Two open boxes next to each other

Thinking outside of the box(es)

Is sex actually that useful a way to distinguish people?

There are many ways of grouping people. We tend to use obvious physical features, such as ethnic origins revealed by facial features – and sex. This can cause problems for people who do not fall neatly into the boxes labelled ‘male’ or ‘female’ (see one of our Real Voices interviews for more).

But is this the best way to group people? Perhaps it would be more inclusive to offer other options. For example, the Australian passport system now provides three gender options – male, female and ‘X’ for transgender people or those of ambiguous sex.

Medically, there is value in grouping people according to genetic characteristics as they may, for example, have similar responses to a drug. But these may not match exactly the social categories we have created.

Similarly, arguing for two genders may drive us towards an artificial distinction between two types: male/masculine and female/feminine. But a typical man may show very ‘masculine’ responses in some areas and ‘feminine’ traits in others (and vice versa for women).

It can be more useful to think of people as a gender mosaic, possessing a mix of characteristics – and that these characteristics are not necessarily set in stone.

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About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in January 2006 and reviewed and updated in October 2014.

Statistics and maths, Genetics and genomics
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development