The WHO’s Definition of Gender: A Conceptual Analysis
Does the World Health Organization’s definition spur progress or create confusion?
One of the most pressing and contentious cultural conversations of our time is now tied to a series of concepts: gender identity, gender fluidity, the gender spectrum, transgenderism, gender roles, and gender non-conformity, etc.
We use these terms all of the time as if we know exactly what they mean.
But do we?
I ask because none of these concepts can make sense if we can’t first define the concept from which they all derive: the concept of gender itself. And I have yet to observe anything resembling a consensus on its meaning.
So what is it?
Usage of sex and gender is by no means settled. For example, while discrimination was far more often paired with sex from the 1960s through the 20th century and into the 21st, the phrase gender discrimination has been steadily increasing in use since the 1980s and is on track to become the dominant collocation. Currently both terms are sometimes employed with their intended synonymy made explicit: sex/gender discrimination, gender (sex) discrimination
So it seems that even the dictionary is undecided… not a great start. Perhaps a scientific authority like the World Health Organization can put us on the right track! Here’s a statement from the WHO website:
Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.
This is an awkward definition; and that’s putting it mildly.
For starters, what is it that these socially constructed characteristics are associated with? The statement says that they are associated with the categories of “women, men, girls and boys”, which we can only assume, refer to biological sex. Otherwise, they would have to…