What Is Gender and Why is it Important?

image of a young person with make up and shirt with "Love who you are".

Learning Objectives

  • 4.1 Differentiate between sex and gender and explain how gender is a social construct.
  • 4.2  Identify how gender is a socializing agent.
  • 4.3  Define gender as a continuum.


When Harry was born, his parents, Steve and Barb, were delighted to add another boy to their family. But as their baby boy began to grow and develop, they noticed that Harry began to express himself in a manner that they viewed as more feminine than masculine. He gravitated toward dolls and other toys that our culture typically associates with girls. But Harry’s preference was not simply about liking pink more than blue or flowers more than fire trucks. He even began to draw himself as a girl, complete with a dress and high-heeled shoes. In fact, Harry did not just wish to be a girl; he believed he was a girl.

In kindergarten, Harry often got into arguments with male classmates because he insisted that he was a girl, not a boy. He even started calling himself “Hailey.” Steve and Barb met with several psychologists, all of whom told them that Hailey was transgendered. But Steve and Barb had a hard time understanding that their five-year-old son could have already developed a gender identity that went against society’s expectations. Concerned with the social ramifications associated with his child being transgendered, Steve hoped this was just a phase. But Barb, and eventually Steve, realized that Harry’s feelings were genuine and unyielding, and they made the decision to let Harry live as Hailey—a girl. They came to this decision after concluding that the criticism he would endure from his peers and other members of society would be less damaging than the confusion he might experience internally if he were forced to live as a boy.

Many transgendered children grow up hating their bodies.  This population can have high rates of drug abuse and suicide (Weiss 2011). Fearful of these outcomes and eager to make their child happy, Steve and Barb now refer to Harry as Hailey and allow her to dress and behave in manners that are considered feminine. To a stranger, Hailey is likely to appear just like any other girl and may even be considered extra girly due to her love of all things pink. But to those who once knew Hailey as Harry, Hailey is likely to endure more ridicule and rejection as the result of adopting a feminine gender identity.

Currently, seven-year-old Hailey and her parents are comfortable with her gender status, but Steve and Barb are concerned about what questions and problems might arise as she gets older. “Who’s going to love my child?” asks Steve (Ling 2011). This question isn’t asked because Hailey is unlovable, but because North American society has yet to fully listen to or understand the personal narratives of the transgendered population (Hines and Sanger 2010).

A social construct is an important term.  It refers to ideas that have been created by and accepted in society.   According to the World Health Organization, “gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.  This includes norms, behaviors and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other” (2022).   As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.

In this chapter, we will explore the social constructs of gender and intersectionality.  Social constructs challenge, and oftentimes reinforce, our understanding of human behavior, leading to dangerous stereotypes, microaggressions, implicit bias, explicit bias, and confirmation bias. We will determine how our ideas about gender support or harm our collaborative relationships with children, families, schools, and communities.

Pause to Reflect!

Discuss the following questions.

  1. Re-read Hailey’s story.
  2. Identify at least 2 social constructs of gender identified in the story.
  3. Identify at least 1 microaggression or bias identified in the story.
  4. Discuss how a school or community can best support Hailey.



Share This Book