October 22, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: gender or sex

Posted in sex and gender at 11:59 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

Not sure if this is of interest to you, but I’ve been interested in your thoughts on the use of “sex” and “gender” in scientific writing. In a manuscript on outcomes for newborns, editors changed every instance of “sex” to “gender” (for example: “Variables included in the model included infant gestational age, race/ethnicity, and sex”). I made the change as requested, but have wondered about recommendations for when to use which word in scientific manuscripts.

Later the reader writes again:

To add: I had thought “sex” was the biologic term and “gender” referred to a more social construct, so “sex” seemed more appropriate for infants where designation had been made based on anatomy. However, I found at least one source that makes it sound like “gender” is the more all-encompassing term (including biologic, social, self-identify), and “sex” refers to the more specific biologic domain within gender.

Hmmm. We talked about this before, and the writer is indeed correct: sex refers to biology, and gender is a social designation referring to the characteristics associated with being masculine or feminine. However, the reader’s last sentence puts a different spin on things, and it behooves a response.

Regular readers of WLUT know that I want folks to get published as publications constitute the coin of the realm in academia, so I usually recommend that investigators accede to the editors’ suggestions. But this is a really tough one. Everyone has to decide for themselves where the line is drawn with respect to being responsive to the editors’ ‘recommendations’ for changes to our writing. For me, this is the line.

This is a scientific manuscript for heaven’s sake! The reader is writing about physical outcomes in newborns. It is hard to imagine that most babies demonstrate the feminine or masculine characteristics that we associate with gender. The most accurate and precise word to use in this context is sex. We are talking about newborns’ age, race, and sex—that is whether they are male or female, not whether they are masculine or feminine. Oy.

I really believe that the use of gender in lieu of sex came about because, at some point, a puritanical editor decided that ‘sex’ has connotations that make some uneasy. It’s only sex, folks, it isn’t dirty. Say it out loud, sex, sex, SEX. We’re adults, we’re researchers and scientists. There is nothing wrong with talking about sex. In this case, especially, we are talking about babies. There is nothing salacious about sex when it comes to babies. Again, I say, for heaven’s sake!

Another reason to use ‘sex’ here is, as I said before, it is more precise. And what are we striving for in our scientific writing, if not precision? Of course, there’s clarity and grace, and the use of ‘sex’ contributes to that as well. Can you tell that this is a hot button topic for me? The more I write, the more vehement I get. It’s only sex!

But, when I want to dispute the editors’ suggestions, I have to leave the vehemence and exclamation points behind, and I would refrain from interjecting, “for heaven’s sake,” too. I would be very polite and respectful in my response. I would cite both the American Medical Association’s style manual and the World Health Organization, both of which make the distinction between the biologic term and the social construct. I would not say that the editors are wrong, I would say that my preference for ‘sex’ is that it is the more precise term, and, as this is a scientific manuscript, I am striving for precision.

And then, if they insist upon the change, I would mutter some impolite words under my breath, and go ahead and change ‘sex’ to ‘gender.’ After all, a publication is the bottom line, and, at least, I tried.

Now, what about that last sentence, “However, I found at least one source that makes it sound like “gender” is the more all-encompassing term (including biologic, social, self-identify), and “sex” refers to the more specific biologic domain within gender”? I think it can be argued that language is evolving and that gender can include all of those constructs, but that only reinforces my reason for using ‘sex’ as it is more precise and refers only to the biologic construct. Furthermore, the distinction between sex and gender actually evolved in academia to emphasize the differences.

So, I would go for precision, and I would go for ‘sex’ in our scientific writing. Gee, it’s only sex, guys. For heaven’s sake!

[NOTE: JR, I haven’t forgotten you. In the next WLUT, in two weeks, I’ll talk about penultimate.]


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