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Common Misuses of Terminology

There are a number of instances where sex and gender are used interchangeably and sometimes inappropriately:

1. When causality is unclear

As you can see from the scenarios outlined above, at times it is impossible to differentiate the biological from the social determinants of health. In any number of instances it is possible that causality is unclear, unresearched or possibly even unknowable; the whole ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. It is clearly a potential source of confusion. So for that reason when speaking of difference, convention dictates the use of the term ‘gender’ rather than ‘sex’ unless you need to speak specifically only of biological difference.

2. Social ‘discretion’ on public documentation

Regularly we are asked to fill in forms that ask us whether our ‘gender’ is male or female, presumably as an attempt at discretion through the avoidance of the use of the word ‘sex’ on public documentation. Obviously the correct term is ‘sex’.

3. Linguistic and social association of ‘gender’ with ‘women’s issues’

This has happened for a number of reasons. Most of these misunderstandings have slipped into the vernacular as a result of misrepresentation within popular culture. This is one of the reasons why people may find the proposal to introduce a gender perspective in medicine quite confronting. Secondly, because much of the work surrounding gender has also been to balance inequity in women’s health in developing countries, gender analysis in UN and WHO programmes have focussed on women. To a large extent this has been the case with the use of gender analyses in medicine conducted by women’s advocacy groups. However, a genuine gender perspective is inclusive of the impact of gender difference on both men and women.

4. Over interpretation in policy or programme documentation

Quite often you will find gender defined relative to the social or political agenda of the programme or policy being described eg.

‘Gender refers to the social and economic roles that contribute to health inequity…’

What is actually being referred to is not gender but rather aspects of ‘gender roles’, specifically pertaining to social and economic status that impact on health equity. This is quite common in older health programme and policy documentation and represents the beginning of attempts to conceptualise why gender difference appeared to be a common denominator in health inequity. This type of classification rests on a number of assumptions; in this case, that it is only the social and economic aspects of gender difference that are responsible for health inequity. These types of definitions and the assumptions that they imply limit the usefulness of a gender perspective and are representative more of a politically driven than a theoretically driven gender analysis.

5. Medical Literature

Misuse of the terms sex and gender is widespread even throughout the medical literature and even when that literature deals specifically with sex and gender difference. In the medical education literature for example you will see papers that report ‘gender differences in communication styles.’ It is very rarely specified whether the authors are referring to biological difference between males and females (as they use this language) or whether they attribute the differences to social role. This needs to be reported with more rigour.

Content by Ann-Maree Nobelius, 23 June 2004