Constructions of gender and race go hand in hand

“Gender” means many things to many people. It dictates how communities view their individuals, informs how individuals see themselves, and is a system on which much of American life is based. Gender is so crucial to our society’s structures that it can be difficult to unpack exactly what gender and gender discrimination are, and how each are enacted. 

At YW Boston, we work to create inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed. Through our work, we partner with individuals and organizations to understand not just racial equity and gender equity, but the ways in which gender and racial equity intersect in the workplace and in our communities. In order to identify areas to make change, we must first understand what gender is. In this blog post, we will look closer at the concept of gender, identify ways in which gender discrimination shows up in our society, and examine how gender intersects with race.

How gender is constructed

At YW Boston, we use Planned Parenthood’s definition of gender: “a social and legal status, and set of expectations from society, about behaviors, characteristics, and thoughts. Each culture has standards about the way that people should behave based on their gender.” Gender is separate from sex, which is a category, most often “male” or “female”, assigned by doctors at birth based on a baby’s genitalia and chromosomes. In white American society, it has been assumed for centuries that those assigned male at birth are men and that those assigned female at birth are women. 

However, the concept of gender identity, explains that not all people see themselves as the gender assumed of them at birth. Gender identity is “the internal perception of one’s gender, and how they label themselves, based on how much they align or don’t align with what they understand their options for gender to be.” Transgender is an adjective that refers to people whose gender identity does not correspond to the gender expected of them based on their sex medically assigned at birth. A transgender person may identify as a man, a woman, or as a gender that is not man or woman. Non-binary people do not identify as either man or woman. You can learn more terms related to gender here.

Gender goes beyond how people identify, because it sets the expectations for how people of different gender identities should act. For example, American society typically expects men to be confident, aggressive, and hardworking, while expecting women to be docile, empathetic, and caregivers. Sociologist Barbara Risman conceptualizes gender as a social structure because it is a basic, strongly established way of dividing people in a society. It is central to a society’s political and economic systems, as, for example, it has traditionally defined who in a family works and who takes care of children. While gender does not define the desires, motives, or personalities of individual people, it does define what is expected of them. In turn, gender constructions often determine what people of different genders imagine as possibilities for their lives. Gender is reinforced both by systems and by the people who live within the systems, whether consciously or not.

Risman also sees gender “as a stratification system” that distributes power to certain people and involves inequality. In our current society, men have historically held and continue to hold the majority of access to power — through politics, economics, and more. This structural privileging of men over other genders is sexism. While men are considered the most privileged gender, our society also privileges those who are not transgender. Cissexism refers to the privileging of cis people, or those whose gender identity corresponds with the gender expected of them based on their sex assigned at birth. Both sexism and cissexism are forms of gender discrimination.

How gender and discrimination are enacted through the 4 I’s.

The system of gender, and gender discrimination, are learned and enacted on a number of societal levels. At YW Boston, we use the 4 I’s of -isms to examine the ways in which biased thinking affects all aspects of our lives. These -isms include systems such as racism, sexism, ableism, and other structures that privilege certain people over others. These systems manifest in all aspects of our society, which the 4 I’s framework breaks down into four zones. They are:

  • Ideological, or the idea that certain identities are better than others. The ideological manifestations of -isms are what create the narratives that perpetuate biased beliefs.
  • Institutional, or how the ideological narratives, including biases, are embedded in the systems and institutions that surround us, such as our laws, media, or organizational structure
  • Interpersonal, or how biased/discriminatory behaviors and attitudes manifest when people interact with one another. This explains the ways individuals feel permitted to act on their prejudices against those of less privilege.
  • Internalized, or how individuals have come to believe the ideological biases of their society, and see themselves (consciously or unconsciously) as actors to uphold -isms.

The 4 I’s are often used to discuss racism, but are also helpful in unpacking gender discrimination, including sexism and cissexism. Here are a few examples of how the 4’s perpetuate gender discrimination:

The 4 I’s constantly intersect and inform one another. For instance, a culture’s ideologies affect the systems people create and how people interact with one another. If someone inspects and unlearns their internalized views of gender, they may begin to change the way they interact with others and work with people to create more equitable institutional practices. In turn, these institutional practices, over time, can change a society’s ideologies and how individuals interact with one another.

How does race interact with gender?

YW Boston works to further gender and racial equity in Boston, and specifically looks at the ways racial and gender discrimination intersect. We recognize that people of different identities, including racial and ethnic identities, experience gender and gender discrimination differently from one another. Learn more about the basics of intersectionality in our blog post, “What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me?”

