Gender, Sexuality and Families

Theresa Petray

The key goals of this chapter are to explain that:

  • sex, gender, and sexuality are different concepts that sometimes overlap but they are all essential to understand as socially constructed
  • the social construction of gender is shaped by families (and schools, media, and more), and social understandings of gender shape how families are structured
  • society has normative beliefs that push people towards certain expressions of gender, sexuality, and family
  • although they are socially constructed, categories of sex, gender, and sexuality serve as important foundations for inequalities in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia (and beyond)
  • there are many theoretical perspectives a sociologist may use to critically analyse gender, sexuality, and family.


In Tokyo in August 2021, an Olympic athlete from Aotearoa New Zealand made history – not for the weight-lifting records she broke (she did not advance to the final in her competition). Laurel Hubbard is an openly transgender athlete who was given permission to compete in the Women’s Weightlifting competition at the Tokyo Olympics. While she isn’t the first openly trans athlete to make headlines, her participation in the event attracted a lot of attention and controversy (Scovel et al., 2022).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) updated their approach in 2015, paving the way for Hubbard and others to participate. The IOC framework aims to balance inclusion and non-discrimination with fairness. However, the majority of sporting competitions, especially at elite levels, are organised along binary, gendered lines. According to their 2021 framework, the IOC encourages athletes to compete in the category (men’s or women’s) that best aligns with their ‘self-determined gender identity’, so long as they do not have a disproportionate advantage or present a safety risk to other athletes (IOC, 2021).

Examples like Hubbard’s highlight the complex nature of gender identity, how it intersects with biology, and the way these issues are highly politicised in contemporary society (Burbery, 2020). Trans participation in sport is one topic among many that attracts heated debate in the mainstream media.

In this chapter, we will discuss sex and gender, and we will also discuss sexuality and families. These are different areas of study but they overlap considerably, so we discuss them here together so you can think about how they influence one another.


Sex and Gender

Figure: Gender reveal cake by Jim from USA is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Cakes, decorated to hide the colour within, are often used at “gender reveal parties” held to announce the sex of unborn babies.

When filling out a document such as a job application or school registration form you are often asked to provide your name, address, phone number, birth date, and sex or gender. But have you ever been asked to provide your sex and your gender? Most people think that sex and gender are interchangeable terms. As another example, we can look at ‘gender reveal’ parties held for unborn babies. These are gatherings where guests – and often the future parents themselves – are surprised in some way with pink or blue to indicate whether they will have a girl or a boy.

However, sociologists and most other social scientists view sex and gender as conceptually distinct. Sex refers to physiological characteristics that have been associated with maleness or femaleness. Gender, however, refers to cultural and social understandings of masculinity and femininity. These two do not always align.

Young white woman
Figure: Australian philosopher Cordelia Fine by Daniel Lende is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Australian philosopher Cordelia Fine (2017) writes about the relationship between biology and sex and provides examples from numerous animal species that complicate our understandings of the nature vs. nurture debate. Her discussion of biological sex is what we will focus on here. The physical characteristics most commonly used to determine sex are the genitals – when a baby is born (or even before), we look for a penis or a vulva. However, most of the time we move through the world without anyone seeing our genitals! So what characteristics do people use to assume our sex?




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Cordelia Fine identifies three Gs that form our understandings of biological sex – genitals, gonads (or reproductive organs), and genetics (XY chromosomes for males, XX chromosomes for females). However, what happens if these don’t fit neatly into categories? It is possible to have a combination of these three Gs that don’t all align with one sex. It is also possible to fall outside of the binary altogether.

Intersex people are a very diverse group whose innate sex characteristics (one or more of their three Gs) differ from medical norms for male or female bodies. It is hard to accurately measure how many people are intersex, but Intersex Aotearoa estimates 2.3% of the population has some intersex variation, and Intersex Human Rights Australia estimates are around 1.7% of the population.

In general, people make assumptions about who we are based on our gender expression. This includes some physical characteristics, like facial hair, but a lot of this is also the result of choices we make about our appearance, like our hairstyle and clothing. Gender identity is how we feel – like a man or like a woman, and our gender expression is whether we ‘perform’ in masculine or feminine ways. Increasingly, people are identifying as non-binary or agender, meaning they do not identify predominantly with either masculinity or femininity.

Contrary to the common understandings, gender is not determined by biology in any simple way. The experience of transgender people demonstrates that a person’s biological sex does not always correspond with their gender. In contrast, the term cisgender refers to people whose gender aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth. Therefore, the terms sex and gender are not interchangeable.

Gender roles are society’s concepts of how men and women are expected to act and how they should behave. These roles are based on norms, or standards, created by society. In Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, for the most part, masculine roles are associated with strength, aggression, and dominance, while feminine roles are associated with passivity, nurturing, and subordination.

