Is There a Gender Hierarchy?

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Gender can be a very polarising notion. JK Rowling is no stranger to controversy, having recently come under fire for gender-based comments she made on Twitter. One headline suggested that she had “sparked outrage over a series of tweets about menstruation that critics have labelled ‘transphobic’”. Back in early June she shared a link to an article entitled “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate” with the comment “People who menstruate? I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Her barbed rhetoric quickly earned her considerable criticism. It’s fair to say that her status as the mother of one of the most successful literary franchises of all time has likely amplified the gravity of her opinions, but such incidents highlight the fact that the notion of gender is controversial.

For the majority of our written history in the Western world gender has, at least formally been treated as a binary construct. ‘Gender’ as we have come to understand the term in the past few decades, was certainly not understood by the ancient world as it is today. In fact, the terminological distinction between gender as a role and biological sex didn’t occur until 1955 when sexologist John Money introduced the contrast. Prior to this it was uncommon to see the word ‘gender’ used to refer to anything beyond a grammatical category. In the 1970’s feminist scholars used the term to distinguish between biologically determined aspects of male-female sex and socially constructed aspects of the dichotomy. The term ‘genderqueer’ (a precursor to the term non-binary) began to appear in queer zines in the 1980’s but the discourse surrounding gender arguably fell short of capturing the attention of the mainstream media until the early-mid 1990’s when a series of political movements made it more prominent than ever before. The popularization continued when the New York Times used the term ‘genderqueer’ in 2008, and shortly thereafter a number of high-profile celebrities began publicly identifying themselves as ‘gender nonconforming’ (although there were precursors to this in the mainstream culture as early as early as the 1970’s with androgynous rock acts such as David Bowie, and the New York Dolls).

Accurate, reliable and up-to-date data concerning the prevalence of individuals identifying as neither exclusively ‘male’ nor ‘female’ is quite hard to come by. A 2012 article suggested 0.5% of individuals that responded to a telephone survey identified themselves as transgender. Official US statistics compiled in 2016 indicated that roughly 0.6% of the population identify as transgender. However, it should be noted that data from the 2016 Australian Census suggested that relatively few of those nominating a gender diverse option to the question asking about sex indicated that they are trans-male (5.5%) or trans-female (7.5%). A greater proportion of the 1260 respondents selecting ‘gender diverse’ said they were ‘non-binary’ (13.2%), ‘another gender’ (18.1%), or ‘other not further defined’ (34.9%). A large Belgian study (N=1832) published in 2015 found that 2.2% of male 1.9% of female participants said that they were ‘gender ambivalent’ (identifying equally with the other sex as with the sex assigned at birth. Unofficial estimates typically put the prevalence rate of gender nonconformity at somewhere between 1% to 3%.

There is scholarly evidence to suggest that not all gender groups are afforded equal ‘legitimacy’ in society, with some people implying that identification as trans or non-binary constitutes some kind of psychological dysfunction. With this in mind, it’s probably not that controversial to suggest that different gender categories may have differing levels of power within society. My colleague Aaron Howearth and I aimed to investigate this idea empirically by essentially having a bunch of people (we have so far had 832 responses) answer questions about their own gender identity, self-esteem, and their own feelings and attitudes toward each gender.

We considered 5 distinct gender categories: cis-male; cis-female; trans-male; trans-female; and non-binary. Obviously gender is a contentious issue (especially at the moment), but we were unprepared for the magnitude of emotive commentary the study has thus far attracted. Initial feedback indicated that:

  • Many individuals were unfamiliar with the ‘cis’ prefix (from Latin meaning ‘on this side of’). The origin of the term cisgender (a term for people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) can be traced to an article entitled Die Transsexuallen und unser nosomorpher Blick (“Transsexuals and our nosomorphic view”) by German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch wherein he uses the neologism cissexual. Although most people are probably aware of trans fats, and that they are generally considered harmful to cardiovascular health (possibly contributing to a pejorative connotation of the prefix), fewer realize that there are also cis fats, which occur naturally and are generally good for health (fun fact- in trans fats the hydrogen atoms are on the opposite sides of the double-bonded carbon chain, but in cis fats they are on the same side)
  • The group of individuals selecting the ‘non-binary’ option is quite heterogeneous. There are arguably many different shades of ‘non-binary’. A more nuanced investigation into the sub-categories of this parent group may be informative (but was beyond the scope of this study)
  • A LOT of people rejected the notion that any groups other than traditional cis-male or cis-female were legitimate gender expressions, while other commenters argued that there is no distinction between (for example) cisgender male and transgender male, suggesting that both were male, and being trans was simply another distinct element of identity.

The study essentially aimed to measure the gender hierarchy discussed in Feminist theory, and investigate it’s relationships to psychological outcomes of self-esteem and experience of discrimination. By doing so, we may be able to quantify the levels of social power and opportunity held by the average person of each gender category and thus identify where resources are best focussed to reduce some elements of social inequality.

This post was co-authored with Aaron Howearth, based on research currently being jointly conducted 

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