Beyond the Gender Binary

Within international development, the term gender seems to appear everywhere. Gender And Development (GAD), gender mainstreaming, gender approach, gender analysis, gender justice and so on. Often, the term gender is used interchangeable with that of women. For example, at its core, gender mainstreaming means specifically including women into broader programs and projects. Additionally, there is an underlying assumption that women are cis-gendered, heterosexual, and have xx chromosomes. The most recent sector literature, research and tools, includes language that defines gender as women and girls, men and boys. Often, with some additional point about how gender is socially constructed. The ‘most inclusive’ of practitioners, will include a box or footnote that acknowledges ‘other vulnerable groups‘, including elderly, people with disabilities, children and LGBTIQ+ people/ people with diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities, and Expressions (SOGIE). However, what we seem to miss in the development sector is that some elderly people are women. Some people with disabilities are women. Some children are girls, and some lesbian, bisexual and trans folks are also women. Further, some women don’t have xx chromosomes. But that is not the extent of the limitations on typical development definitions. More specifically, typical development definitions of gender reinforces an exclusionary gender binary that does not represent the diversity of gender or sex characteristics in the many different geographies and cultures and communities, we work in and with.

How did we get here? How we came to a paradigm of Gender And Development, and where we need to progress to, is outlined below.

Sex/Gender distinction

The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean different things to different theorists, and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise. Sketching out some feminist and queer history of the terms provides a good starting point.

Biological determinism

Most people seem to think that sex and gender are corresponding: all women are females, all men are males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/gender distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes females and males depending on their sex characteristics (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones, and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour, or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.

Psychologists writing about transgender people in the 1960’s were the first to employ gender terminology in this way[1]. To explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller[2] began using the terms ‘sex’ to define biological traits and ‘gender’ to define the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited[3]. Separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of people’s gender identity being different to their sex assigned at birth: For many transgender, gender non-binary and third gender folks, sex and gender simply don’t match.

Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to distinguish between sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Gayle Rubin uses the phrase ‘sex/gender system’ or ‘sex/gender/sexuality system’ to describe “a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention”[4] Rubin employed this system to articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women”[5] describing gender as the “socially imposed division of the sexes”[6]. Rubin’s thought was that although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and men should behave. Women are oppressed as women and “by having to be women”[7] However, since gender is social, it is thought to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would ultimately bring an end to women’s oppression.

Women In Development

The term “Women In Development’ (WID) came into use in the early 1970’s, after the publication of Ester Boserup’s Women’s Role in Economic Development[8]. Boserup was the first to systematically delineate on a global level the sex-gender division in labour that existed in agrian economies. Boesrup’s work was groundbreaking in that it was based on the analysis of data and evidence which had long been available to social scientists and development practitioners, but she was the first to systematically use gender as an independent variable in her analysis. Boserup’s work was later criticised for its oversimplification of the nature of women’s work and roles[9] but it was nevertheless important in focusing attention on the gender division of labour and the differential impact by gender in development.

The term was used by the women’s committee of the Washington DC chapter of the Society for International Development as part of a deliberate strategy to bring the new evidence generated by Boserup and others to the attention of American policy makers.[10] A set of common concerns, loosely labelled “Women in Development” (WID) began to be articulated by American liberal feminists who advocated legal and administrative changes to ensure that women would be better integrated into economic systems.[11] They placed primary emphasis on egalitarianism and on the development of strategies and action programs aimed at minimising the disadvantages of women economically and ending broader discriminations.

It was under the WID phase of the international development evolution, that the recognition of women’s experience of development and of societal change differed from that of men and was institutionalised. It became legitimate for research to focus specifically on women’s experiences and perceptions. Nonetheless, the WID approach was based on several assumptions which were at odds with the critical trends of social sciences in the 1970’s. Mbilunyl suggests that the WID approach focuses only on how women could be better integrated into ongoing development initiatives[12]. This non-confrontational approach avoided questioning the sources and nature of women’s oppression, was ahistorical, and overlooked the impact and influence of class, race and culture[13].

Women And Development

The demarcation between WID and the Women And Development (WAD) are unclear. Historically, the WAD approach seemed to emerge in the late 1970’s. What is clear is that the WAD approach begins from the position that women always have been a part of development processes and that they did not suddenly appear in the 1970’s. Achola Okello Pala articulated the position that “integrating women into development” was inextricably linked to the maintenance of economic dependency of the global south on the global north[14]. The WAD perspective focused on the relationship between women and development processes rather than purely on strategies for the integration of women into development. The point of departure is that women have always been integrated into their societies and that their work, both inside and outside the household and was central to the maintenance of those societies, but this integration serves primarily to sustain existing international structures of inequality. Theoretically, the WAD perspective recognised the impact of class, but in development programming and projects, it looks remarkably like the WID approach. Grouping women together without a strong analytical practice of considering class, race, or ethnicity and other identity markers, which deeply informs women’s actual social status and access to power and resources.

