Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2006
DEFINING THE TOPIC
The term 'gender' refers to the personality characteristics, behaviours and social roles that are expected of or assigned to an individual, depending on whether that individual is a male or a female.
Gender is different from biological sex. Although some individuals have ambiguous sex characteristics, the human species is in general sexually dimorphic. Humans come in two sexes, male and female, that cooperate for reproduction. Thus the sexual differentiation of individuals into male and female is taken for granted in virtually all societies, and some biologically based behaviours and roles are almost as universally associated with sexual differentiation. These are the behaviours and roles required for reproduction through sexual intercourse, pregnancy, birthing, and lactation and the associated care of infants.
Because pregnancy, birth and infant care require a protected environment, and because these activities have historically tended to reduce the ability of pregnant and child-bearing females to fend off enemies and obtain food for themselves and their young, corresponding male roles of hunter and protector have also developed. But it is precisely here that gender enters the picture as a problematic category. Even if some gender differentiation in the reproductive sphere is the natural consequence of sexual dimorphism, how far need gender difference extend in prescribing different psychological and cognitive traits in women and men, or different social roles in other areas? To what degree are women by nature designed for childbearing and child care, and men for warfare and material productivity? Are women meant to fulfil duties only in the domestic sphere, while men control the economic and political domains? To what degree are these roles pliable, able to be shared by adults of both sexes? Over the centuries and in many cultures, ethics (normative theories of morality and society) has included either explicit or implicit answers to such questions.
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