Figure: Shelves in a toy aisle featuring pink toys and baby dolls. Pink girls section of toy store by OttawaAC is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Role learning starts with socialisation at birth (see the culture, socialisation chapter). One way children learn gender roles is through play. Parents typically supply boys with trucks, toy guns, and superhero paraphernalia, which are active toys that promote motor skills, aggression, and solitary play. Girls are often given dolls and dress-up apparel that foster nurturing, social proximity, and role play.

The drive to adhere to masculine and feminine gender roles continues later in life. Men tend to outnumber women in professions such as law enforcement, the military, and politics. Women tend to outnumber men in care-related occupations such as childcare, health care, and social work. These occupational roles are examples of typical gendered behaviour, derived from our culture’s traditions.


Sexuality  refers to a person’s capacity for sexual feelings and their emotional and sexual attraction preferences. Generally, we think about sexuality as determined by what gender someone is attracted to. However, it may not surprise you to hear that this way of understanding sexuality is too simplistic! Sexuality also refers to someone’s sexual identity, the kinds of experiences they seek out, their desires, their drive for physical pleasure, their approach to achieving physical pleasure, and more. So while the spectrum of sexuality certainly includes heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality, it includes a whole range of other identities, too.


🔍 Look Closer: Spectrums of Sexuality and Relationships

Figure: The Kinsey scale is a tool that enables an individual to select a response on a scale between heterosexual and homosexual. Kinsey Scale by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) is in the Public Domain

Alfred Kinsey was among the first to conceptualise sexuality as a continuum rather than a strict dichotomy of gay or straight. To classify this continuum of sexuality, Kinsey created a seven-point rating scale that ranges from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. In his 1948 work Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Kinsey writes, “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats … The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects” (Kinsey et al., 1948, p. 639).

Later scholarship by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick expanded on Kinsey’s notions. She coined the term ‘homosocial’ to oppose ‘homosexual’, describing nonsexual same-sex relations. Sedgwick recognised that in North American culture, men are subject to a clear divide between the two sides of this continuum, whereas women enjoy more fluidity. This can be illustrated by the way women in Western societies can express homosocial feelings (nonsexual regard for people of the same sex) through hugging, hand-holding, and physical closeness. In contrast, men’s behaviour is subject to strong social sanction if it veers into homosocial territory because of societal homophobia (Sedgwick, 1985).

It can feel like there is a mind-boggling array of terms relating to sexuality. The article, 47 terms that describe sexual attraction, behavior, and orientation, for example, has almost 50. Consider the value of labels such as those defined in the link. Is it beneficial to find a label that explains your experiences, or do labels constrain our understandings of ourselves as fluid and complex beings?

In addition to sexuality being related to which gender one is attracted to, it is tied up with gender in other ways, too. For example, there are different social norms and expectations of men’s sexuality as compared to women’s. There are stereotypes that men have higher sex drives than women, and this can be used to explain things like infidelity and sometimes even sexual violence. It also leads to significant differences in sexual pleasure between women and men (Mahar et al., 2020). One explanation might be that female bodies are less capable of achieving sexual pleasure – however, the statistics for women in relationships with other women suggest otherwise.

Figure: The Orgasm Gap. Blue (left, heterosexual) and orange (right, homosexual) bars show the percentage of people who report they have reached orgasm usually or always in the past month. These data are based on a survey of over 50,000 people. The data for this graph are from “Differences in orgasm frequency among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual men and women in a U.S. National sample,” by D. A. Frederick, H. K. John, J. R. and E. A. Lloyd, E. A., 2018, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 47(1), 273. ( Copyright 2023 by Springer Nature.

You may be familiar with some variations of the acronym LGBTQIA+. This is an umbrella acronym that includes a range of sexualities and gender identities – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual/Aromantic, and the plus sign indicates there are many other labels not directly included in the acronym, but included in the spirit of the grouping.


Figure: How traditional is the nuclear family? by Perpetual Fostering is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Families  are often considered the most basic social unit upon which society is built. The question of what constitutes a family is a prime area of debate in family sociology, as well as in politics and religion. Social conservatives tend to define the family in terms of a ‘traditional’ nuclear family structure with each family member filling a certain role (like father, mother, or child). Sociologists, on the other hand, tend to define family more in terms of the way members relate to one another. Here, we will define family as a socially recognised group joined by bonds including blood relations, marriage, or adoption, that forms an emotional connection and serves as an economic unit of society. Much recent attention has also been paid to families of choice, which refers to groupings that may not cohabitate, and may not have legal or blood relations, but do serve as essential emotional support networks.