Gender And Development

Gender And Development (GAD) emerged in the 1980’s as an alternative to the earlier WID focus and highlights the socially constructed difference between women and men, challenging the gender roles and relations between these two genders[15], and the creation and effects of class differences on development[16]. The GAD approach is influenced by the writings of Rubin[17] and others who argue the social relationship between men and women have systematically subordinated women[18]. This approach also considers the work of academics including Benería and Sen[19] who have articulated the impact of colonialism on development and women’s inequality. There is an argument that unlike WID, the GAD approach is not concerned specifically with women, but with the way in which a society assigns roles, responsibilities and expectations to both women and men. However, in practice, I see gender to generally mean women (for example, the term gender equality is often used to mean, women’s equality) and the inclusion of men in gendered programming to be limited to that of Women and Girls, Men and Boys. Although there are notable exceptions.[20]

Gender Mainstreaming

In response to pervasive gender inequalities, the concept of gender mainstreaming was first proposed at the 1995 Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya[21]. Gender mainstreaming is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and spheres so that women and men benefit equally, and inequality is not perpetuated[22]. The idea was formally introduced in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China and was cited in the document that resulted from the conference, the Beijing Platform for Action[23].

It is important to note that the President of the Forth World Conference for Women specifically interpreted the meaning of the term gender[24].

Annex IV


1. During the 19th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, acting as preparatory body for the Fourth World Conference on Women, an issue arose concerning the meaning of the word “gender” in the context of the Platform for Action of the Conference. In order to examine the matter, the Commission decided to form a contact group in New York, with the Commission’s Rapporteur, Ms. Selma Ashipala (Namibia), as Chairperson. The Commission mandated the informal contact group to seek agreement on the commonly understood meaning of “gender” in the context of the Platform for Action and to report directly to the Conference in Beijing.

2. Having considered the issue thoroughly, the contact group noted that:

(1) the word “gender” had been commonly used and understood in its ordinary, generally accepted usage in numerous other United Nations forums and conferences;

(2) there was no indication that any new meaning or connotation of the term, different from accepted prior usage, was intended in the Platform for Action.

(3) Accordingly, the contact group reaffirmed that the word “gender” as used in the Platform for Action was intended to be interpreted and understood as it was in ordinary, generally accepted usage. The contact group also agreed that the present report should be read by the President of the Conference as a president’s statement and that the statement should be part of the final report of the Conference.”

Rather an ambiguous statement, as to the definition of gender. UN Women states that gender “refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes…”[25] It is clear that the term gender is often used interchangeably for women, and in its broadest term, refers to men and women, boys and girls. Note the term, socially constructed thrown in for good measure.

Gender and Sex — transgender and intersex

Despite the broader understanding of gender being socially constructed, and the increasing visability of transgender, gender non-binary and third gender folks, the current development system is stuck with perpetuating an artificial gender binary that simply does not exist. A binary gender perspective assumes that there are only men and women -females and males- obscuring gender diversity and erasing the existence of people who do not identify as ‘men and boys or women and girls’ in relation to their sex characteristics. A gendered assumption in our culture is that someone assigned female at birth will identify as a woman and that all women were assigned female at birth. While this is true for cisgender (or “cis”) individuals — people who identify in accordance with their gender assignment — it is not the case for everyone. Some people assigned male at birth identify as women, some people assigned female identify as men, and some people identify as neither women nor men. The existence of transgender people, as well as the many culturally specific gender identities outside of this binary, including individuals who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, challenges the very idea of a single sex/gender identity. For example, trans women, women whose bodies were assigned male at birth and who identify as women, show us that not all women are born with female-assigned bodies. The fact that trans people exist contests the biological determinist argument that biological sex predicts gender identity, as earlier explored by Stoller.

The existence of diverse sex characteristics fundamentally challenges the notion of binary biological sex characteristics. Intersex describes variations in sex characteristics, such as chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. The bodies of individuals with diverse sex characteristics do not fit typical definitions of what is culturally considered “male” or “female.” “Intersex,” like “female” and “male,” is a socially constructed category that humans have created to label bodies that they view as different from those they would classify as distinctly “female” or “male.” The term basically marks existing biological variation among various bodies. The term is misleading because it suggests that all people have complete sets of what would be called “male” and “female” reproductive systems. “Intersex” refers to biological variation outside of this binary. There are a number of specific biological sex variations. For example, having one Y and more than one X chromosome is called Kleinfelter Syndrome. Does the presence of more than one X mean that the XXY person is female? Does the presence of a Y mean that the XXY person is male? These individuals are neither clearly chromosomally male or female; they are chromosomally intersex. Some people have genitalia that others consider ambiguous. This is not as uncommon as you might think. The Intersex Society of North America estimated that some 1.5% of people have sex variations. In short, this is another example of sex characteristics not aligning with the binaries of sex and gender.

