The Sex/Gender Debate

Are we ready to move beyond essentialist thinking? Social and scientific thinking remain entangled

Although there are ongoing debates and critiques around gender stereotypes, the world to date seems to be pretty comfortable with the idea of there being just two discrete biological sexes. But emerging evidence suggests this simple binary is nothing more than the result of a human need to organise our world into uncomplicated categories.

A core issue in this debate too often overlooked is the distinction between the definition of sex as opposed to the definition of gender.

Perhaps we want to limit the term ‘sex’ to fundamental biology – genes, genitals and gonads – and the term ‘gender’ to social processes. But it’s not so easy to separate the scientific and social context of these discussions.

Biological essentialism holds that social gender is driven by biological characteristics, to the extent that we need only use the term ‘sex’. On the other hand, discussions of gendered environments emphasise their powerful brain-changing effects, to the extent that gender has replaced sex as the catch all term.

In the recent debate The Rise and Fall of Sex, neuroscience appears the most prepared to tackle this distinction. Taking characteristics of both brain and behaviour that might be categorised as ‘typically female’ or ‘typically male’, Daphna Joel outlines powerful evidence that each of us is, in fact, a mosaic of different such characteristics, with very few of us describable as even predominantly male or predominantly female.  A game changer in decades of debate about the existence of only two types of brain – male or female -   she urges us to ‘think outside the box’, to go beyond the binary and acknowledge the uniqueness of each individual. There is no such thing as a female brain, there is no such thing as a male brain.

However, Joel is outnumbered. Sociologist Barry Barnes argues the categorisation arises from there being only two ‘labels’ available, but makes more play of the fact that we should be paying attention to the differential status that different sexes are given in society.

Psychologist Stuart Ritchie stays firmly with the binary message, emphasising structural differences in the brain and notes the differences in psychiatric disorders between females and males. His message is strongly that, if anything, the salience of the two sex categories in science should be increased, although he does echo Barnes in his concern that biological differences (given) shouldn’t be used as an excuse to treat people differently.

The fact that biological differences shouldn’t be used to justify social distinctions rather glosses over the fact that this is precisely how they are used.

These earnest urgings that biology should have no social meaning left me with the feeling of a missed opportunity. In this case a chance to challenge the continuing power of the biological essentialist approach, the whole ‘let boys be boys’ etc., argument.

The fact that biological differences shouldn’t be used to justify social distinctions rather glosses over the fact that this is precisely how they are used, despite powerful evidence emerging in the fields of cell biology, of endocrinology, of human physiology, that we human beings do not fall neatly into two clearly defined categories.

The origin of this kind of debate is the ‘hunt the differences’ agenda established at the end of the 18thcentury, that men and women had different places in society, determined by their different biologies. Fast forward to the 21st century – have we moved beyond this biological determinist perspective? You only have to look at highly publicised outbursts about the unsuitability of women to pursue a career in science to realise that such essentialist thinking still has a platform today.

The frequency with which any hint of a sex difference in the brain is reported in the popular press accompanied by headlines such as “At last the truth…” or “Proof at last…” suggests that this is a powerful belief, well-embedded in the public consciousness which should be challenged at every opportunity. Perhaps in a debate at Hay-On-Wye?

Can we separate science from politics? In this arena, I think, like it or not, a firm answer has to be ‘no’.

Can we separate science from politics? In this arena, I think, like it or not, a firm answer has to be ‘no’. The issue of research into sex differences is entangled with issues of equality and equity, with accusations of political ideology attempting to trounce scientific reality, of ‘inconvenient truths’, of ‘equal meaning the same’. This form of debate is, rather unfortunately, not only being played out, perhaps more understandably, in the amphitheatre of social media, but also in the realms of neuroscience itself.

Embedded social ideas about gender manifest in scientific research. Sometimes neuroscience researchers over-emphasise findings of sex difference, or are less than cautious in how they interpret their findings, or perhaps even draw on stereotypical beliefs to provide a context for such findings . But critiques of such practices can elicit accusations of ‘sex difference denial’, or of ‘putting women’s health at risk’ by preventing sex differences research.

This is missing the point. Research that might help us tackle the social and political consequences of beliefs that there are two different types of human beings with two different types of brains and, ergo, two different types of skills sets is so important that it must be done well. This will not be achieved by writing biological sex out of the equation, focusing only on the way gender functions in society, but only by assuring biological sex receives appropriate weighting.

Has the binary notion of biological sex had its day? The coding of that distinction in today’s society suggests that we are emphasising this aspect of the human race even more than we used to. From gender reveal parties to the pink or blue tsunamis that greet tiny humans when they arrive in our world, through gendered toys, clothes, books, video games to the gendered attitudes and expectations in education and employment and society as a whole, there is little evidence that the belief in the power of sex is on the wane.

Does it matter? One hopes that the internal accord here that an individual’s biology should have no social meaning would reflect current thinking about issues not only of gender, but also, for example, of race, of ethnicity, of disability, of neurodiversity and of sexual orientation. Would that it were so! History has shown that essentialist theories continue to be powerful drivers in how our society works - we should not let any opportunity pass to challenge the notion that anyone’s place in society is determined by fixed, inevitable, invariant biological characteristics.


Joel, D. 'Genetic-gonadal-genitals sex (3G-sex) and the misconception of brain and gender, or, why 3G-males and 3G-females have intersex brain and intersex gender'. Biology of sex differences3(1).

Hyde, J.S., Bigler, R.S., Joel, D., Tate, C.C. and van Anders, S.M.. 'The future of sex and gender in psychology: Five challenges to the gender binary'. American Psychologist, 74(2),

O’Connor, C. and Joffe, H., 2014. 'Gender on the brain: a case study of science communication in the new media environment'. PLoS One

Rippon, G. The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain


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