Based on Georg Simmel’s (1908/1950) distinction between the form and content of social interaction, we can analyse the family as a social form that comes into existence around five different contents or interests: sexual activity, economic cooperation, reproduction, socialisation of children, and emotional support. The types of family forms in which all or some of these contents are expressed are diverse: nuclear families, polyamorous families, extended families, same-sex parent families, single-parent families, blended families, zero-child families, etc.

The forms that families take are determined by cultural traditions, social structures, economic pressures, and historical transformations. They also are subject to intense moral and political debate about the definition of the family, the ‘decline of the family’, or the policy options to best support the well-being of children. In these debates, sociology demonstrates its practical side as a discipline that is capable of providing the factual knowledge needed to make evidence-based decisions on political and moral issues concerning the family.

The ‘traditional nuclear family’ is the product of white Western society, and it rose to prominence following WWII (Gilding, 2001). Although it only lasted as the predominant family form for around two decades – declining again when divorce became more accessible and women gained increased rights and freedoms – it maintains a powerful hold on our ideas of what families ‘should’ look like.

While the nature of families may change over time and in different social contexts, the importance of belonging to a family does not. Humans are social animals. Being intimately bonded to others is a shared feature of all human societies.


In the identity, self and culture chapter, we discussed the concept of socialisation. We discuss it again here because gender and sexuality are two ways in which we can clearly see the effects of socialisation – and families are a key agent of socialisation (along with education, peer groups, media, and other secondary agents). Agents of socialisation create and maintain normative expectations for behaviour based on gender and sexuality. Socialisation occurs repeatedly over time and becomes seen as natural and innate rather than a product of social construction.

Gender socialisation within families occurs in a number of ways. It includes the gendered roles that parents play, which children absorb. Many households are characterised by gender roles, with recent research in Australia suggesting over 75% of heterosexual couples divide household labour on traditional gender roles (Siminski & Yetsenga, 2022). Children observe this division of labour and may consider it natural that women do the bulk of unpaid labour within the home.

Gender socialisation also includes the ways that boys and girls are spoken to and about, the rules and expectations of their behaviour, and even the chores they are given. Even when parents set gender equality as a goal, there may be underlying indications of inequality. For example, when dividing up household chores, boys may be asked to take out the garbage or perform other tasks that require strength or toughness, while girls may be asked to fold laundry or perform duties that require neatness and care. It has been found that fathers are firmer in their expectations for gender conformity than are mothers, and their expectations are stronger for sons than they are for daughters (Kimmel, 2000). This is true in many types of activities, including preference of toys, play styles, discipline, chores, and personal achievements. As a result, boys tend to be particularly attuned to their father’s disapproval when engaging in an activity that might be considered feminine, like dancing or singing (Coltrane & Adams, 2008). It should be noted that parental socialisation and normative expectations vary along lines of social class, race, and ethnicity. Research in the United States has shown that African American families, for instance, are more likely than white families to model an egalitarian role structure for their children (Staples & Boulin Johnson, 2004).

In schools, boys are permitted a greater degree of freedom regarding rule-breaking or minor acts of deviance, whereas girls are expected to follow rules carefully and to adopt an obedient posture (Ready, 2001). Schools reinforce the polarisation of gender roles and the age-old ‘battle of the sexes’ by positioning girls and boys in competitive arrangements.

Mass media serves as another significant agent of gender socialisation. Research of children’s movies indicates that of the 101 top-grossing G-rated movies released between 1990 and 2005, three out of four characters were male. Out of those 101 movies, only seven were near being gender balanced, with a character ratio of less than 1.5 males per 1 female (Smith, 2008). More recently, the Geena Davis Institute releases research annually on diversity and inclusion in media. Their report includes popular programming (ten most popular shows amongst children ages 2-11) and current programming (new shows, and existing shows with new seasons) based on US statistics in 2021. The findings are an improvement on Smith’s (2008) findings, with 61.6% of lead characters being male-identified, although there are differences between the two data sets (Meyer & Conroy, 2022). However, this improvement is still not representative of gender parity.

Social Constructions of Gender and Sexuality

Gender, sexuality, and norms around family structure seem natural and innate. Here we will focus on sex and gender to explore the idea of social construction.

In our societies, the dominant gender schema is an ideology that serves to perpetuate inequalities in power and status. This schema states that: a) sex is a biological characteristic that produces only two options, male or female, and b) gender is a social or psychological characteristic that manifests or expresses biological sex. Again, only two options exist, masculine or feminine.

For many people this is natural. It goes without saying. However, if one does not fit within the dominant gender schema, then the naturalness of one’s gender identity is thrown into question. This occurs, first of all, by the actions of external authorities and experts who define those who do not fit as either mistakes of nature or as products of failed socialisation and individual psychopathology. Gender identity is also thrown into question by the actions of peers and family who respond with concern or censure when a girl is not feminine enough or a boy is not masculine enough. Moreover, the ones who do not fit also have questions. They may begin to wonder why the norms of society do not reflect their sense of self, and thus begin to feel at odds with the world.

