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Gender is a multifaceted concept: evidence that specific life experiences differentially shape the concept of gender

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2020

Department of Psychology, University of York
Department of Psychology, University of York
Department of Philosophy and Communication, University of Bologna
Department of Philosophy and Communication, University of Bologna
Department of Dynamic and Clinical Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, and Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, Italian National Research Council, Rome
Address for correspondence: Claudia Mazzuca, Department of Psychology, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK. e-mail:


Gender has been the focus of linguistic and psychological studies, but little is known about its conceptual representation. We investigate whether the conceptual structure of gender – as expressed in participants’ free-listing responses – varies according to gender-related experiences in line with research on conceptual flexibility. Specifically, we tested groups that varied by gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender-normativity. We found that different people stressed distinct aspects of the concept. For example, normative individuals mainly relied on a bigenderist conception (e.g., male/female; man/woman), while non-normative individuals produced more aspects related to social context (e.g., queer, fluidity, construction). At a broader level, our results support the idea that gender is a multifaceted and flexible concept, constituted by social, biological, cultural, and linguistic components. Importantly, the meaning of gender is not exhausted by the classical dichotomy opposing sex, a biological fact, with gender as its cultural counterpart. Instead, both aspects are differentially salient depending on specific life experiences.

© UK Cognitive Linguistics Association, 2020

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Thanks to Henk van den Heuvel and Erwin Komen at the Humanities Lab, Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University, for technical support, Professor Roberto Baiocco for theoretical suggestions, and Sara De Giovanni of the Cassero LGBT Center of Bologna for help with participants recruitment. We are also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. The first author was supported by the Marco Polo program from the University of Bologna to visit Radboud University, where the first draft of this paper was written.


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