Issue 3 | January 2006


Sex and Gender

***Articles reviewed and updated in November 2014***

Are men more rational than women? Females more caring than males? Alleged differences between the sexes can generate heated debate. In this issue, we explore the biological basis of sex differences and the relationship between sex and gender. As well as covering the science of sex determination, we look at attitudes towards masculinity and femininity, and ask whether sex is truly a useful way of categorising people.

Browse through the individual articles, check out our image galleries and quizzes and consider our lesson ideas. This issue was first published in 2006; in 2014, all of the individual resources were reviewed and updated for accuracy and currency. Please do note, however, that the PDF of the original 2006 issue has not been updated.

The nature of sex

The X and Y of sex

In humans, whether our sex organs develop into testes or ovaries is determined largely by X and Y chromosomes

Hormones at work

It is not only sex chromosomes but also sex hormones that that determine whether we grow up as males or females

Gender gap

Although often used interchangeably, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have different meanings

XYY: Stereotype of the karyotype

It is not only people with disorders of sex development/intersex conditions who experience gender-related stereotyping by society

What are disorders, differences and divergent sex development?

Find out more about these conditions, often known as DSDs

The evolution of sex

Why have sex?

Why is sex a better reproductive strategy than cloning yourself?

Unconventional reproduction

Offspring aren’t necessarily produced by one male and one female

Sexual attraction

If a species is to survive, males and females must meet and mate. What attracts us to someone – looks, physique… or even smell?

Sexual selection

In natural selection the fittest individuals survive and pass on their genes to the next generation

Generation game

In which contestants – egg and sperm – must come together to get to the next round

Gay times

The origins of homosexuality are uncertain and hotly debated. Is it biologically defined? A free choice? And, ultimately, does it matter?

Theories of sex

Why is sexual reproduction so important?

Lost in love

Is being in love a pathological condition? It certainly has some profound effects on our behaviour – and our physiology

You, me and mitochondrial ‘Eve’

Your DNA comes from three sources

Evolutionary explanations

Natural selection and Darwinian evolution are believed to be the main forces shaping life

Vive la difference?

Sex on the brain

Perhaps the most fascinating differences between the sexes – and certainly the most controversial – are those seen in the brain and behaviour

Reporting of sex differences

Nearly everyone has an opinion on sex differences. And there’s money to be made by writing about them

Gender source

Are gender differences between males and females biologically based or do they reflect cultural influences?

The brain game

Could differences in brain structure explain behavioural differences between the sexes?

Sexual dimorphism

Are males always bigger than females? Sometimes, nothing could be further from the truth…

Medical differences

Why is autism more common in men?

Is autism linked to an ‘extreme male brain’, as proposed by Cambridge scientist Simon Baron-Cohen?

Sex and death

Is illness sex-blind? Sometimes, but there are clear cases of a sex bias

Implications of sex differences

If we want to improve health, should we treat men and women differently?

Sex selection

Selecting the sex of a baby is allowed in the UK for medical reasons, but should everyone be free to choose?

Health behaviours

Men and women may have different approaches when it comes to health

Blue genes?

Very little is known about differences in gene activity between males and females, or what the implications of differences might be

Doing without sex

Will there come a day when reproduction is entirely separated from the human body?

It takes three, baby

What is mitochondrial donation – a process sometimes said to create ‘three-parent babies’ – and what does it involve?

Sex and society

Male and female genomes

We inherit a complete genome from our mother and another from our father

The X factor

Why are there so few female composers? Or Nobel Prize-winning scientists? Are males superior in these areas, or have women simply been given fewer opportunities?

Opinions on sex selection

Should parents be allowed to choose a child’s sex? Listen to several different opinions on the topic

High fidelity

Are humans supposed to mate for life? What about other species? And is one sex more promiscuous than the other?

Being positive

If we think sexual equality is a good principle, should we be more active in enabling women to advance?

Is it a woman’s world?

For centuries men have dominated society, but is the pendulum swinging more towards women?

Thinking outside of the box(es)

Is sex actually that useful a way to distinguish people?

Studying sex and gender

If you’re interested in researching this area as a career, here are a few possible approaches

The facts about female genital mutilation

Some cultures mark a young woman’s sexual development by cutting her genitals in a painful process that has no health benefit

Being determined

If there are sex differences, how do we respond to them?

Is equality possible?

If men and women are different, is equality really possible?

Historical views

The good old bad old days

Throughout history, science has explored sex differences – usually attempting to reinforce the assumption of male superiority

Women’s rights

A historical look at sexual equality

Pink pigeonholes and blue boxes

Society’s views of gender have a way of reinforcing stereotypes about sex

Girls on top

The role of gender in society

Real Voices interviews

Real Voices interview: Alan Jenkins

Meet Alan, a community midwife working in London

Real Voices interview: Angela Curnick

Meet Angela Curnick, a long-serving firefighter in the London Fire Brigade

Real Voices interview: Mia

Meet Mia, a young woman with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. She talks to Jennifer Trent Staves about finding out about her condition, what gender means to her, and why she is a bit like a flourless chocolate cake

Activities and lesson ideas

Lesson idea: Debating sex selection

We take you step by step through running a debate about sex selection in the classroom

Further resources and activities on sex and gender

The Wellcome Trust has funded other organisations to produce activities and resources that will engage and educate young people on the topic of sex and gender

Sexual dimorphism quiz

Try our special ‘sexual dimorphism’ quiz, which challenges your assumptions about what the male and female of a species should look like

Sexual antics quiz

From snails to spiders, fruit bats to spoon worms, the animal kingdom has some very interesting mating processes. Can you match creature to habit?

Fast Facts

Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.

Browse through all of our Fast Facts indexed by topic