As the capacity to differentiate between the genders is the basis of patriarchal relations of power that have existed for 6,000 years, the dominant gender schema is one of the fundamental organising principles that maintains the dominant societal order. Nevertheless, it is only a schema: a cultural distinction that is imposed upon the diversity of the world. Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) argues that a body’s sex is too complex to fit within the obligatory dual sex system, and ultimately, the decision to label someone male or female is a social decision.

Line drawing of very large female and very small parasitic male triplewart seadevil
Figure: The Cryptosaras couesii, or the Triplewart Seadevil, is one animal with extreme sexual dimorphism, or dramatic physical differences between males and females. In contrast, human males and females only differ by about 15% (Larsen, 2003). Cryptopsaras couesii triplewart seadevil by Commons sibi is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Cordelia Fine’s (2017) research, which we introduced above, finds that there is greater variation within the categories of male and female than there is between them. Some animal species differ greatly between the sexes, but humans are not one of them. Further, Fine shows us that it can be almost impossible to differentiate between innate biological drivers, socialisation and norms that influence how people behave. Rather, she points out that the collection of characteristics we have defined as male versus female are themselves social constructions. This is similar to our discussion, in the chapter race, ethnicity, and Indigeneity – actual physical differences are given social meaning beyond their physical effect, and society builds hierarchies around them.

When people perform tasks or possess characteristics based on the gender role assigned to them, they are said to be doing gender (West & Zimmerman, 1987). Whether we are expressing our masculinity or femininity, West and Zimmerman argue, we are always ‘doing gender’. Thus, gender is something we do or perform, not something we are. When the performance matches social expectations, it is unremarkable but, as with sex, is considered natural and normal. However, their work argues that there are no biological foundations for gender differences and these roles are socially constructed. As West and Zimmerman follow Goffman’s (1959) approach to dramaturgy, they focus on social interactions and suggest that the nature of the (gender) role that we play may change depending on which setting we are in.

Gender as a performance is most overt when we think about drag – the exaggerated performance of gender roles, featuring caricature-like depictions of femininity or (less often) masculinity. But West and Zimmerman, along with other theorists like Judith Butler (2004), suggest that all gender is a performance and drag merely makes visible the performative nature. For an example, watch the video below [3:46].

The signs and characteristics of gender vary greatly between different societies. Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s cross-cultural research in New Guinea, in the 1930s, was ground-breaking in its demonstration that cultures differ markedly in the ways that they perceive masculinity and femininity (Mead, 1935). Unlike the qualities that defined masculinity and femininity in North America at the time, she saw both genders among the Arapesh as sensitive, gentle, cooperative, and passive, whereas among the Mundugumor both genders were assertive, violent, jealous, and aggressive. Among the Tchambuli, she described male and female temperaments as the opposite of those observed in North America. The women appeared assertive, domineering, emotionally inexpressive, and managerial, while the men appeared emotionally dependent, fragile, and less responsible.

The dichotomous view of gender (the notion that one is either male or female) is specific to certain cultures and is not universal. In some cultures, gender is viewed as fluid. Some First Nations groups in North America use the term berdache or two-spirit person to refer to individuals who occasionally or permanently dressed and lived as the opposite gender (Jacobs et al., 1997). Samoan culture accepts what they refer to as a ‘third gender’. Fa’afafine, which translates as ‘the way of the woman’, is a term used to describe individuals who are born biologically male but embody both masculine and feminine traits. Fa’afafines are considered an important part of Samoan culture (Manoa et al., 2019).

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First Nations people around the world have different understandings of gender and sexuality than their colonisers, though in some cases these understandings have been suppressed by the colonisation process. You can read more about traditional transgender identities in Maori and Pasifika societies. In Australia, non-binary gender identities include Sistergirls and Brotherboys.


Part of the power dynamics sociologists investigate in studies of gender, sexuality, and families has to do with so-called normality, and who determines what is normal or not. What is considered ‘normal’ in terms of sexual behaviour is based on the mores and values of the society. Societies that value monogamy, for example, would likely oppose extramarital sex. Individuals are socialised to sexual attitudes by their family, education system, peers, media, and religion.

These norms determine the degree of ease in which we can live within our own bodies and assume gender and sexual identities. Having a gender or sexual identity is only experienced as normal or natural to the degree that one fits within the dominant gender schema — the ideological framework that states that there are only two possible sexes, male and female, and two possible genders, masculine and feminine. Sexuality is a component of the dominant gender schema in as far as — in heteronormative society — to be a man is to be attracted to women and vice versa. The dominant gender schema therefore provides the basis for the ways inequalities in power and status are distributed according to the degree that individuals conform to its narrow categories.

