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The battle over gender: what makes you a man or a woman, anyway?

Adrian Dalton, Julie Bindel, Bethany Black and Gia Milinovich discuss the controversial issue.

What does it mean to be male or female, a man or a woman? The idea of gender has become a battleground, with scientists, philosophers, writers and activists clashing over its definition, and even its usefulness as a category at all. Where is the line where "man" becomes "woman", and vice versa - is it to do with having the "right" genitals, or a particular kind of brain? Are people who want to transition from one gender to another re-inforcing the idea that there are fundamental differences between the two? Are there fundamental differences between the two? 

On 24 September, the Soho Skeptics group (full disclosure: convened by NS blogger Martin Robbins) is hosting a debate on the subject, featuring trans activists Adrian Dalton and Bethany Black, feminist campaigner and writer Julie Bindel, and "science groupie and professional dork" Gia Milinovich. The event is controversial - Bindel recently withdrew from a university debate on prostitution after receiving threats related to her stance on transgender issues - but the question it is asking is vital to anyone with an interest in feminism or trans rights. What makes you a man or a woman, anyway?

I asked the four panellists for their response, along with a few other questions. 


Adrian Dalton

You were born female but are now male-bodied. How is it different when you perform as a drag queen now, to the experience of presenting as female before you transitioned?

In some respects there is very little difference. I did feel like I was in drag during my early twenties (pre-transition). In fact for a time I tried to pass as a drag queen by wearing really OTT wigs, outrageous clothes and loads of make-up. I suppose the key difference is that now I am in the body I feel at home in. Also, when I’m doing drag now people don’t generally perceive me as female. 

How do you feel about the phrase “born in the wrong body”?

In one sense I relate to it. But I have really enjoyed my life and the whole journey would have been different without the experience of being born in a female body and then transitioning. So I don’t regret having this experience.

Do you think there is such a thing as a “male brain” and “female brain”?

No idea! I’m a drag queen pole-dancer, not a scientist!

What does being a man mean to you?

Well, although my body is male there is very little else about me that is remotely masculine . . . so err, I’m just going to have to say being a man to me is simply having a male gender identity.  In my case I am also only comfortable in a male body.


Bethany Black

How differently are you treated now that you are a woman from when you were considered male?

Wow, there's a whole book in answer to this question,  I think the first thing that was noticeable was that overnight people stopped automatically assuming that I was right about stuff, my factual advice was treated as suspect, whereas emotional advice was taken more seriously. People also seemed to not be able to tell when I was joking as quickly, there was an expectation that I would be serious, that any sarcasm, or pretending not to get something for comic effect was me actually not getting things.

The pressures to behave were changed, before I transitioned I was very skinny and I remember my mum telling me that I needed to bulk up because "what if you were on a bus and a woman got on with a baby, you'd need to be able to help her with her pram, what sort of a man wouldn't be strong enough to do that?" as soon as I transitioned it was suddenly not an issue.  

Although I'm a lesbian when I first transitioned I thought I might be bisexual, so I did spend some time in heterosexual courting situations and I noticed that there was suddenly a pressure on me that even if I didn't feel attracted to a guy that the pressure was on me, that there was a level of expectation and entitlement from guys who wanted to sleep with me.

I also see it every day in conversations with people, guys will suddenly talk over me or interrupt in the middle of a story and think nothing of it and other people will automatically assume that they have more of a right to speak than I do.

I think the worst of this is having to deal with the "I'm a nice guy, but I think feminism's gone too far" guys who will totally disregard any experiences I have and accuse me of being paranoid, of over reacting or being too emotional in my responses to people's criticisms of me.

How do you feel about the phrase “born in the wrong body”?

I hate that phrase,  I wasn't born in the wrong body, I was born with the wrong genitals. That's all, my body is fine, though it could do with more exercise and a few less pies,  The way I see it I had a birth defect that I got sorted with surgery and medication. My partner, she was born in the wrong body, she was born into a body with auto immune diseases, and it's difficult to share a body with type one diabetes. People feel quite okay with saying that about trans people, but you'd never say that to someone who was disabled.

