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
In humans, whether our sex organs develop into testes or ovaries is determined largely by X and Y chromosomes
It is not only sex chromosomes but also sex hormones that that determine whether we grow up as males or females
In humans a chromosomal mechanism determines sex, but there are many other ways to create males and females
Although often used interchangeably, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have different meanings
It is not only people with disorders of sex development/intersex conditions who experience gender-related stereotyping by society
Find out more about these conditions, often known as DSDs
We’ve chosen images of sperm and egg cells and the parts of the body in which they develop to show how cells can be visualised with different techniques
The evolution of sex
Why is sex a better reproductive strategy than cloning yourself?
Offspring aren’t necessarily produced by one male and one female
If a species is to survive, males and females must meet and mate. What attracts us to someone – looks, physique… or even smell?
In natural selection the fittest individuals survive and pass on their genes to the next generation
In which contestants – egg and sperm – must come together to get to the next round
The origins of homosexuality are uncertain and hotly debated. Is it biologically defined? A free choice? And, ultimately, does it matter?
Why is sexual reproduction so important?
Is being in love a pathological condition? It certainly has some profound effects on our behaviour – and our physiology
Your DNA comes from three sources
Natural selection and Darwinian evolution are believed to be the main forces shaping life
Vive la difference?
Perhaps the most fascinating differences between the sexes – and certainly the most controversial – are those seen in the brain and behaviour
Nearly everyone has an opinion on sex differences. And there’s money to be made by writing about them
Are gender differences between males and females biologically based or do they reflect cultural influences?
Could differences in brain structure explain behavioural differences between the sexes?
Are males always bigger than females? Sometimes, nothing could be further from the truth…
Is autism linked to an ‘extreme male brain’, as proposed by Cambridge scientist Simon Baron-Cohen?
Is illness sex-blind? Sometimes, but there are clear cases of a sex bias
If we want to improve health, should we treat males and females differently?
Selecting the sex of a baby is allowed in the UK for medical reasons, but should everyone be free to choose?
Men and women may have different approaches when it comes to health
Very little is known about differences in gene activity between males and females, or what the implications of differences might be
Will there come a day when reproduction is entirely separated from the human body?
What is mitochondrial donation – a process sometimes said to create ‘three-parent babies’ – and what does it involve?
Sex and society
We inherit a complete genome from our mother and another from our father
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?
Should parents be allowed to choose a child’s sex? Listen to several different opinions on the topic
Are humans supposed to mate for life? What about other species? And is one sex more promiscuous than the other?
If we think sexual equality is a good principle, should we be more active in enabling women to advance?
For centuries men have dominated society, but is the pendulum swinging more towards women?
Is sex actually that useful a way to distinguish people?
If you’re interested in researching this area as a career, here are a few possible approaches
Some cultures mark a young woman’s sexual development by cutting her genitals in a painful process that has no health benefit
If there are sex differences, how do we respond to them?
If men and women are different, is equality really possible?
Throughout history, science has explored sex differences – usually attempting to reinforce the assumption of male superiority
A historical look at sexual equality
Society’s views of gender have a way of reinforcing stereotypes about sex
The role of gender in society
Real Voices interviews
Meet Alan, a community midwife working in London
Meet Angela Curnick, a long-serving firefighter in the London Fire Brigade
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
We take you step by step through running a debate about sex selection in the classroom
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
Try our special ‘sexual dimorphism’ quiz, which challenges your assumptions about what the male and female of a species should look like
From snails to spiders, fruit bats to spoon worms, the animal kingdom has some very interesting mating processes. Can you match creature to habit?
Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.