In heteronormative societies like ours, we assume heterosexuality as the normal and natural mode of being. This heteronormativity means that people who identify as LGBTQIA+ may feel the need to ‘come out’ in a way that heterosexual people do not. Although the idea of coming out as heterosexual, or as a masculine man or a feminine woman, might seem absurd, this absurdity is grounded in the norms of heteronormative society that are so deeply entrenched as to make them appear natural. The social processes of acquiring a gender and sexual identity, or of ‘having’ a gender or a sexuality, are essentially the same, yet the degree to which society accepts the resulting identities is what differs.

🔍 Look Closer: The History of Homosexuality: Making Up People?

Sociologists often confront a legacy of entrenched beliefs concerning innate biological disposition, or the individual psychopathology of persons who are considered abnormal. The sexual or gender ‘deviant’ is a primary example. However, as Ian Hacking (2006) observes, even when these beliefs about kinds of persons are products of objective scientific classification, the institutional context of science and expert knowledge is not independent of societal norms, beliefs, and practices. The process of classifying kinds of people is a social process that Hacking calls ‘making up people’ and Howard Becker (1963) calls ‘labelling’.

19th century definitions of homosexuality defined a kind of person: the sexual ‘invert’. This definition was ‘scientific’, but in no way independent of the cultural norms and prejudices of the times. The idea that homosexuality was characterised by an internal, deviant ‘inversion’ of sexual instincts depended on the new scientific disciplines of biology and psychiatry (Foucault, 1980). Homosexuality as deviance was defined first by the idea that heterosexuality was biologically natural (and therefore ‘normal’) and second by the idea that, psychologically, sexual preference defined every aspect of the personality. Within the emerging field of psychiatry, it was possible to speak of an inverted personality because a lesbian woman who did not play the ‘proper’ passive sexual role of her gender was masculine. A gay man who did not play his ‘proper’ active sexual role was effeminate. After centuries during which an individual’s sexual preference was largely a matter of public indifference, in the 19th century, the problem of sexuality suddenly emerged as a biological, social, psychological, and moral concern.

The new definitions of homosexuality and sexual inversion led to a series of social anxieties that ranged from a threat to the propagation of the human species, to the perceived need to ‘correct’ sexual deviation through psychiatric and medical treatments. The powerful normative constraints that emerged based largely on the 19th century scientific distinction between natural and unnatural forms of sexuality led to the legacy of closeted sexuality and homophobic violence that remains to this day. Nevertheless, they depend on the concept of the homosexual as a specific kind of person.

As Hacking (2006) points out, the category of classification, or the label that defines different kinds of people, actually influences their behaviour and self-understanding. It is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. They begin to experience the world and live in society in a different manner than they did previously. Important contemporary work by LGBTQIA+ scholars focuses on rejecting such classifications, and the normative expectations that only certain genders, sexualities, and family types can be considered worthy of respect and attention in society (Clark, 2015; Newman, 2019; Sullivan, 2018).

In sociological terms, something can be common – experienced by a majority of people, for example. This is often called ‘normal’, but normativity is when there are expectations and hierarchies attached to that thing. Heterosexuality may be common, but it is normative when our social structures are built as if everyone is and should be heterosexual. The same is true for cisgender identities, and for traditional nuclear families.


Although gender may be socially constructed, normative gender expectations mean that inequalities emerge that have real impacts on people. Gender stereotypes form the basis of sexism. Sexism refers to prejudiced beliefs that value one sex over another. Unequal treatment of women continues to pervade social life, at both the micro- and macro-levels. Many sociologists focus on discrimination that is built into the social structure; this type of discrimination is known as institutional discrimination (Pincus, 2000).

The organisation of society is profoundly gendered, meaning that the ‘natural’ distinction between men and women, and the attribution of different qualities to each, underlies institutional structures from the family, to the occupational structure, to the division between public and private, to access to power and beyond. Patriarchy is the set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power, and relationship to sources of income) which are based on the belief that men and women are dichotomous and unequal categories.

🛠️ Sociological Tool Kit

How does the ‘naturalness’ of the distinction between men and women get established? How does it serve to organise everyday life?

The phrase ‘boys will be boys’ is often used to justify behaviour such as pushing, shoving, or other forms of aggression from young boys. The phrase implies that such behaviour is unchangeable and something that is part of a boy’s nature. Aggressive behaviour, when it does not inflict significant harm, is often accepted from boys and men because it is congruent with the cultural script for masculinity. The ‘script’ written by society is in some ways similar to a script written by a playwright. Just as a playwright expects actors to adhere to a prescribed script, society expects women and men to behave according to the expectations of their respective gender roles. Scripts are generally learned through socialisation, which teaches people to behave according to social norms.

