As we saw in Modules 1 and 2, “sex” refers to the biological characteristics that identify bodies as male, female, both or neither. “Gender” consists of the socially constructed roles and relationships, personality traits, attitudes, behaviours, values, relative power and influence that society ascribes to the sexes.
In many ways, the distinction between sex and gender is an artificial one because each of us experiences and is affected by both sex and gender. For instance, women are more vulnerable to the effects of pollution by virtue of their sex. Many toxins, such as methyl mercury and hormones, are stored in body fat and women have a higher proportion of body fat than men. At the same time, gender may make women more vulnerable to the effects of environmental contamination. Women’s roles in caregiving, food preparation and housework as well as norms of feminine beauty that encourage the use of commercial cosmetics may increase their risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals.
The “nature” versus “nurture” debate shows us just how difficult it is to determine precisely where the impact of sex ends and the influence of gender begins and vice versa. The debate revolves around conflicting opinions about which factors are more likely to affect human behaviour and development – biology or environment. For example, does a particular boy excel at basketball because he is tall and athletic like his father, or because he wants to be like his father and works constantly to increase his chances of success? Would the same boy be as driven or prepared to succeed if the athlete in his family is his mother rather than his father? Would a boy who is short and/or physically awkward or a girl who is tall and/or athletic be equally skilled or similarly encouraged?
While these are difficult questions to answer, it is important to maintain the conceptual distinction between sex and gender because it helps to distinguish between what can and cannot, what should and should not be changed to improve health and well-being.