Gender Matters

When we are born either male or female, we enter the world with a combination of biology and genetics that ‘stamp’ some personality traits and physical characteristics onto our lives. Gender, however, is less biological and much more social.

The term ‘gender’ refers to the complex and subtle ways which shape our lives as boys and girls, men and women. All the time (and usually unaware) we absorb influences, values and beliefs about what it means to be boys and men (“masculine”) and girls and women (“feminine”).

Take this riddle for instance:

A man and his son are in a car accident. The father dies. The son is rushed to hospital. The surgeon arrives, but says “I cannot operate on this boy as he is my son.” Who is the surgeon? Click Here to solve the riddle.


The surgeon is the boy’s mother. Because surgery has historically been considered a male profession, people can often assume the surgeon is a male relative, even though it cannot be his father. This is an example of a gender assumption.


Learned gender behaviours and roles differ from society to society, place to place and time to time.

Gender stereotypes can also contribute to violence.

Watch The Tough Guise Preview Video

This video by America’s leading anti-sexist male activist Jackson Katz explores how gender shapes men’s (and women’s) experiences, and the link between gender identity and violence. Click the play button below to watch the preview clip of Jackson Katz’ documentary ‘Tough Guise’, produced by the Media Education Foundation.

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Around the world learnt behaviours have created major inequalities between men and women. Importantly, however, these circumstances can be changed!

The experience of inequality is by no means confined to women and girls. Differences occur between males on questions of race, sexuality, class, age, disability and geography. But on key questions of health, well-being, financial security and political participation, women more commonly experience greater disadvantage and discrimination.

Take the Gender Matters Quiz

Click here to take the quiz

The quiz shows us some examples of gender inequality. This inequality has significant costs. Women’s experience of poverty and income inequality holds back economic development in lots of countries. When women don’t get ahead in business and politics, the needs of half the population are not fully represented. Violence against women creates huge personal, social and economic costs.

As well as these serious costs, gender related violence also affects our everyday lives. In his book ‘Macho Paradox’, US Anti-sexist male activist Jackson Katz describes an exercise he runs in violence prevention workshops that helps identify how men and women experience big differences in feeling safe.

Gender stereotypes can cause some men to think they have power over women, sometimes leading to violence and abuse. By being more aware of gender stereotypes, assumptions can be challenged.

An awareness of gender also helps to understand the processes that create and maintain disadvantage and discrimination. In turn, it becomes easier to identify ways to reduce inequalities. This can help create more respectful relationships.

This is an edited version of the preface from ‘The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help’, By Jackson Katz

… I've lectured about men's violence against women on hundreds of college campuses. I start my talks with a deliberately provocative statement. The subject we're here to address, I say, touches every single person in this room – whether you're aware of it or not. Gender violence – rape, battering, sexual abuse, sexual harassment – dramatically impacts millions of individuals and families in contemporary American society. In fact, it is one of the great, ongoing tragedies of our time.

Is this alarmist hyperbole? I don't think so. An abundance of credible statistics – some from conservative sources -- bears it out. The U.S. Surgeon General, for example, maintains that violence by men is the leading cause of injury to women. Study after study shows that between one in four and one in six American women will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. An American Medical Association report in 2001 found that 20 per cent of adolescent girls have experienced physical or sexual assault by a date. A major public opinion poll in 2000 found that two-thirds of American men say that domestic violence is very or fairly common in the U.S.

But statistics on men's violence against women, while shocking, only tell part of the story. Another part of the story unfolds in women's daily lives. To demonstrate this concretely, I request the students' participation in an interactive exercise. I draw a line down the middle of a chalkboard, sketching a male symbol on one side, a female symbol on the other. Then I ask just the men: "What steps do you guys take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted?" At first there is a kind of awkward silence as the men try to figure out if they've been asked a trick question. The silence gives way to a smattering of nervous laughter. Occasionally a young guy will raise his hand and say: "I stay out of prison." This is typically followed by another moment of laughter, before someone finally raises his hand and soberly states "Nothing. I don't think about it." Then I ask the women the same question. "What steps do you take on a daily basis to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted?" Women throughout the audience immediately start raising their hands. As the men sit in stunned silence, the women recount safety precautions they take as part of their daily routine. Here are some of their answers:

Hold my keys as a potential weapon. Look in the back seat of the car before getting in. Carry a cell phone. Don't go jogging at night. Lock all the windows when I go to sleep, even on hot summer nights. Be careful not to drink too much. Don't put my drink down and come back to it; make sure I see it being poured. Own a big dog. Carry mace or pepper spray. Have an unlisted phone number. Have a man's voice on my answering machine. Park in well-lit areas. Don't use parking garages. Don't get on elevators with only one man, or with a group of men. Vary my route home from work. Watch what I wear. Don't use highway rest areas. Use a home alarm system. Don't wear headphones when jogging. Avoid forests or wooded areas, even in the daytime. Don't take a first-floor apartment. Go out in groups. Own a firearm. Meet men on first dates in public places. Make sure to have a car or cab fare. Don't make eye contact with men on the street. Make assertive eye contact with men on the street.

The exercise can go on for almost half an hour. Invariably the board fills up on the women's side. This is true, with slight variations, in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Many women say the list is like an unconscious mental checklist. Despite three decades of Take Back The Night rallies and feminist consciousness-raising about the politics of women's safety, surprisingly few women in audiences where I've presented think about their daily routine in terms of larger cultural issues or political questions. “It's just the way it is," they say. “It’s what we have to do to feel safe.” (At the end of the exercise, I always hasten to point out that most sexual assaults are perpetrated not by strangers lurking in the bushes, but by men who know their victims -- often in the victim’s home.) Some women do get angry when they see the radical contrast between the women's side of the chalkboard, which is always full, and the men's, which is almost always blank.

Some men react emotionally when they contemplate the full chalkboard on the women's side. They're shocked, saddened, angered. Many report its effects as life-changing. Many of them had never before taken the time to think about this subject.

Jackson Katz's book The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, is available at For more on Jackson Katz, visit his website: