The Sociology of Gender: Overview

The sociology of gender is a subfield of sociology that concerns itself with masculinity and femininity, i.e., the social construction of gender, how gender interacts with other social forces and relates to the overall social structure. The field of study under gender sociology has diversified over the years and incorporated the feminist viewpoint. The starting point in the field is sex/gender distinction.


Sex/Gender Distinction

Sex and gender are used interchangeably in everyday life to refer to whether someone is male or female. However, in the 1970s, the feminist school of thought drew a clear distinction between the two. Sex is a biological construct that determines whether an individual is male or female based on a number of biological markers such as reproductive organs, hormones, chromosomes, external genitalia, etc. However, not every person has all of their biological markers aligned to fit a specific sex on the male/female binary. Such people, whose organs do not align with either category, are called intersex. Gender is a social construct that reflects the social expectation of expression of one’s identity, presentation of self-behavior, and interaction with others. It is a social category that reflects learned behaviors and culturally produced identities.

Social Construction of Gender

As famously stated by Simone de Beauvoir, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman.” Gender, as one of the basic structures of human society, is taught to kids through socialization at an early age. Parents are the biggest influence in the socialization of a child since they reinforce societal rules and gender norms by rewarding gender-appropriate behavior and punishing any deviations. By the age of 3, all children develop a concrete idea of gender identity, which remains mostly constant for the rest of their lives. This leads to the creation of gender roles. The term ‘gender role’ coined by John Money in a 1955 paper where he defined it as, “all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of a boy or man, girl or woman”. These gender roles are so deeply embedded in people’s minds that they are imposed on children unconsciously rather than consciously. From the pink/blue binary to the choice of dolls for girls and guns and cars for boys as toys, gender socialization is everywhere. Even language is gender influenced. While girls are complimented as pretty and beautiful, boys are complimented as smart and brave. These reinforce the ideal qualities that these individuals grow up to prioritize.

Author Susan Grieshaberin in “Constructing the Gendered Infant” suggested that attitudes regarding pregnancy change once parents find out the sex of their child. According to her, parents start planning the child’s arrival while keeping the child’s gender in mind. Thus the world that the child enters is already gendered for that child to conform to.

Masculinity and Femininity

Feminist scholarship has largely focused on women’s experience with femininity to highlight the oppression and power hierarchies that they face because of their gender. However, Connell (1987) gave the first systematic research analysis of both sets of constructions, “hegemonic masculinity” and “emphasized femininity,” and how they contribute to global gender inequality. “Hegemonic Masculinity” is oriented towards accommodating the interest and desires of men and thus forms the basis of patriarchal social order. She argued that there are many masculinities that operate and while all masculinities are privileged over all femininities, there is a certain idea of masculinity which holds greater gender power and is thus hegemonic. This gender power is held by white, middle class, highly educated, able-bodied, heterosexual men. Masculinity is policed so that there is conformity to the social construct. Insults such as “You are a Fag” (derogatory word for homosexuals) or “Don’t cry like a girl” while on one hand reinforce the patriarchal idea of masculinity but also simultaneously ingrain the idea other genders and sexualities are inferior and thus the comparison to them is an insult.

According to feminist author Nivedita Menon, genders are performed, which means that no one can prove that they are masculine, but they can be confident that their gender has been sufficiently established and proven. They must conform to and perform the same roles every day in order to constantly reinforce their gender. For example, even the most well-built, moustached, tall, and muscular guy (ideal body stereotypes for men) cannot wear a saree to work because non-conformity to gender roles, even for a day, can cause a backlash.

“Emphasized Femininity” is defined around compliance with female subordination and is oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men. Women are taught to view marriage as an important life goal. Media and pop culture constantly reinforce the need for women to adjust in marriages to make them successful. Working women suffer “mother’s guilt” for prioritizing their careers over their children. Feminist scholars have used the social construction of femininities to explain wage inequality, the global “feminization of poverty” and women’s relegation to “feminine” labour markets (example: secretarial labour, garment industry, caring labour) and to the so-called private realm of household and family (Folbre, 2001).

Critiquing the Sex/Gender Binary

Feminists came up with sex/gender distinction to counter biological determinism. However, sex/gender distinction has its own flaws. First is the Particularity argument given by Elizabeth Spelman (1988). She argued that sex/gender distinction reinforces gender realism which is the idea that one common thread unites people of one gender. For example, sexual objectification is faced by all women according to MacKinnon’s view. So all women experience womanhood in the same way irrespective of race, class, ethnicity, etc. This allows for white, middle class, feminist perspectives of womanhood to be passed on as the litmus test for whether someone is truly a woman or not. The second is the Normativity argument by Judith Butler (1999) who states that the current definition of a woman is not wrong rather there should be no definition at all. In an attempt to define women against the biologically deterministic ideas, feminists have created new boxes for women to fit in. That the definition of the term woman is supposedly fixed “operates as a policing force which generates and legitimises certain practices, experiences, etc. and curtails and delegitimises others (Nicholson, 1998). Besides the idea of a fixed biological binary sex has been debunked. Sex itself is believed to be a social construct and many of the differences observed in male and female bodies that were earlier attributed to sex have come to be seen as a result of social upbringing. Thus fourth-wave feminism is increasingly questioning the sex/gender binary.

