You are here: Home Gender Competence 2003-2010 Gender Competence Gender Gender as a “socially constructed category”

Gender as a “socially constructed category”

Gender as a “socially constructed category”

Our conception of what women and men are and what they are supposed to be is produced by the society in which we live. Thus many people say that gender is “socially constructed”. The day-to-day, continuous production of gender has been called doing gender (West/Zimmermann, 1987), meaning that gender is “made” by us in everyday lives in our interactions with others. Processes of doing gender are not only carried on in our society by individuals, but also through socially-standardizing practices such as legislation or the institutions of the family and marriage. “Doing gender” thrives on continually establishing a dual order of two sexes. At the latest after birth, and often even before, people are divided into two sex categories – boy or girl. From these categories, gender characteristics are derived, like blue and pink....... In the course of her or his life, the human being is then “made” into a girl or woman or a boy or man in a complex process of rearing and education, social norms and values, stereotypes, identification, images and traditions.

What is noticeable is that conceptions of women and men are subject to change over time. What is supposed to be feminine or masculine is historically defined. What is more important, however, that the one same difference is put forward time and again, and for this reason alone becomes important. The differentiation into two sexes is politically relevant, because evaluations are linked with it, which assign different modes of action to the genders.

On the other hand, it is often the case that it is not the one difference between the sexes which is most decisive, but that other social differences are far more important. It can be assumed today that women and men are not homogeneous groups, but that differences within the groups of women and of men can often become relevant. For instance, the social status or ethnic origin or skin colour can be a deciding factor for people who then also differentiate according to gender. On the other hand, clear-cut inequalities between women and men are hardly effective any more. In other words, it is not a matter of two colours, but of the entire colour spectrum.

Modern medical definitions of gender are also multidimensional. Gender is defined in the standard (German) medical work in five dimensions; chromosomal, genital, mental and social. It is pointed out that there is a broad area of overlap in behavioural tendencies between the genders.
Deviations from the two-gender norm, such as “transsexuality” or “intersexuality” are medically classified, however, according to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD 10) as gender identity disorders. People affected by these conditions, however, experience the unambiguous classification into woman or man as social compulsion and discrimination. Intersexuals, previously called hermaphrodites, possess both male and female physical attributes. In one out of every two thousand births, the sex of a new-born baby cannot be unambiguously determined. Since the 1950s gender assignment operations have been carried out on infants and children in which ambiguous genitals are changed surgically to fit in with traditional conceptions of female or male genitalia. Transsexuals have unambiguous physical attributes, but do not feel that they belong to the gender represented by their bodies.

“Transidentities” are scientifically discussed and researched in Queer Studies. Queer Theory sets itself the task of analyzing and questioning social discourses of normality concerning sex, gender and sexuality. The beginnings of Queer Theory are closely connected with movements in social politics which have the aim of de-pathologizing people with a transgender identity and are fighting for diversity in gender lifestyles.

Further reading


Artikel „Intersexualität“, in: Kroll, Renate (Hrsg.): Metzler Lexikon Gender Studies – Geschlechterforschung. Ansätze – Personen – Grundbegriffe. Stuttgart 2002, S. 189-190.

Artikel „Androzentrik/Androzentrismus“, in: Kroll, Renate (Hrsg.): Metzler Lexikon Gender Studies – Geschlechterforschung. Ansätze – Personen – Grundbegriffe. Stuttgart 2002, S. 10-11.

Forschergruppe "Intersexualität - Vom Gen zur Geschlechtsidentität" an der Medizinischen Universität Lübeck

Gildemeister, Regine/ Wetterer, Angelika: Wie Geschlechter gemacht werden. Die soziale Konstruktion der Zweigeschlechtlichkeit und ihre Reifizierung in der Frauenforschung, in: Knapp, Gudrun-Axeli/ Wetterer, Angelika (Hrsg.): Traditionen Brüche. Entwicklungen feministischer Theorie. Freiburg i. Br. 1992, S. 201-254.

West, Candance/ Zimmermann, Don H.: Doing Gender. In: Gender and Society 1 (2), 1987, S. 125-151.
by Administrator last modified 2010-01-02 21:08