Sex & Gender: What makes a woman a woman?

March 6, 2023

By Sam Pender

This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme is #EmbraceEquity, and Women’s College Hospital (WCH) has a long history of championing equity at every intersection. And when it comes to women’s health, WCH has been at the forefront of providing access to all women, including trans women and gender diverse people.

Through WCH’s Transition-Related Surgery (TRS) program, we’ve been able to provide life-saving gender affirming care to trans people across Ontario, helping to alleviate gender dysphoria in trans individuals through medically transitioning. But does transitioning to the gender you identify as require medically transitioning to be valid in your identity? The answer is no; reproductive organs do not dictate gender.

What’s the difference between sex and gender?

When it comes to trans people trying to live their lives as the gender they identify with, many cisgendered people are quick to ask them about their medical transition, if they’ve even had one. The problem with this is not only is it offensive to ask anyone about their reproductive organs or biological makeup when discussing their gender – or anything for that matter – but it also ties gender to biology and reproduction. But sex and gender are two different things.

So, what’s the difference?

According to the Canadian Institute of Health Research, sex refers to a set of biological attributes in humans and animals, and is primarily associated with physical and physiological features. Sex is also usually categorized as female or male, but there is variation in the biological attributes that comprise sex and how those attributes are expressed.

According to the same source, gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, expressions and identities of girls, boys, women, men and gender diverse people. Gender identity is not confined to a binary and is not static, as it exists along a continuum and can change over time.

What does this mean?

Biologically, we are female, male, intersex or a variation of biological attributes. Socially, we are women, men, non-binary or gender diverse, regardless of biology or reproductive organs. Why is this important? Trans people are at a higher risk for stigma, violence, harassment, discrimination, and fatal outcomes simply because they are trans and sometimes not seen as valid in their identities, regardless if they’ve medically transitioned or not. This stigma and discrimination can take many different forms, for instance:

  • Trans women are stigmatized and discriminated against when trying use bathrooms and shelters that match their gender identity, despite the high instances of violence against trans women in men’s spaces
  • Trans people and gender diverse people are more likely to experience harassment and violence in public places and more likely to experience sexual assault compared to cisgendered, heterosexual people, and
  • Health outcomes continue to be poorer for trans people due to stigma in the healthcare system and lack of safe access to physical and mental healthcare

These are just some of the ways trans people face violence, harassment, stigma, and discrimination in their every day lives, simply because they are trying to live as the gender they identify as.

Considering gender is a social construct, can be fluid and exists on a continuum that can change over time, someone’s anatomy or biology has very little to do with their gender identity and is not what makes someone a woman. If you look at the diverse population of women – both trans and cisgendered women – across the world, it’s obvious that women come in all different shapes, sizes and presentations. Some trans women will grow out their hair, dress in more feminine attire, wear makeup, or express their gender identity through physicality or aesthetics. Some cisgendered women will dress more masculine, cut their hair short, or express themselves more androgynously. Both are still women. 

There is no one right way to look like a woman, to express yourself as a woman or to live as a woman. Simply knowing that you are one and living your life in a way that connects you to your gender should be enough to be accepted by society for who you are, regardless of how you landed in your womanhood.

While medically transitioning to match your anatomy to your gender is not necessary to transition to another gender, for many trans people, it can alleviate gender dysphoria and make their journey through life more fulfilling. For transgendered people interested in, considering, or scheduled for gender affirming care, WCH’s TRS program is hosting a Virtual Seminar Series offering information for those making decisions regarding gender affirming care and provides an accessible pathway for education about surgeries, surgical techniques, outcomes and the patient experience.

The virtual seminars will focus on upper surgery (chest and breast) and vaginoplasty, and will be help in March, June, September and December. Registration is required. For more information or to register, visit the seminar series page here.