Katy Carpenter portrait

Written by Katy Carpenter

Katy is a Pastoral Lead and EDI Lead in a Birmingham primary school. She is currently studying for her PhD in Education, researching how children explore and negotiate gender through creative writing.

Graham et al (2017) wrote that gender is typically constructed within a binary of two natural biological entities – man and woman. As such, it is very easy to conclude that gender is inherently linked to one’s sex. Even a modern understanding of gender as a social construction and a form of expression finds itself difficult to detach itself, semantically, and conceptually, from one’s being male or female. The language around gender remains restricted to a range of words pertaining to masculinity and femininity, a binary mode of thinking which reduces our positioning of people who deviate from the gender norm as either masculine women or feminine men. It seems that without this binary, we would find it very difficult to understand gender-diverse people. 

How have we gotten here, why is this the case, and need it be? Our historical, social and cultural norms have made it so that gender appears to be indistinguishably linked to sex, and historically, sex and gender have been treated as synonymous in law and culture (Case, 1995). Even contemporary culture continues to conflate sex and gender. On an application form I will often be asked to identify my gender, and drop-down options usually are a choice of male, female, non-binary, or prefer not to say. Now if what HR wanted to know was how I express myself, they could change these options to masculine, feminine (due to where we are in history these terms are still helpful in denoting a style or aesthetic), non-binary, prefer not to say, and in addition they might even add a few other options like flamboyant, assertive, glamorous. Of course, this would be limitless and unmanageable. It also wouldn’t be very useful to HR because when this question is being asked, what they actually want to know is my sex assigned at birth, or indeed, whether I don’t find this label relevant to my ability to do the job, in which case I might opt for non-binary or even the as question-raising option, prefer not to say.

The conflation of sex and gender is problematic. When we use the terms interchangeably, people end up confused. I treat gender as a social construct, historically derivative of the male/ female sex binary but actually conceptually distinct from it. A popular view of gender is one of whether you’re male (a biological occurrence), female (a biological occurrence), or reject those biological categories (a social occurrence). The drop-down boxes on application forms suggest that this is also an institutional view of gender. However, an important distinction between sex (meaning one’s sex assigned at birth) and gender (meaning one’s expression- which has both personal and political motivations) needs to be upheld, else we need not have two terms at all. A semantic and thus conceptual conflation of sex and gender subsequently leads to a confusion of the debate around matters pertaining to gender. Indeed, one of the outcomes of this conflation is that when I talk about gender with my friends and colleagues, I am taken to be discussing transgender matters. Channel 4’s Gender Wars, which aired earlier this summer, looked promising in bringing discussion about gender to a wider audience than academics and people leading EDI work, however in focusing on the debate around the trans community, it unfortunately upheld the impression that all debates around gender are debates around trans issues. The gender discussion is much wider than this, and there is a difference between the matter of being transgender and the critical questioning of the boundaries of gender presentation.

In relying on a binary between masculinity and femininity when developing a framework for conceptualising gender, even those who accept and embrace gender fluidity are restricted to this idea of two ends of a linear spectrum and everything else in-between. I suggest a different way of picturing gender (because let’s face it, things that come with a picture are always easier to understand). I suggest an egg, where male, female and intersex people reside centrally in the yolk, and the white circle around the outside is the space of gender – how one expresses oneself. By removing the image of the line, one form of gender presentation is no nearer to or further from any one sex than it is another, and thus releases itself from the binary of masculine and feminine forms of presentation.

In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler controversially questioned the category of woman. This was contentious because it destabilised ‘woman’ as a protected and distinguished category, with fundamental difference to men, something centuries of feminist work unwittingly embedded. This idea set ablaze the acknowledging of gender (in a feminist context, the doing of womanhood) as a process of construction – gender as a doing rather than a being, separate from sex. This was called gender performativity. With this different understanding came the possibility of a critical evolution around identity and performance. There is much yet to be explored.  


Butler, J (1990) Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, New York.

Case, M. A., (1995) Disaggregating gender from sex and sexual orientation: The effeminate man in the law and feminist jurisprudence. Yale Law Journal, pp.1-105.

Channel 4 (2023) Gender Wars. Available here: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/gender-wars 

Graham, K., Treharne, G.J. and Nairn, K. (2017) Using Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power to critically examine the construction of gender in secondary schools. Social and Personality Psychology Compass11(2).

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