Queer Theory

Once, the term “queer” was associated with homosexuals and had a strong homophobic undertone. But the term has been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ movement to refer to all individuals whose sexuality, gender identity, gender expression, and bodies do not conform to dominant societal norms. Both feminism and queer theory are interdisciplinary studies that question the dominant understanding of gender by problematizing the relationship that exists between gender identity, anatomical sex and sexual orientation (Fineman, 2009). The queer movement worldwide has been arguing for gender fluidity and non-binary sexes to create a more inclusive, non-heteronormative world.


The gender binary between male and female is a modern concept propagated by western science and imposed upon non-western cultures through colonization. Many cultures in the pre-Colombian era not only recognized other genders but also deeply respected them. Gender fluidity is still the norm in many African cultures. Here we look at two such communities.

The Hijra community in India, consisting of eunuchs, intersex, and transgender people, was recognized as the third gender along with the rest of the transgender community. However, the hijra community does not associate itself with the rest of the transgender community as it has a separate culture that has been passed down through generations by the ‘gharanas’. Hijras have traditionally been associated with ‘Ardhnareshwar’, a form of Shiva and Parvati. They are believed to have divine connections with God since they are above the confines of gender. They were considered to hold religious authority and were sought out for blessings.

The Navajo Native American culture recognized two other genders known as the ‘Two Spirits’ which are the feminine man (nádleehí) and masculine woman (dilbaa). They are considered to embody the masculine and feminine traits of their ancestors and nature. They are chosen to represent their culture and once chosen have to live their lives in their adopted gender. They can have sex with either gender and their children are adopted in the Two-Spirit household without any stigma.


Kimberle Crenshaw, an American lawyer, coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 in her work, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Colour”. Intersectionality refers to overlapping social identities such as gender, race, class etc. which amplify discrimination. It is a recognition that even within minority groups, people face different levels of discrimination based on their other identity markers. While all women are oppressed by patriarchy, black women face more oppression than white women. Poor black women face more discrimination than rich black women, and so on. While the concept originated in terms of gender study, it is widely used in sociology today to highlight all kinds of intersectional oppression across identities.

Major Sociological Theories

Structural Functionalism

The theory came about in the 20th century and has played a major role in gender studies. It assumes the family as the most integral part of society and explains gender roles in this context. Functionalists argue that gender roles were established well before the pre industrialised era where men primarily cater to the needs outside the house such as collecting food and women took care of the homes. This arrangement was functional because women were constrained by physical restraints of pregnancy and nursing and were unable to leave homes for long periods of time. These roles were passed on in subsequent generations. However, during WWII, many women assumed the role of the breadwinner as men went out for war. When men returned from the war and wanted to reclaim their jobs, society fell into imbalance as women refused to forfeit their wage-earning jobs.

Conflict Theory

According to the theory, the society is a struggle for dominance between competing groups where one group (the dominant group) dominates over other groups (the submissive groups). In gender studies, men form the dominant group while women are the submissive group. Social problems arise when the dominant group exploits and oppresses the subordinate groups. It is difficult for women to attain equal status in society since men as the dominant group make the rules for success, dominance and power in society.

Feminist Theory

Feminist Theory examines gender relations and power structures. It looks for ways in which gender roles are perpetuated in society and women as the subordinate group actively support the structure that perpetuates their oppression. Feminism especially radical feminism seeks to topple this structure termed patriarchy. Patriarchy is a system by which men (seen as the patriarch and head of the family) are given more power and their contributions more valued by virtue of their gender identity. This branch of gender theory is increasingly gaining more traction in gender sociology.

Symbolic Interactionism

Unlike other theories in sociology which use biological determinism to explain the differences in male and female behaviour, this theory suggests that humans behave in accordance with the symbolic significance of a certain concept. Simply stated, it refers to the social construction of gender and how men and women have different symbolic traits and expectations attached to them. Men are supposed to be more logical while women are supposed to be more emotional. So while dealing with other individuals, a person would try to be more logical or emotional based on whether the person he is interacting with is male or female. Thus gender difference comes out of ‘doing gender roles’.


Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, Cambridge: Polity Press, Stanford: Stanford University Press

SpelmanElizabeth V. 1988. Inessential woman: problems of exclusion in feminist thought. Boston: Beacon Press

ButlerJudith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print

M.A. Fineman, J. E. Jackson, and A. P. Romero, eds., Ashgate, 2009

Crossman, Ashley. (2020, February 11). The Sociology of Gender. Retrieved from

Maynard, M. (1990). THE RE-SHAPING OF SOCIOLOGY? TRENDS IN THE STUDY OF GENDER. Sociology, 24(2), 269-290. Retrieved May 1, 2020, from

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Astha is an opinionated Gen Z and a dedicated bibliophile who is currently pursuing Political Science and Economics at Miranda House. She is an ambivert and finds discussions on politics and international affairs to be her favorite icebreakers. She is a proud feminist.