How do the distinctions between men and women, and the social attribution of different qualities to each, serve to organise our institutions (the family, occupational structure, and the public/private divide, etc.)? How do these distinctions organise differential access to rewards, privileges, and power? In society, how and why are women not treated as the equals of men?

Stratification refers to a system in which groups of people experience unequal access to basic, yet highly valuable, social resources. According to George Murdock’s classic work, Outline of World Cultures (1954), all societies classify work by gender. While the phenomenon of assigning work by gender is universal, its specifics are not. The same task is not assigned to either men or women worldwide. But in Murdock’s examination of the division of labour among 324 societies around the world, in nearly all cases the jobs assigned to men were given greater prestige (Murdock & White, 1969). Even if the job types were very similar and the differences slight, men’s work was still considered more vital.

Our societies in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia are also characterised by gender stratification. Evidence of gender stratification is especially obvious within the economic realm. In Canada, women’s experience with wage labour includes unequal treatment in comparison to men in many respects:

  • Women do more unpaid labour in the household — meal preparation and clean-up, childcare, elderly care, household management, and shopping — even if they have a job outside the home (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2022; Ministry for Women, 2019). This double duty keeps working women in a subordinate role in the family structure and prevents them from achieving the salaries of men in the paid workforce (Hochschild & Machung, 1989).
  • Women’s participation in paid work has increased. In Australia, women made up just 30% of the paid workforce in 1966 but about half the paid workforce in 2020 (ABS, 2021). In Aotearoa New Zealand, about 42% of paid workers in 1986 were women, compared to about 48% in 2019 (Stats NZ, 2019). However, occupational gender segregation means that many women-dominated industries are lower-paying and lower-status than industries dominated by men. In all industries, men dominate in leadership roles (Workplace Gender and Equality Agency [WGEA], 2019).
  • Gender pay gaps persist, even when comparing full-time salaries – in Australia, there was a 13.3% difference in average men’s salaries versus average women’s salaries (WGEA, 2023). In Aotearoa New Zealand, men earn 10% more on average than women do (Employment New Zealand, 2023).
Graph shows data for 4 years, 1966, 1980, 2000 and 2020. The percentage of women is employment has improved over the time range. At about age 20 employment is about 70 to 80 percent. There is a sharp decline from about the age of 60
Figure: This graph from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) compares the percentage of women in paid employment over time. What key differences do you notice between the years represented? “Chart 1: Employment-to-Population ratio, Females, Original” by ABS is licensed under CC BY 4.0

The reason for gender pay gaps is fourfold. Firstly, there is gender discrimination in hiring and salary. Women and men are often not rewarded equally for the same work. Secondly, as we noted above, men and women tend to be concentrated in different types of work which are not equally paid. Thirdly, the unequal distribution of domestic duties, especially child and elder care, means that women often work fewer hours than men and experience disruptions in their career path. Fourthly, the work typically done by women is arbitrarily undervalued with respect to the work typically performed by men. It is certainly questionable that early childhood education occupations dominated by women involve less skill, less training, or less significance to society than many trades dominated by men, but there is a clear disparity in wages between these typically gender segregated types of occupation.

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We do not have good data on intersectional pay gaps in Australia. However, data from the United States show considerable differences in pay based on race and gender. We know that in Aotearoa New Zealand, Maori and Pasifika women earn around 23% less than Pakeha men do (StrategicPay, 2022). We also know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia have lower incomes than the national average (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2021). Thus, we can assume that additional research into Australia’s intersectional pay gap is likely to find similar compounded inequalities.

Beyond the economic sphere, there has been a long history of power relations based on gender. Compared to the past, society has made great strides in terms of abolishing some of the most blatant forms of gender inequality, but the underlying effects of patriarchy still permeate many aspects of society.

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Look at a snapshot of recent Australian statistics that show some of the extent of inequity based on gender, and Aotearoa New Zealand gender statistics. Australian data about inequalities experienced by LGBTQIA+ folks are represented in an infographic from the Australian Human Rights Commission. For Aotearoa New Zealand, have a look at the information about social and legal inequalities facing LGBTQIA+ people.

Similarly, discrimination based on LGBTQIA+ stereotypes, misinformation, and homophobia — an extreme or irrational aversion to homosexuality – is unfortunately common. Major policies to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation have not come into effect until the last few years. In 2017, the Australian government amended the Australian Marriage Act (1961) to allow for same-sex marriages. Marriage is defined, now, as “the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” (Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) s. 2A). In Aotearoa New Zealand, amendments came a few years earlier in 2013. Some argue that focusing on marriage appeals to heteronormative values, rather than presenting a real challenge to social norms (Richardson-Self, 2012).

