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Sex and gender in the literature
Trendy use of ‘gender’ in biology blurs cultural distinctions, satisfies few
Edward R. Winstead

Genomes don't have genders, and sex chromosomes are never referred to as gender chromosomes. But many researchers in the biological sciences now commonly use 'gender' as a synonym for 'sex' when writing about their work. This practice increased dramatically during the nineties, according to a recent survey of the scientific literature by David Haig, of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Twelve years ago, for example, 'gender-specific' was virtually nonexistent in the titles of scientific papers; today it is nearly as common as 'sex-specific.'

Haig theorizes that the trend is due to well-meaning attempts by some researchers to indicate sympathy with the ideas and goals of feminism. A cursory review of the contents revealed that the increased use of 'gender' does not reflect a shift in research interests from understanding the biological determinants of sex to understanding the cultural determinants of gender. He notes, however, that by using 'sex' and 'gender' interchangeably, researchers have blurred the distinction between the two terms—a distinction that many feminist scholars have tried to emphasize since the 1960s.

"I find this interesting because it shows how attuned scientific language can become to broader currents in society," says Haig, an evolutionary biologist who studies parent-of-origin effects on gene expression, or genomic imprinting. "Another interesting aspect of the survey," he adds, "is the fact that the rise of 'gender' in science titles is relatively late."

*Ratio is the number of articles with "Sex" in title divided by number of articles with "Gender" in title.

To quantify a trend that has been noted by others, Haig searched the Science Citation Index for all titles containing 'sex' and 'gender' for each year from 1988 to 1999. During this period, the sex-to-gender ratio declined from more than 10 to 1 to less than 2 to 1. In 1988, for example, there were seven titles containing 'sex differences' for every one containing 'gender differences'; since 1996, 'gender differences' have outnumbered 'sex differences.'

Because biologists never use 'gender' to mean 'sex' in certain contexts, as when referring to genetic recombination, the survey counted only those contexts in which the words are used as synonyms.

In order to have a basis for comparison, Haig conducted the same search for 'sex' and 'gender' in article titles listed in two social science indices, the Social Science Citation Index and the Arts & Humanities Citation Index. 'Gender' appeared in titles more often than 'sex' in both indices for every year between 1988 and 1999 except one.

"My own feeling is that gender was introduced to make a distinction between biology and culture," says Haig, "and to emphasize that many of the perceived differences between males and females are constructs of society and in that sense are arbitrary."

The use of 'gender' as a synonym for 'sex' dates at least to the fourteenth century. According to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was published in 1899, this usage had come to connote a humorous reference to sex. The more frequent usage of 'gender' by biologists in the nineties drew disapproval from both ends of the political spectrum, according to Haig, who cites several letters on this subject to scientific journals. Feminists, for example, decried the notion that rats have gender, a social construct. Biologists, on the other hand, complained that gender is an ambiguous term.

Writing to Science in 1996, a biology professor in Michigan explains that a database search using the words 'biology' and 'gender' turned up "papers describing the behavior, morphology, and molecular biology of plants, insects, flatworms, crustaceans, rodents, and even sphincter muscle and coprolites." The search was intended to locate papers concerning "the ways girls might be socialized out of science careers." The writer concludes: "We gain nothing by substituting 'gender' for 'sex'—no additional nuance or meaning. If anything, the substitution clouds understanding and runs contrary to the scientific principle of parsimony."

Correspondence describing the survey, which was presented earlier this year at the first meeting on Sex and Gene Expression (SAGE), appears in the current issue of Nature Genetics. Haig plans to revisit the topic in a few years. "I'm performing a tiny experiment to see if the trend continues or if my letter to Nature Genetics made any difference," he says.

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Haig, D. Of sex and gender. Nat Gen 25, 373 (August 2000).

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