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When a baby is born, everyone is excited to know if it’s a boy or a girl. From this moment on, it can feel like our lives are mapped out in front of us, with society telling us that boys like certain things, and girls like other things.

But we don’t have to be limited by what society says!

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What is the difference between sex & gender?

Sex

Our assigned sex at birth, often known as our biological sex, is defined by the physical characteristics that we’re born with such as genitalia, chromosomes, hormones and body hair. It’s our anatomy. At birth, most people are either male or female. However, some people are born intersex - where their sex characteristics do not fit with the typical definitions of “male” or “female”.

Gender Identity

Our gender identity is our psychological sense of self. It’s who we feel ourselves to be. Most societies recognise two genders – male and female, relating to a person’s biological sex – but some people describe themselves differently, and that’s OK. Everyone’s gender identity is unique to them and should be respected.

Gender Expression

Gender expression is the way we present our gender, through our actions, clothing, demeanor, and more. How we choose to express our gender might not match up with what society defines as ‘normal’ for our biological sex, and that’s OK.

Just because we have female sex characteristics, and identify as a girl, that doesn’t mean we have to express ourselves in all the “girly” ways society expects. There’s lots of room for flexibility and it’s likely that your gender expression changes frequently without you even thinking about it.

What is the relationship between sex and gender?

Sometimes a person’s sex, i.e. their biological characteristics, and their gender, i.e. how they feel themselves to be, are the same. This is known as being cisgender. For example, if a person is assigned male at birth, and identifies as a man.

Sometimes a person’s sex does not match the gender they feel themselves to be. This is known as being transgender. For example, if someone is assigned female at birth, and has female genitalia, but identifies as a boy or non-binary individual.

What are gender roles?

A gender role is a set of behaviours and attitudes considered by society to be ‘acceptable’ or ‘desirable’ for our sex, or gender. It includes how we’re expected to act, speak, dress, groom.

Gender role expectations can vary depending on the society, culture and ethnic group and can also vary over time.

What are gender stereotypes?

Gender roles can lead to harmful gender stereotypes about how girls and boys should act, look and feel.

There are 4 basic types of gender stereotypes:

  • Personality traits — For example, women are generally expected to be emotional, while men are expected to be confident and aggressive.
  • Domestic behaviours — For example, women can be expected to take care of the children, cook, and clean the home, while men take care of finances, work on the car, and do the home repairs.
  • Occupations — Often teachers and nurses are assumed to be women, and pilots, doctors, and engineers to be men.
  • Physical appearance — Women may be expected to have long hair and wear make-up, whilst men have short hair and are expected to be taller and more muscular.

Why are gender roles and stereotypes harmful?

With gender roles and stereotypes come expectations and pressure. Expectations to act, look and feel a certain way, which doesn’t necessarily align with who we are or how we feel. All of this can have a negative impact on our wellbeing - for example, if we feel we’re failing to meet these expectations, or if we feel we’re not recognised or accepted for who we are.

It’s important to remember that we are all unique and neither our sex, nor our gender, defines who we are or limits what we can do. Everyone can be brave, play whatever sports they want and speak up. Everyone can cry, do ballet and wear pink.

Whatever our gender, we must give ourselves permission to live the life we want to live, on our terms.

Portrait of a girl smiling while standing in a metro stationPortrait of a girl smiling while standing in a metro station

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How to eliminate gender roles & stereotypes

Talk about them

Talk with friends and family about the stereotypes you see and help others understand how sexism, which is when people are looked down upon because of their sex or gender, and gender stereotypes can be hurtful.

Don’t be afraid to speak up

If you notice something that makes you feel uncomfortable, whether it’s on TV, in a magazine or on social media, don’t be afraid to call it out. Sometimes we don’t realise we’re reinforcing a stereotype until it’s pointed out to us.

Be a role model for others

Give yourself permission to go against gender roles and stereotypes. By joining that sports team made up of mostly boys or leading a group task without worrying about being seen as bossy, we give ourselves the opportunity to show what we’re capable of and can act as a role model for others who want to do the same.

How to find more advice

If you’re struggling with gender identity and expectations, know that you’re not alone. If you feel it is safe, consider opening up to a parent, teacher or a family member to make sure you’re getting the emotional support you need. In the UK, you can also contact Childline (if you are under 19 years of age) online at childline.org.uk, or via phone on 0800 1111, or Mermaids UK via webchat https://mermaidsuk.org.uk/contact-us/ or by phone on 0808 801 0400.

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