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Gender: Is It Real?

Exploring the philosophical issue of our age.

Key points

  • There is an ongoing philosophical debate about the meaning of gender.
  • Recent views of gender seek to undermine discrimination against women.
  • Four views of gender include: biological determinism, eliminativism, social position, and self-identification.

Philosophy professor Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth tells us that gender is the philosophical issue of our age.1 Gender is the topic on Facebook, in presidential politics, and interpersonal conversations. It’s the theme in The Danish Girl, Caitlyn Jenner’s exploits, Olympic qualifying standards, health insurance protections, and so on.2 Dragseth laments that philosophy too often considers the issue of gender to be a peripheral one, if it is considered at all. Brendan Shea, a professor of philosophy and computer technology provides a start on a philosophical analysis of gender to help us think more clearly about this profoundly important issue.

Source: Dall-E/OpenAI

What Is the Metaphysics of Gender?2

When philosophers talk about gender, one approach is simply to describe how people think about having a gender and how this affects their experience. Philosophers also try to identify and describe the “essence” of gender. Philosophers might propose a new or revised concept of gender that is useful for some practical purpose or another.

Four Ideas About Gender

Scientists, philosophers, and other scholars have written a lot about gender and sex and the relationship between these two concepts. Shea organizes the ideas proposed into four general ways that thinkers in the area answer the question “What is gender?”3

Biological Determinism or Gender Essentialism is the view that gender is largely or entirely determined by biology. In this view, men and women have and should have different social roles in a society because biological differences make them uniquely suited for tasks assigned to these roles. Historically, many philosophers, along with many religions, have adopted this view of gender and its reliance on biological sex.

One of the basic tenets of this view is that because of biological differences, women are almost always inferior to men because women do not have the same capacity for reasoning about things that men do. It is virtually impossible for women to take on male roles because of this “inferiority.” It should be noted that biological essentialism does not equate necessarily with a negative view of women. Beginning in the 20th century, gender essentialism began to view women in a more positive light, particularly seeing women as having a unique capacity for caring.

Gender Eliminativists are theorists who argue for the collapse of the sex/gender dichotomy, with gender being the preferred concept. These theorists tell us that “gender” is simply the way that societies (i.e., human beings) have discriminated against people with differing biological sexes. They want to abolish, in a moral sense, the gendered social structures it generates and its harmful outcomes for people. Eliminativists want to do away with gender roles, gender norms, gender stereotypes, gender expressions, etc. This view challenges the idea that the sexed body can be conceived as the biological and factual base of gender.

There are two views of gender held by theorists who want to keep the concept of gender but seek to modify it in a way that does not generate the same negative outcomes for people. These theorists argue that it is one’s social position or one's self-identification that determines one’s gender.

The Social Position account states that one’s gender is determined by how one’s society treats you. What rights are you given? What expectations do people have of you—how you should act, dress, speak, etc. This view begins with the idea that in most societies, the genders are not treated equally. Philosopher Sally Haslanger argues that while men and women differ physiologically, they also differ in the social position that they occupy. And societies tend to privilege those with male bodies so that the social positions they occupy tend to be better than those held by those with female bodies. In this view, neither your biology nor your psychology determines your gender—it is the position in society you hold that is how we define gender, i.e., men and women.

The Self-Identification position states that gender is tied to a person’s sense of self-identity—what they feel themselves to be. In this view, one's gender is determined if the individual identifies with the group of characteristics seen as “feminine,” e.g., caring in a given context, or identifies with characteristics seen as “masculine,” e.g., aggressive. In this view, a person’s gender is determined by their own “internal map” of themselves in relation to the world around them.

Separating the Concepts of Sex and Gender 4

Before the late 1950s gender was typically used to refer to masculine and feminine words like le and la in French. The modern separation of sex/gender probably began with the well-known sex researcher John Money, a psychologist, sexologist, and professor at Johns Hopkins University known for his research on human sexual behavior and gender. Money and his colleagues studied hermaphroditic humans (having both male and female reproductive organs) whose sexual identity could be seen as socially malleable. They found “…that gender role and orientation is not determined in some automatic, innate, or instinctive fashion by physical, bodily agents, like chromosomes, gonadal structures or hormones.” 5

In the late 1960s, psychologist Robert Stoller began using the term “sex” to identify biological traits and “gender” to identify the degree of masculinity and femininity a person displayed to better explain the phenomenon of transsexuality, i.e., when sex and gender don’t match.6

In the 1970s, second-wave feminism used this separation of sex and gender to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Anne Oakley, in her 1972 book Sex, Gender and Society, wrote that "sex" is a word that refers to biological differences (external genitalia, chromosomal differences, and reproductive functions) between men and women. "Gender," however, is a matter of culture. It refers to the social classification of people as "masculine" and "feminine."7 Feminists embraced the separation of sex and gender to counter the prevalent biological determinism, i.e., that biology is destiny.

The separation of sex and gender did not end the controversy. "Gender" began to be used in several different ways.8

  • In biomedical research and practice, sex and gender began to be used interchangeably.
  • "Sexual orientation" began to be used in determining gender. Is a person’s sexual orientation based on the sex or gender of the desired person?
  • The medical community’s research on sexual dimorphism (male and female sexes) led to the proposition that sex itself was not binary at the chromosomal and genital level.

By the 1990s, third-wave feminism began arguing for the collapse of the sex/gender dichotomy, with gender being the preferred concept. Judith Butler, an American philosopher and gender studies scholar, was the first to argue that an independent, biological, physical sex did not really exist—it is a derivative of gender.

Mapping the Gender Debate9

The four approaches to gender outlined by Shea can be thought of as:

  • Preserving the separation of sex and gender that has been the dominant view for the last 50 years.
  • Reforming the relationship by unlinking gender from sex by viewing gender as determined by social and cultural influences.
  • Eliminating the sex and gender divide. It is argued that gender is simply the way that societies (i.e., human beings) have discriminated against people with differing biological sexes. This leads to the idea that an independent biological sex does not really exist.

While philosophers and scholars seek to find the essence of what gender is, it is important to remember that there is no single, generally accepted method for determining “What is gender?”

The gender reformists and those who want to eliminate the distinction between sex and gender are consistent with the philosophical goal of proposing a new or revised concept of gender that has the practical purpose of undermining discrimination against women. This is a legitimate philosophical undertaking.

Stephanie Budin, a scholar who writes about women and sexuality, warns against losing sight of the goal of ending discrimination by focusing too intently on only the philosophical analysis of gender.


1. Dragseth, J.D. “Gender is the Philosophical Issue of Our Age.” Blog of the APA. February 12, 2018.

2. Shea, B. “An Introduction to the Philosophy of Sex and Gender.” Fall Series 2019 (

3. Shea

4. Budin, S.L. “Sex and Gender and Sex.” 2020 (

5.Money, J., Hampson, J.F. & Hampson, J.l. (1957). “Imprinting and the Establishment of Gender Role.” A.M.A. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry,333-336.

6. _______ “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. January 18, 2022.

7. Oakley, A. (1972). Sex, Gender, and Society. Ashgate Publishing.

8. Budin

9. _______ “Mapping the Gender Debate.” Silly O! You. October 22, 2019. (

10, Budin

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