention has been paid to how masculine and feminine roles are portrayed on television, radio, and in the movies. Television and films often show the traditional gender roles for males and females. This reinforces these traditional roles in the viewer's mind. Even language has a gender bias. In English, much of the language children hear is sexist * . Words such as mankind or chairman have been commonly used to refer to everyone, but this is changing. More and more we are seeing the words humankind and chairperson instead.


One's own thought processes or cognitive (intellectual) abilities also contribute to gender identity. As children begin to think about themselves as male or female, the world becomes organized on the basis of gender. For example, most boys know they are boys and want to do things that are associated with boys. This understanding of gender influences each person to behave as a girl or boy as defined by the culture in which he or she lives. As people develop, they adopt a personal version of what is acceptable masculine or feminine behavior.


Sometimes people do not conform to traditional gender roles. Females may be interested in contact sports, or pursuing a career instead of raising a family. These choices may not conform to the generally accepted notion of being female. Girls interested in more physical activities, like sports, are often called "tomboys." Boys who are interested in such activities as ballet, cooking, or becoming nurses may be called "sissies." These people may have different interests from the norm, whether they think of themselves as male or female. Nonconformity to traditional gender roles does not mean that a person has gender identity disorder.

Billy Elliot

The movie Billy Elliot tells the story of an 11-year-old boy living in the north of England who becomes a dancer. Every week Billy takes boxing lessons at the village hall. Proud of his fancy footwork in the ring, Billy one day happens upon a ballet class being held at the hall. He begins to attend the dass on the sly and shows amazing skill, but he must keep his dancing secret. His widowed father and brother work as coal miners, but they are out on strike and are barely able to keep food on the table. When his father finally discovers that Billy has been squandering his boxing money on "unmanly" ballet lessons, he forces Billy to give them up. Later, he chances to see Billy dancing and decides to risk everything to send the boy to London, where Billy can pursue his dream. Billy auditions for the Royal Ballet School. His talent wins him a spot at the school, and he goes on to perform on the London stage.

Changing gender roles

Gender roles are changing in American society as men and women broaden their interests and activities. Today males and females find themselves in many roles that a few decades ago would have been the domain of the other sex. Men are staying at home to raise children, and women are captains of the space shuttle. Although gender roles are important because there are differences between men and women, gender roles should not be used to exclude people from following their interests, developing their talents, or using their natural abilities.

See also
Gender Identity Disorder
Sexual Development



Schwager, Tina, and Michele Schuerger. Gutsy Girls: Young Women Who Dare. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1999. True stories of young women who participate in challenging sports and adventure. Inspires girls and boys to achieve their personal best.

Karnes, Frances A., and Suzanne M. Bean. Girls and Young Women Entrepreneurs: True Stories About Starting and Running a Business Plus How You Can Do It Yourself Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1997.
A resource book for young people who want to start up a business, including first-person advice, step-by-step instructions, and groups for young entrepreneurs to contact.

Karnes, Frances A., and Suzanne M. Bean. Girls and Young Women Leading the Way. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1993. First-person stories by girls and young women telling how they became leaders each in her own way.

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