One way race affects gender is by determining who in American society is considered the “ideal woman” or the “ideal man”. Whiteness has been prized by those in power in the United States since its founding, which has shaped the way society views the ideal versions of men and women as white. 

Not only do women of color experience both racism and sexism, but their experiences of both racism and sexism are shaped by one another. For example, since the time of slavery in the United States, black women have been forced to act in ways counter to the “ideal woman”. They were made to do field work alongside men. Their white counterparts were considered fragile and relegated to child-rearing based stereotype of women as fragile. This belief was not attributed to black women, because that would not be economical for white slave owners. This continued after slavery was abolished and into the twentieth century, when white women were discouraged from working and black women were expected to work and needed to do so in order to support their families. Through this history, we know that black women were not attributed to the same stereotypes as white women, thereby disrupting traditional beliefs held about women. This disruption enforced further discrimination against black women, as they were considered both gender and racial anomalies.

Race and gender have also combined to change the way American society views certain men. Black men are often viewed as hyper aggressive. While aggressiveness is typically valued in men, this belief that black men go beyond what is expected of white men in terms of aggressiveness, means that society still does not believe they are upholding the “ideal” for men. This can also be seen in a historical example of what occurred when large numbers of Chinese men immigrated to California in the 1800s. Anti-Asian racism grew because white men feared Chinese men would take their jobs and marry the limited number of white women in the area. This racism was institutionalized when white lawmakers made it mandatory to pay a fee to gain a gold miners license and marriage between Chinese men and white women became illegal. It also led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major anti-immigration law in the United States, which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years. This targeted racism against Chinese men regulated them to the few jobs available to them, such as restaurant or laundry work, both of which are traditionally feminized. This prejudice also deemed them romantically undesirable. These institutional regulations led to the racist and sexist beliefs that Asian men are not the “ideal” job-earning, aggressive (white) man. When East Asian men were deemed not masculine, they instead were deemed feminine, creating stereotypes about East Asian men that continue today.

In these examples, racism and sexism worked in tandem to “de-gender” men and women of color. Because gender has been deemed a crucial social structure, this act of discrimination through de-gendering is a way of dehumanizing people of color. Many people of color have been forced into gender nonconformity, which is highly stigmatized in American society. In this way, idealized views of gender, enforced through the 4 I’s, have historically been a tool to also further racial discrimination. This systematic degendering of people of color has also further stigmatized people who do not perform gender in ways expected of them. People of color may fear straying from strict gender expectations, so as to not further the discrimination they experience. White people may see the ways people of color have been degendered, and how that correlates with discrimination, and also attempt to meet gender expectations. People of color who are not cisgender — those who are either transgender or non-binary — face especially harsh discrimination for not performing gender according to society’s expectations. They are more likely to experience exclusion from public spaces and the workforce and extreme violence, most commonly perpetrated against black transgender women.

Where do we go from here?

The above examples illustrate that our conceptions of gender and race are moldable and change over time. We have the opportunity to recognize the ways in which gender and race have worked together to exclude women, people of color, and especially women of color, from positions of power and from gender freedom. It has also further stigmatized people of all races whose gender identity is not the same as their gender assumed at birth. With these recognitions, we can return to the 4 I’s to unlearn these internalized biases and help others to do the same. Through this unlearning, people can disrupt the ways institutions enact gender and racial discrimination, and mold new cultural ideologies. 

As you work toward gender and racial equity in your community and/or workplace, map out the ways discrimination is enforced through each of the 4 I’s. List the ways gender and racial discrimination reinforce one another, as well as other -isms such as classism and ableism. In doing so, you can be aware to not exclude people of certain genders in your work for racial equity or people of varied racial backgrounds from your work for gender equity. Ask yourself: how can you integrate intersectionality into your programs and practices?

YW Boston’s program InclusionBoston includes a racial dialogues series and helps organizations institute action plans to build workplace racial equity. Keep an eye out for our gender dialogues series in 2020. You can learn more about the topic of this blog post from our workshop, “Intersectionality”.


About InclusionBoston

InclusionBoston advances diversity, equity, and inclusion by partnering with organizations looking for improved results. Using our advanced assessment tool and the latest research on behavioral and organizational change, we partner with organizations to create an action plan and provide them with the resources needed to drive lasting change. Our customized, evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and promotes cultural change while supporting organizations throughout their journey.

YW Boston also offers one-day workshops where participants explore frameworks, develop knowledge, and engage in dialogue.

Ready to unlock the power of diversity in the workplace? Click here to learn more about InclusionBoston and request your free consultation.