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Ladies and gentlemen, the following may come as a shock, but sex and gender are NOT the same thing.  Now, before you get your knickers in a knot, let us visit the most hallowed of resources on the Queen’s English – the Oxford English Dictionary.

So sayeth the OED: the word sex is derived from middle French (c. 1200), and was first used to describe male and female humans around about 1475.  Now, this esteemed tome also mentions the recent trend of conflating sex with gender (which we’ll define shortly).  Some time in the 1960s, gender began to replace sex when describing males and females.

Gender is so aptly defined by the OED that I’ll reproduce the entire thing:

3b. – The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex. Also: a (male or female) group characterized in this way.

Put simplistically, gender is one’s conception of self, while sex refers to the biological reproductive bits betwixt our legs (for the moment, I’ll acknowledge, but not discuss the much more complex cases of intersexual, and others).

Putting these definitions to use, humans have both a biological sex, and also a gender identity.  In the majority of cases, these are cis (or the same), where biological males self-identify as males, and biological females self-identify their gender as females.  When these two do not align, an individual may identify as transgendered or transsexual.

But I digress.  The important point is that gender is a self-bestowed identity, while sex is a biological phenomenon related to reproduction.

Science is full of attempts to over-complicate, and loves jargon.  Why say “methods” when you can say “methodology”?  I think that a part of this desire to appear more sophisticated or erudite, and less vulgar in scientific writing has resulted in the wholesale replacement of sex with gender by some authors, editors, and copyeditors.

Lest there be any misconception about the point of this post: sex ≠ gender.

It is impossible to identify the gender of a butterfly (the butterfly’s internalized concept of self), while it’s sex can be readily apparent.  The same goes for fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, tardigrades, ctenophores, or sea urchins.  Until we have a way to convey the human concept of gender to these animals, and understand their response, we will never know their gender (or if indeed they have a gender at all, or multiple genders for that matter).  So when writing about differences between male and female animals, stick to sex, and avoid gender.

And if you’re curious, just flip through the latest issue of your organismal journal of choice and see how the authors describe males and females.  I mostly study birds, so I had a quick flip through the 2009 issues of a number of bird journals to see what prevailed:

Journal Sex Gender % Gender
Auk 41 0 0%
Bird Conservation International 7 1 13%
Bird Study 14 1 7%
Condor 38 0 0%
Ibis 21 4 16%
Journal of Avian Biology 25 3 11%
Journal of Field Ornithology 18 1 5%
Journal of Ornithology 30 4 12%
Journal of Raptor Research 17 1 6%
Ornis Fennica 5 0 0%
Ringing & Migration 8 0 0%
Waterbirds 18 5 22%
Wilson Journal of Ornithology 0 36 100%

At the time, the Wilson Journal of Ornithology had a policy to replace sex with gender (a policy that, I can gladly report, has now been reversed).  What’s evident from this table is that just about every journal has a mish-mash that largely depends on the author (only The Auk and The Condor had a copyediting policy of replacing gender with sex).  Yet there’s an increasing use of gender (rather than sex) in journal titles in the sciences.

Drop the pretence, and the desire to overly-technify the most simple concept: sex.


* And before anyone asks, I would argue that the bellbird in this article is more properly “intersex”, not transgender.

** And before any botanists or mycologists start filling my inbox with complaints, yes, I know plants have male and female sexes. Fungi apparently have 36,000 sexes!