What does this mean for Gender And Development?

Deeply embedded in the development system are assumptions of gender identity and sex characteristics that not only invisibles people with diverse gender identities and sex characteristics, but continues to perpetuate the types of systemic discrimination that the original WID and WAD frameworks attempted to overthrow in regards to the exclusion of ‘women’. Whether you are embedding a gender analysis, doing a gender assessment, implementing gender mainstreaming, being gender responsive or promoting the need for sex disaggregated data, if you are perpetuating sex and gender binaries, you are dismissing decades of work that feminists, queers and others have been highlighting. Sex and gender are two very different (although sometimes overlapping) attributes. Conflating the concepts of sex and gender, and falsely reproducing a notion that they are both binary attributes, perpetuates harmful and discriminatory norms.

Leave No One Behind

People with diverse gender identities and sex characteristics represent some of the most marginalised populations that development and aid actors work for. Attention to the rights, needs and strengths of people with diverse genders and sex characteristics is therefore essential for countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal’s, a key feature of which is the underlying commitment to ‘leave no one behind’. There is no longer any excuse for development practitioners — especially Gender Equality, Disability and Social Inclusion (GEDSI) practitioners to continue to perpetuate exclusionary sex and gender binaries that have been slowly understood and acknowledge over the decades of strong feminist and queer praxis. There is no excuse for gender and inclusion ‘experts’ to continue to exclude people yet signify their feminist or gender equality positions. Not when we have feminist, queer, intersex and other activists who have worked tirelessly to unpack the construction of gender, the fallacy of gender binaries and the diversity of sex characteristics.

Leave no one behind isn’t a fuzzy catch phrase to make us feel good about our work. It is a call for action to ensure that gender equality includes all the diversity within gender identities and sex characteristics.

[1] Stoller, R, J., (1968); Sex and Gender: the Transsexual Experiment, Hogarth Press, (1968)

[2] The inclusion of Stoller’s work is to show the connection to the differing terminology of sex and gender, not to endorse their interpretation of the ‘causes’ of diverse gender identities, which is highly problematic.

[3] Stoller, R. J., (1968) Sex and Gender: On The Development of Masculinity and Femininity, New York: Science House

[4] Rubin, G., (1975) Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Rapp Reiter

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] Boserup, E., Fei Tan, S., Toulmin, C., (2007) Women’s Role in Economic Development Routledge

[9] Beneria, L., Sen, G., (1981) Accumulation, Reproduction and Women’s Role in Economic Development: Boserup Revisited. Vol 7 No 2, Development and the Sexual Division of Labor. The University of Chicago Press

[10] Maguire, P. (1984) Women in Development: An Alternative Analysis. Amherst, MA. Center for International Education.

[11] Jacquette, J., (1982) Women and Modernization Theory: A Decade of Feminist Criticism. In World Politics 34, No, 2.

[12] Mbilinyl. M., (1984) Women in Development Ideology: The promotion of competition and exploitation. The African Review 11, No1.

[13] Nijehold, G., Lychlama, A. (1987) The Fallacy of Integration: The UN Strategy for Integrating women into Development Revisited. Netherlands Review of Development Studies 1.

[14] Pala, A.O., (1977) Definitions of Women and Development: An African Perspective. Women and National Development: The Complexities of Change. University of Chicago Press.

[15] Reeves, H., (2000). Gender and Development: Concepts and Definitions. Brighton.

[16] Benería, L. (2014). Gender, development, and globalization : economics as if all people mattered. Berik, Günseli, Floro, Maria (Second ed.). New York.

[17] Rubin, G., (1975) Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Rapp Reiter

[18] Moser, C. (1993). Gender Planning and Development. Theory, Practice and Training. New York: Routledge.

[19] Beneria, L., Sen, G., (2021) Feminist challenges to development economicsThe Routledge Handbook of Feminist Economics

[20] Chynoweth, S., (2017) “We Keep It in Our Hearth”- Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in the Syria Crisis. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

[21] United Nations. (1985) Report of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace. A/Conf.116/28/Rev.1

[22] True, J. Parisi, L., (2013) Gender mainstreaming strategies in international governance in Feminist Strategies in International Governance (Caglar, Prügl and Zwingel (eds.)

[23]Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995)

[24] United Nations (1995) Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women. A/Conf.177/20/add.1

[25] UN Women, Concepts and definitions. accessed Saturday 7th August 2021.