Applied Psychology

What is Gender Identity?

Feb 13, 2024 | By Jenna van Schoor

Gender identity is an intricate topic that we are discussing more and more as our attitudes towards gender shift and evolve. Overall, it’s essential to understand the differences between sex and gender and the meaning of specific terms.

Many people use the terms biological sex and gender interchangeably, but these aren’t the same. How people experience and express gender can also evolve, which makes it essential to clarify specific terms so that gender identity and expression can be more widely acknowledged and understood.

This post will discuss the difference between sex and gender and provide some insight into varying perspectives. We’ll also share ways to learn more about human behaviour and gender identity.

What is gender identity?

In a world that is shifting dramatically thanks to increased access to information and other societal changes, it’s not surprising that our perceptions of gender have changed and will continue to change. In a globalised world made up of billions of experiences, it’s clear that we need to approach the concept more openly and compassionately.

Sex and gender

As mentioned above, there is a difference between biological sex and gender. Sex refers to sexual and reproductive organs, which typically fall into two types: male and female. 

Gender, on the other hand, is not directly linked to biological sex. It is also not limited to two categories of definitions, but rather exists on a fluid continuum. There’s also a difference between gender expression and gender identity. The former is external, while the latter is internal.

Types of gender identities

There are various gender identities. One can be cisgender, which means that they correspond to their assigned birth gender and conventional attitudes towards it. This is binary – meaning woman or man. Non-binary gender identities, however, do not conform to biological sex and can fluctuate. In this way, gender is not rigidly defined but experienced and expressed along a continuum.

Transgender means identifying differently than with the gender assigned at birth. Trans people may choose to physically and/or socially transition with medical assistance. Other terms to be aware of include agender, which means someone does not identify with any gender. Another term is intersex, which relates to people with reproductive anatomy, chromosomes or hormones which don’t conform to typical male and female definitions. 

Because of all these possibilities, in recent years, there has been a drive to include gender-neutral pronouns in society, for example, them, theirs and they.

Sexual orientation

Many people get confused when it comes to how gender identity relates to sexual orientation. Simple answer, it doesn’t. Sexual orientation, or who you’re attracted to, has more to do with how you feel about others.

Perspectives on gender identity

Now that we’ve briefly discussed gender identity and expression, what influences or drives our internal experience? Gender has been studied in-depth since the late 20th century, and many perspectives exist.

We only have to look at history and the variety of cultures worldwide to see that gender roles and expectations can differ significantly over different historical periods and from one geographical location to the next. For this reason, although there might be overlaps, gender roles and expressions are not universal.

According to Britannica’s definition of gender identity, there are three primary schools of thought. These include essentialist, social constructivist and performative. Here is a summary of these three perspectives below:

  • Essentialists believe that biological sex and gender go hand in hand and that they are defined at birth by genetics and other biological influences. 
  • Social constructivists, on the other hand, argue that gender is socially and culturally constructed or determined by cultural and social factors. 
  • The performative approach believes that gender is learnt or “constituted” as a result of gender roles being continuously “performed”.

Judith Butler, a well-known philosopher who teaches at the University of Berkeley, is credited with developing the performative approach to gender. However, many wrote about this subject before her, including feminist authors like Simone de Beauvoir.   

It’s important to note that each of the above perspectives isn’t mutually exclusive, as it is possible to have a nuanced identity even when you conform to essentialist gender definitions. 

Regardless of which perspective resonates with you, we all cannot ignore the fact that the variety of different gender identities and expressions available is vast and is constantly changing as more individuals connect and share their respective experiences.

Learning more about gender identity

Do you want to learn more about gender and self-identity? You might be interested in signing up for one of our short courses on human behaviour. 

Our recently launched Social Identity Formation short course explores how social context influences sexual attitudes and behaviours and how social influences impact health and well-being.

In the Factors Influencing Human Behaviour course we discuss the concept of gender identity and how it forms part of a more holistic understanding of how people think and behave. For foundational insight, you can also sign up for the interconnected micro-credential, Intro to Human Behaviour

For those looking to reach their full potential, we also invite you to register for the Building a Positive Self-esteem course, which can assist you in developing a healthy self-image, regardless of how you identify.

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