Gender as a dichotomy
The word dichotomy means treating two things as opposite or entirely different. Like sex, gender has typically been viewed as having two distinct categories – maleness (or masculinity) and femaleness (or femininity) — which are mutually exclusive. Think about the meaning behind some popular sayings, such as “the opposite sex” and “my other half” or the title of the well-known self-help book, Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars.
While this is a common way of thinking about gender, it does not adequately capture the range of human experiences or expressions of self and identity that gender encompasses. For example, nurturing is an attribute that is typically associated with women, but we know that not all women are interested in caregiving and we know that many men are. Similarly, sports are often seen as a male domain, but many men are more interested in the arts than in athletics and growing numbers of women follow or engage in team sports.
Few – if any – of us fulfill the ideals of masculinity and femininity and most of us do not aspire to achieve one ideal to the exclusion of the other.
Gender as a continuum
A more accurate model of gender is a continuum. The word continuum refers to the idea that many small and subtle differences can exist between two distinct extremes. In a gender continuum, traits, behaviours, values and power may be associated more with masculinity or femininity, but they are expressed and experienced to varying degrees by different people. This model of gender allows us to avoid categorizing the behaviour or identity of a man who enjoys sewing and a woman who competes for the title of “Iron Man”.