Gender vs. Sex: What's the Difference?

By Carl, John | Montessori Life, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Gender vs. Sex: What's the Difference?


Carl, John, Montessori Life


As a parent, sociologist, and educator, I often seem to see the world differently from others. While some see a public policy debate as a football game between winners and losers, I see it as a vital way to create a good society. While some see education as a means to an end, I see it as a goal in and of itself. Some see gender equality growing in society because of the obvious changes in women's roles. However, I question this perception of increasing equality, as gender roles appear to me to remain strongly tied to traditional practices.

My youngest daughter attended an excellent preschool program. It was widely known for its open atmosphere, its racial and ethnic diversity and its fair-minded attitude toward teaching young children. At this bastion of equality gender differences still existed. Each year on Mother's Day the children held a Mother's Day Tea Party at which they sang to their mothers a song of love and tenderness. The event ended with the children presenting their mothers with a longstemmed rose and a kiss on the cheek, reciting, "In all the world, there is no other to take the place of my dear mother."

Contrast this with Father's Day. For that holiday, the school held a hot dog cookout on the playground. The fathers did the cooking and played with their children. For the presentation, the children sang a ditty called "Roadkill Charlie/' a fun little song about a man who cooks and serves dead opossum. While singing the song, the children tossed hand-painted T-shirts with "DAD" on them to their fathers.

When I suggested to the director of the school that fathers might prefer a touching poem and /or song in lieu of an invitation to eat roadkill, she laughed, saying, "Dads don't want that. Mommies are special." This progressive, well-intentioned person was unknowingly reinforcing gender stereotypes. Such are the ills of thinking of gender differences in the United States. You find yourself often raising points of view that others don't seem to be able to see.

Gender and sex are not the same thing. Gender is defined as the personal traits and position in society connected with being a male or female. For instance, wearing high heels is associated with the female gender, while wearing combat boots is associated with the male gender. Gender is different from sex because sex refers strictly to the biological makeup of a male or a female. Clearly boys and girls have different biology, but that does not necessarily mean that biology creates personality. The simple correlations of boys to aggression and girls to verbal expression are not the whole story. Correlation is not cause, though it may be tempting to think that these simple correlations support the idea that gender-based behavior emanates from biological sex (Kennelly Merz & Lorber, 2001). As a sociologist, I would suggest that a more important factor than biology is socialization.

I am not a house husband, but I do my share of cooking, shopping, and chores around the house. When my daughter was born, I was in graduate school, so I spent a lot of time bathing, feeding, and caring for her. At one point, my father suggested that I was "doing too much with her." He said, "She's a girl, and fathers need to be careful about that kind of stuff." I can only surmise that he feared she might develop some nontraditional ideas about gender because her father was so involved. Personally, I hoped she would become nontraditional in her understanding of gender roles.

In their classic book, The Second Shift (2003), Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung contend that the women's liberation movement may have actually created additional burdens for women because many of these women have entered the working world while at the same time coming home to a second shift of work at the end of the day. Interestingly, the authors find that most women think this distribution of labor is fair. Why? I would surmise that at some level, the gender construction (how we get ideas about gender) these women were taught told them that this was their role. …

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