Hesperian Health Guides

Sex and Gender

This content is from
pages 182 to 183 of Where Women Have No Doctor

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In this chapter:

How a baby’s body looks when it is born, that is, what genitals it has, are used to determine the child’s sex as either “female” or “male.”

How we think of ourselves or feel inside determines our gender. Someone may feel themselves to be (identify as) a woman, a man, or another nonbinary gender. Many people assume that those who are recognized as “female” at birth will live as girls and grow up to be women, and those who are recognized as “male” at birth will live as boys and grow up to be men. But this is not true for everyone. Someone who is “female” sex at birth may think of themselves as a boy and then as a man. This may affect how they look, act, and dress, which may not agree with what their community expects. Someone whose gender is not what is expected based on their sex is a transgender person.

Gender roles are the behaviors a community expects from each person based on their sex. Each community expects men and women to look, think, feel, and act in certain ways—simply because they are women or men. For example, women may be expected to prepare food, gather water and fuel, and care for their homes and families. They should be attracted to men, and want a partner and children. Men have a different set of expectations. The truth is, gender roles narrow everyone’s choices.

Each community creates its own gender roles, depending on traditions, laws, and religion. Gender roles often vary within communities, based on social status, race, or age. In some communities, for example, most women are expected to do domestic work, while women with higher status have more choice about their work.

a man working with a hammer and nails In most communities, the way people dress and the work they do is based on their gender. These are part of their gender roles. a woman preparing food while wearing a scarf that covers her head and face

How gender roles are learned

Almost from birth, parents and others treat girls and boys differently, often without realizing they do so. Children learn from everything, noticing how they are treated, how other people act and are treated, and everyone’s roles in the community. As children grow up, they accept these roles and the ways power works in their community as “the way things are.” This includes the gender roles passed from adults to children.

As the world changes, gender roles also change. Many young people want to live differently than their elders, and they understand that sexual health depends upon changing harmful beliefs about gender. Changing gender roles may be difficult, but it is necessary.

This page was updated:13 Nov 2023