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Basic terms: Gender and gender discrimination


Before discussing the gender dimensions of ethics, it is important to distinguish the terms gender and sex, which are commonly incorrectly inter-changed. While sex is defined as the "physical and biological characteristics that distinguish males and females" (UN Women, 2017), the concept of gender refers to:

the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/ time-specific and changeable. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a woman or a man in a given context. In most societies there are differences and inequalities between women and men in responsibilities assigned, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources, as well as decision-making opportunities. Gender is part of the broader socio-cultural context. Other important criteria for socio-cultural analysis include class, race, poverty level, ethnic group and age. (UN Women, 2001)

Women around the world face discrimination and other challenges based on their gender. Article 1 of the CEDAW defines gender discrimination as:

any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women … of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

Women are subjected to biases and prejudice in the community, in their own homes, and in their work places in several ways, ranging from under payment (lack of pay parity) and gender segregation to harassment and sexual assault. Hence gender equality and empowerment for women and girls has been designated as Goal 5 of the SDGs adopted by the United Nation in 2015.

Family and domestic violence have also been highlighted as a fundamental problem in many countries around the world. This treatment of women is the manifestation of the oppression they face due to their gender identity. Stressing this point, Iris Marion Young (2009) explains that gender discrimination is compounded by five types of oppression experienced by many women: violence, exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism (Young, 2009).

Relatedly, to fully understand how the gender functions in society, it is necessary to understand how gender interacts with other structures of power such as race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation or age. Such an analytical framework was first introduced and developed by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her seminal article "Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color" (1989). The term intersectionality is used to describe the consideration of other factors that play into gender discrimination, particularly race, compounding its effects. Crenshaw was interested in the way that women's rights activists did not always consider questions of race, as a black woman's experience of discrimination, for instance, might be very different than that of a white woman. In the United States, this can be easily illustrated by the wage gap. While American women earn less than American men, African American and Hispanic women earn even less than white women (Temple and Tucker, 2017). Contemporary feminists, such as Vrushali Patil (2013), have looked at the way in which intersectionality impacts racial and cultural hierarchies across borders. Using the term "intersectionality" helps us visualize how categories such as race, gender and class interlink in concrete lives, and understand the multiple chains of exclusion and violence to which women are subjected (i.e. women can be subject to several systems of oppression that go beyond patriarchy). For a further discussion of the notion of intersectionality, including a related class exercise, see Module 5 (Ethics, Diversity and Pluralism).

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