The changing meaning of gender in 21st Century

By Vivian Nwokeji-Udeh & Mercy Tartsea-Anshase, PhD

Gender refers to characteristics of women, men, boys and girls that are socially constructed. It is the encompassing behaviors, norms, and roles associated with being a girl, boy, man, or woman as well as relationships with each other. It is quite dynamic in different climes.

Gender differs from sex in that the latter refers to biologically defined and genetically acquired differences between males and females, according to their physiology and reproductive capabilities. It is universal and mostly unchanging, without surgery; and basically denotes a binary state of being male or female.

While the former is typically defined regarding social and cultural differences rather than biological differences. Little wonder why Judith Butler (1990) describes gender in relation to performance. Excerpts from her book on ‘Gender Trouble’ allude gender as social roles performed by individuals and validated by society. Butler asserts that it is by no means tied to material bodily facts but it’s solely a social construction, a fiction, one that, is therefore, open to change and contestation. It encompasses a range of physical, mental, and behavioral characteristics distinguishing between masculinity and femininity.

Meanings ascribed to gender remain fluid over time. A gender revolution has ensued as today’s world has witnessed the emergence of non-binary gender like the intersex, bi-gender, gender-queer, cisgender to mention but a few. This is intertwined with sexual orientations like gay-ism, lesbianism and other queer tendencies.

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A peep into the handbook of Gender Studies as Edited by Kathy Davis, Mary Evans and Judith Lorber highlights the challenges and struggles of women and feminine gender in a patriarchal and hegemonic society. Gender stereotypes and statistics have placed men as the dominant sex in roles and responsibilities at all levels of social, political, economic and religious endeavors.

It has placed caveats on societal, cultural abilities and expectations of men and women. Little wonder why the girl child is expected to be beautiful, cute, obedient, better at house chores, classroom teaching and allowed to express their emotions. While the boy child is expected to be brave, not allowed to openly express emotions, better with machines and mathematics and take the lead in various human endeavors. However, these social attributes and constructs are not cast in stone as the meaning of gender unfolds.

The 21st century has witnessed rapid and profound Changes in social constructs of gender as there is greater participation and appreciation of women in fields hitherto dominated by men. The century has witnessed the rise of the Queen Bee syndrome. Queen Bee is a term ascribed to women and females who have secured positions of authority and influence in male dominated settings.

The gender disparity seems to be closing up too. There are more women who own or lead large companies, play active roles in their families and communities, own personal businesses, manage big organizations, head political groups, earn higher and professional academic degrees from various disciplines amongst many other developments. Both genders actively attend sporting events; go to bars, clubs, social functions and all other outdoor activities that were hitherto dominated by men alone.

The changing meaning of gender in the 21st century has seen the rebirth of feminism and feminist discourse. Feminism advocates for equal rights and opportunities for all genders. It creates awareness, support and respect for diverse women’s experiences, identities, knowledge and strengths. Through affirmative actions and other intentional strategies, feminism strives to empower all women to realize and optimize their full rights and potentials.

The changing meaning of gender seeks to end sexism, sexist exploitation, oppression and achieve full gender equality in law and in practice. It promotes debates on equal opportunities for all genders irrespective of any affiliations.

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