Theoretical Approaches

Already in this chapter we have introduced you to a range of theoretical approaches that sociologists use to understand gender, sexuality and families. In this final section, we will briefly summarise those we have already discussed, and explain a few others. We will only lightly touch on these here and encourage you to look further into any of the ideas that you find interesting, or those that you disagree strongly with!

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism has been a major influence on research in the social sciences, including gender studies. Viewing the family as the most integral component of society, assumptions about gender roles within marriage assume a prominent place in this perspective. Our discussions of the family as an important site of gender socialisation, above, is informed by functionalist perspectives.

Functionalists argue that gender roles were established well before the preindustrial era when men typically took care of responsibilities outside of the home, such as hunting, and women typically took care of domestic responsibilities in or around the home. These roles were considered functional because women were often limited by the physical restraints of pregnancy and nursing, and unable to leave the home for long periods of time. Once established, these roles were passed on to subsequent generations since they served as an effective means of keeping the family system functioning properly. According to Talcott Parsons (1943), gender roles in families enabled a clear division of labour to ensure the needs of the family were met.

When it comes to sexuality, functionalists stress the importance of regulating sexual behaviour to ensure marital cohesion and family stability. Since functionalists identify the family unit as the most integral component in society, they argue in favour of social arrangements that promote and ensure family preservation. From a functionalist standpoint, homosexuality poses a potential dysfunction in terms of both the procreative role of the family and the unifying myths that the traditional family provides.  The functions of the traditional family structure need to be served or satisfied by different family structures for a working social equilibrium to be restored. This analysis suggests that sociologists need to examine new structural forms that provide the functional equivalents of traditional marriage structures: the increasing legal acceptance of same-sex marriage; the emergence of new narratives about what makes a marriage legitimate (e.g., the universality of the ‘love bond’ rather than the rites of tradition); and the rise in gay and lesbian couples who choose to bear and raise children through a variety of available resources.

Anthropologist George Murdock defined the family narrowly as a group of people who live together, cooperate economically, and comprises children and at least two adults who engage in sexual relationships considered socially appropriate, with a focus on reproduction (Murdock, 1949). Murdock conducted a survey of 250 societies and determined that there are four universal residual functions of the family: sexual, reproductive, educational, and economic (Lee, 1982). In each society, although the structure of the family varies, the family performs these four functions.

Critical Sociology

According to critical sociology, which includes feminist perspectives, society is structured by relations of power and domination among social groups (e.g., women versus men) that determine access to scarce resources. When sociologists examine gender from this perspective, we can view men as the dominant group and women as the subordinate group. According to critical sociology, social problems and contradictions are created when dominant groups exploit or oppress subordinate groups. Our discussions about normativity and inequalities, above, is informed by contemporary critical sociological perspectives.

Figure: Friedrich Engels, 1820-1895. by Unknown author is in the Public Domain

Friedrich Engels, a German sociologist, studied family structure and gender roles in the 1880s. Engels suggested that the same owner-worker relationship seen in the labour force is also seen in the household, with women assuming the role of the proletariat. Women are therefore doubly exploited in capitalist society, both when they work outside the home and when they work within the home (Engels, 1845, as cited in McGregor, 2021).

From a critical sociology point of view, a key dimension of social inequality based on sexuality has to do with the concept of ‘sexuality’ itself. Sexuality is caught up in the relationship between knowledge and power. The first definition of homosexuality was ‘scientific’ (at least in terms of the science of the time), but it was in no way independent of the cultural norms and prejudices of 19th century society. It was also not independent of the modern expansion of what Michel Foucault calls ‘micro-powers’ over an increasing range of facets of the life of individuals (Jessop, 2014). As a public concern, sexuality became a danger to be controlled, surveilled, corrected, and in the worst cases, institutionalised. As Foucault (1980) describes, the sexual lives of children, ‘perverts’, married couples and the population as a whole became increasingly subject to interventions by doctors, psychiatrists, police, government administrators, moral crusaders, and families.

The feminist slogan of the 1960s and 1970s — ‘the personal is the political’ — indicates how feminists began to draw attention to the broad social or public implications of matters long considered private or inconsequential, including inequalities within families. As women’s roles had long been relegated to the private sphere, issues of power that affected their lives most directly were largely invisible.

One focus of critical sociology, therefore, is to highlight the political-economic context of the inequalities of power in family life. The family is often not a haven but rather an arena where the effects of societal power struggles are felt. Blood and Wolfe’s (1960) classic study of marital power in heterosexual couples found that the person with the most access to value resources held the most power. As money is one of the most valuable resources, men who worked in paid labour outside of the home held more power than women who worked inside the home.

