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The Dictionary is Open

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This is the first is a series of periodic observations about word, language and communication.* I love words and if used correctly, they can communicate clearly in various languages what one person wants to say to another.

Given my lifetime as a journalism teacher and practitioner, however, I have seen too many instances in which words impede rather than enhance understanding. Today let’s look at two popular words that are used rather loosely.

Gender and Sex

They are not the same. But too many seemingly smart people are misusing gender to mean sex

I suspect the erroneous use is because the perpetrators believe that gender is a more sophisticated, more intelligent synonym. It isn’t.

Sex refers to the anatomical difference between men and women.

Gender, on the other hand, is the adoption or acquisition of characteristics that society equates with either male or females.


For example: We associate girls playing with dolls and boys with trucks.

We think of women as wearing makeup, jewelry, dresses, high heels, sporting long hair, displaying other accouterments, and adopting certain physical postures.

Males usually are much less decorated. They may shave their heads but not their beards, underarms or legs. They may wear jewelry but are more likely to opt for tattoos. Likewise, their standing and sitting posture often are different from women.

We consider females as more prone to nurturing, establishing closer personal relationships, and generally engaged in less physically demanding pursuits and activities than men.  Men display more aggressive behavior than females beginning at an early age.

To be sure these are stereotypes. Yet they reflect what contemporary society sees or expects when considering men and women.

When anatomical males and females eschew so-called normal roles, dress or attitudes related to their sex, in favor of those usually associated with the opposite sex, this is gender identification. Their anatomy doesn’t change but their view of themselves and their place in society does.

The men’s 1976 Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner in 2015 became Caitlyn Jenner.

Jenner’s sex is male; her gender is female. I’ll repeat this. Jenner is anatomically male—that is sex. Jenner is psychologically female—that is gender.

I raise this because the media and public figures have decided either consciously or inadvertently to use the incorrect word gender for the correct term sex.

Need for clarity

The Washington Post this week said U.S. soccer star Abby Wambach is the highest international scorer regardless of “gender.”

The author is trying to say that she has scored more soccer goals on the world stage than any other player—male or female. I doubt the journalist was commenting on Wambach’s perception of herself or adoption of either female or male characteristics. Thus, gender is wrong.

Political commentary today is infused with references to gender equality. Most of us know what the intent is although the language is wrong.

What the pundits are trying to describe is the current state of either rights or discrimination based on one’s sex as male or female.

Gender issues

Many of us automatically think of equal pay for equal work, childcare allowances, pregnancy leaves, female health care, and education as gender issues associated with women. In this instance the use of female gender seems appropriate although many men are equally concerned. The adjective helps.

It gets fuzzy, of course, when the question is whether males are afforded more opportunities and higher pay in the workplace simply because of their sex or because an individual has adopted male-associated characteristics?

For example, if two equally qualified candidates for either a job or promotion are a man and a woman and the male is chosen, that could be sexual discrimination.

If two equally qualified males are competing for the same job and the one who is selected displays more male traits than the other man, that could be gender discrimination. Likewise if the decision between two qualified women went to the more masculine one.

In other words, sexual discrimination is based on whether the individual is either anatomically male or female. Gender discrimination refers to bias against persons who adhere to the traits we associate with either men or women.

My objection is that when I hear or read “gender,” I automatically define and frame the discussion in terms of societal-associated characteristics and values for men and women.   That comprises a broad range.

But if the communicator wants to make the distinction between men and women, sex is right word. And that difference is simple.

*Volume I, edition I

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