Study on gender: Who counts as a man and who counts as a woman

Oct 28, 2013

Gender is no longer determined solely by biological factors, according to a new study by a Grand Valley State University researcher whose article, "Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System," was recently published in Gender & Society.

Laurel Westbrook, assistant professor of sociology at Grand Valley State, and Kristen Schilt, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, examined various case studies and found that , such as genitals and chromosomes, used to be the ultimate determiner of , but that is slowly changing.

"We explore the criteria for determining who is a 'man' and who is a 'woman' in sex-segregated spaces," said Westbrook. "We are at an interesting point in the history of gender, where people are torn between valuing self-identity and believing that biology determines gender. Our study explores that change in the gender system."

Westbrook examined case studies involving public debates over the expansion of transgender employment rights, policies determining eligibility of transgender people for competitive sports, and proposals to remove the genital surgery requirement for a change of sex marker on birth certificates.

"Transgender equality has never been more visible as a key issue than it is today, and with the development of every new trans-supportive law or policy, there typically follows an outbreak of criticism," said Westbrook. "In our analysis, we find that these moments, which we term 'gender panics,' are the result of a clash between two competing cultural ideas about gender identity: a belief that gender is determined by biology versus a belief that a person's self-identity in terms of gender should be validated. These gender panics frequently result in a reshaping of the language of such policies so that they require extensive bodily changes before transgender individuals have access to particular rights."

These gender panics reveal the criteria for who counts as a woman and a man in our society, said Westbrook. The study shows that the criteria for determining gender—the practice of placing others in gender categories—are not the same across all social spaces. While self-identity is sufficient in many circumstances, such as the workplace, people are more likely to believe that biology determines gender in sex-segregated spaces.

"In the controversies we examined, it is access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams at the center of gender panics," said Westbrook. "Moreover, not all sex-segregated spaces are policed equally. Because of beliefs that women are inherently vulnerable, particularly to unwanted heterosexual advances, it is women's spaces at the center of these debates. Thus, with these controversies, much of the discussion is about a fear of 'male' bodies in 'women's' spaces."

Westbrook said as a result of these fears, transgender rights policies are often discarded or altered in ways that force transgender people to conform to normative ideas of gendered bodies in order to access public facilities and activities that fit their identities.

Explore further: New insights into gender identity in Australia

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New insights into gender identity in Australia

Sep 17, 2013

Sex-affirming surgery should be subsidised by Medicare without the need for a diagnosis of 'gender dysphoria', says Flinders University social studies expert Dr Damien Riggs.

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Squirrel
1 / 5 (1) Oct 29, 2013
Concern with gender is cultural--in some societies waking up the different gender would be traumatic, in others a question of finding different cloths and changing a birth certificate. May be I am an exception--a minority that gets unresearched and overlooked--but I could not care what gender I happen to be assigned biologically or culturally--there are far more important things about me than whether I am a women or a man. "Masculinity" and "femininity" as aspects of what makes us particular people are overrated.

More news stories

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.