The political and economic context is also key to understanding changes in the structure of the family. The debate between functionalist and critical sociologists on the rise of non-nuclear family forms is a case in point. Since the 1950s, the functionalist approach to the family has emphasised the importance of the nuclear family — a married man and woman in a socially approved sexual relationship with at least one child — as the basic unit of an orderly and functional society. In reality, though, this household type is not the norm. In Australia, couples with children made up just 29.7% of households in 2021 (IDCommunity, 2023), and in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2018 couple-with-children households were 27.3% of all households (Stats New Zealand, 2020). Critical perspectives emphasise that the diversity of family forms does not indicate the ‘decline of the family’ so much as the diverse response of the family form to the tensions of gender inequality and historical changes in the economy and society. The nuclear family should be thought of less as a normative model for how families should be, and more as an historical anomaly that reflected the specific social and economic conditions of the two decades following World War II.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism aims to understand human behaviour by analysing the critical role of symbols in human interaction. This is certainly relevant to the discussion of masculinity and femininity, and our discussions above about ‘doing gender’ demonstrate the symbolic interactionist approach.

Interactionists focus on the meanings associated with gender and sexuality. Since femininity is devalued in patriarchal societies (including in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia), those who adopt such traits are subject to ridicule or disrespect; this is especially true for boys or men. Just as masculinity is the symbolic norm, so too has heterosexuality come to signify normalcy. The experiences of gender and sexual ‘outsiders’ reveal the subtle dramaturgical order of social processes and negotiations through which all gender identity is sustained and recognised by others. From a symbolic interactionist perspective, ‘passing’ as a ‘normal’ heterosexual person depends on one’s sexual cues and props being received and interpreted by others as passable.

Interactionism might also focus on the slurs used to describe homosexuality. Stereotypes and offensive terms are often used to demean homosexual men by feminising them, and homosexual women by pointing out their failed femininity. This subsequently affects how people perceive themselves. C. H. Cooley’s ‘looking-glass self’ is a concept which suggests that self develops as a result of one’s interpretation and evaluation of the responses of others (Cooley, 1902). Constant exposure to derogatory labels, jokes, and pervasive homophobia would lead to a negative self-image, or worse, self-hate. The AIHW (2018) reports that LGBTQIA+ people have higher levels of psychological distress than heterosexual adults.

Interactionists also recognise how family status roles are socially constructed, which plays an important part in how people perceive and interpret social behaviour. Interactionists view the family as a group of role players or ‘actors’ that come together to act out their parts in an effort to construct a family. These roles are up for interpretation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a ‘good father’, for example, was one who worked hard to provide financial security for his children. Today, a ‘good father’ is one who takes the time outside of work to promote his children’s emotional well-being, social skills, and intellectual growth — in some ways, a much more daunting task. Symbolic interactionism therefore draws our attention to how the norms that define what a ‘normal’ family is, and how it should operate, come into existence. The rules and expectations that coordinate the behaviour of family members are products of social processes and joint agreement, even if the agreements are tacit or implicit.

Queer Theory

Queer theory is a perspective that problematises the manner in which we have been taught to think about gender, sexuality, families, and categories in general. These scholars embrace the word ‘queer’ and have reclaimed it for their own purposes. Queer theorists reject the dominant gender schema and the dichotomisation of sexual orientations. Rather, the perspective highlights the need for a more flexible and fluid conceptualisation of gender, sexuality, and families — one that allows for change, negotiation, and freedom. Queer theory strives to question the ways society perceives and experiences sex, gender, and sexuality, opening the door to new scholarly understanding.

🧠 Learn More

The video above gives a brief explanation of queer theory [5:36]. To hear about it in more depth, have a look at this 36-minute video essay from Philosophy Tube.

In Summary

  • Sex refers to physical characteristics, gender refers to identity and expression, and sexuality refers to preferences, attractions, and desires. It is important to understand the differences between these ideas, as well as how they overlap. All three are the product of social construction because the meanings that are attached to each category are socially and culturally specific.
  • Gender socialisation shapes our understandings of gender roles. Socialisation begins at birth, and happens within families, at school, within the media, and more. The gender roles that are produced through socialisation then influence the roles that different family members play within a household and extended family.
  • Normativity is where certain ways of being are expected, and society is structured around these ways of being. Our societies are heteronormative, and there are also strong normative beliefs around gender and families.
  • Gender and sexuality are the foundation of substantial inequalities around the world, meaning that some people have less access to economic and socio-cultural resources than others.
  • Functionalism focuses on the ways that gender roles and family structures create a stable base for society; critical sociology considers inequalities that exist based on gender, sexuality, and within families; symbolic interactionism examines the social construction of these identities, and the impacts on the self of stereotypes based on them; and queer theory invites us to look beyond categories and consider how all expressions of gender, family and sexuality are performances.


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