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Gender in so many words


Gender in so many words

Ten key notions to understand gender.


  • Cisgender is a gender identity, understood as the opposite of transgender.
  • You are cisgender if you identify with the gender assigned to you at birth.
  • Being cisgender comes with social privilege. That's even for people who are socially disadvantaged in other ways.


  • Gender and sex are distinct but often conflated.
  • Gender is a system of division (between women and women) and power (for men over women).
  • Gender is a social construct. It's created and accepted by a society, and varies from society to society.
  • Gender shapes norms and values. It influences our ideas and behaviours, even when we are not aware of it.
  • Gender links to sexuality, and to assumptions about sexuality. It's assumed that men are sexually attracted to women, and women attracted to men.
Understanding gender diagram

Gender identity

  • Gender identity sits at the junction between gender – a social system – and the ways we understand this system and build our own identities.
  • Cisgender, transgender and non-binary are three examples of gender identities.


  • Intersectionality arises from the struggles of black and Latina women in the US.
  • Intersection describes ways different aspects of our complex identities interact with each other. For example, the experiences of heterosexual and lesbian women, are distinct. Sexism takes a specific form for lesbian women, who also have to deal with homophobia.
  • It is a useful concept to understand how different social dynamics can define and affect experiences. It is also a powerful concept for activism.
  • The theory of intersectionality has been criticised as being too academic. It' said that it privileges identity politics over those struggles we have in common.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law scholar and a woman of colour, put forward this important concept. Our Dean for Social Justice, Professor Peter Hopkins, commissioned a video about it.

Masculine used as a generic

He, man, mankind…

  • Using masculine forms, such as he, man and mankind, is traditionally accepted as a way to talk about all individuals, not just men. In other words, masculine is supposed to be able to act in a gender-neutral way.
  • But evidence shows that speakers understand these forms more as masculine than as gender-neutral.
  • It is important to consider using truly gender-neutral forms instead, such as singular they instead of he, or humanity instead of mankind.


  • Non-binary is a gender identity.
  • It is used by individuals who do not identify as either women or men.
  • It is also an umbrella term for many different gender identities.


  • Queer used to be a slur used against non-heterosexual people.
  • It can still be used as a slur today, but a lot of younger LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed it, using it proudly to identify themselves.
  • It is often used nowadays as an umbrella term for people living outside heterosexual and cisgender norms.

They and other pronouns

  • Some people don’t have to think about the pronouns used to refer to them. If you are a cisgender woman, people use she/her/hers when talking about you; if you are a cisgender man, people use he/his/his.
  • Pronouns can become an issue for transgender and/or non-binary people, if they have to constantly announce which pronouns are appropriate for them, and to remind people of it.
  • In recent years, there has been a steady rise in the use of singular they by and about non-binary people.
  • Intentionally using the wrong pronouns is a form of everyday transphobia.

Titles: Miss, Ms, Mrs, Mx, Mr, Prof, Dr…

  • There are significant disparities in the use of titles for men and women.
  • For women, having to choose between Miss and Mrs means having to declare your marital status.
  • Ms is increasingly used as a third option and comes with its own connotations.
  • The academic titles Dr and Professor are not supposed to be gendered, but are still implicitly associated with men.


  • Transgender is a gender identity.
  • Being cisgender means identifying with the gender assigned to you at birth. Being transgender means identifying with another gender.
  • Transgender people are increasingly visible in the media, which can help inform people about what it means to be trans. But not all these representations are positive, and a lot of them perpetuate transphobia.
  • Transphobia can manifest itself in many ways, from intentionally using the wrong name and pronouns for a trans person to physical violence.

I got it wrong. What do I do?

Thinking and talking about gender requires nuance and adaptability. Here are some recommendations.

  1. First and foremost, consider it possible that you might be wrong.
  2. Take the time to listen to and learn from people who experience things differently, because of their gender, their race, their social background…
  3. If someone points out you have made a mistake, pause, listen, and if necessary correct it. It’s possible you might have caused offence; if so, apologise and move on. No need to dwell on it.
  4. After the incident, learn more about your mistake – not necessarily from the other person involved! You can start with this resource, or one of the many others indicated here.