What does being a woman mean to you?

I have no idea.  I have nothing to compare it to. Growing up I felt I didn't relate to parts of my body so that's why from the age of 11 I didn't like to be naked at all even on my own I'd get changed under my bedclothes and have the quickest showers possible. So like the previous question I wouldn't say I was born in the wrong body, it's like the phrase "you were born a man".  I wasn't, I was born a baby, my parents were convinced that I'd be a boy, and it just took me 20 years to pluck up the courage to tell them. I think one of the biggest misnomers that's perpetuated by the press is the idea that for transsexuals we are transitioning into something. "You were a man and now you're a woman."  like this idea that "Little Johnny was bouncing along happy being a boy when he decided that he really wanted to be a girl so he started wearing dresses and make up and then he had surgery and became a woman." 

A simple turn around of language recently when Chelsea Manning came out would have helped - rather than "Manning wants to be a woman",  "Manning is actually a woman" would have been a lot more accurate. I was born female; it's just doctors judge you on your genitals when they're writing your birth certificate.

I am one version of being a woman out of three billion versions, and this version was born with a penis, and so far has ended up as a butch lesbian.

Do you think there is such a thing as a “male brain” and a “female brain”?

There are certainly physical differences in the brains of men and women, however I think a lot of it comes down to social pressures and I don't think that the stereotypical markers of gender behaviour are markers of being male or female, because there are as many ways of being male or female or both or neither as there are people.  Having said that, as a gay woman I often watch heterosexual people's interactions with each other and it's very confusing quite how strict the gender roles seem to be, even in the most progressive of them.  But I would assume that that would be down to social pressures to conform as opposed to any real differences in brain sex.


Julie Bindel

Do you think there is such a thing as a “male brain” and a “female brain”?

Although there are obvious physical and hormonal differences between men and women, biology is certainly not destiny. The risible notion that there is a "male" and "female" brain - not scientifically proven by any means - helps reinforce the notion that difference is innate and cannot be explained by sexism and social construction/the environment in which we live.

Behavioural differences can be explained by patriarchy and power differences. Girls are raised to adhere to strict codes of convention, and "femininity" can only exist in relation and opposition to "masculinity". Although both boys and girls are deeply affected by gender rules and stereotypes, they benefit males and harm females. Scientists looking for brain differences do so to back up the status quo. The likes of Cordelia Fine and other feminist scientists are beginning to offer a robust challenge to their nonsense. 

What does being a woman mean to you?

I have no idea what it feels like to be a woman. I don't do gender. It is harmful and a total social construct that serves to reinforce patriarchy and women's subordination to men.

I wish to eradicate gender - that is the feminist goal - but for now we need to keep the identity of "female" in order to track how our oppression is effecting us, for example, how many women are raped, underpaid, killed by violent partners etc


Gia Milinovich

What are the problems with scientific research into sex and gender?

One of the main issues with psychology research is that it often involves self-reported answers on questionnaires, that is when the respondent answers questions about thoughts, feeling, beliefs without any interferences from the researcher. The problem with this is, of course, that the respondent may exaggerate or minimise their behaviour, feelings or beliefs for a wide variety of reasons, even subconsciously, therefore the researcher isn't getting accurate information.

There is a lot of research showing that both males and females self-stereotype themselves when they know what is being researched. For example, when respondents know that they are answering questions to measure empathy (such as with Simon Baron Cohen's Empathy Quotient test) women's self-reported levels of empathy will be high because women are expected by society to be more empathic than men. Research by psychologists Nancy Eisenberg and Randy Lennon found that: "In general, sex differences in empathy were found to be a function of the methods used to assess empathy. There was a large sex difference favoring women when the measure of empathy was self-report scales; and no sex differences were evident when the measure of empathy was either physiological or unobtrusive observations of nonverbal reactions to another's emotional state." 

In other words, the differences between males and females found in a lot of psychology research may be more about how they would like to be seen by others rather than about any true, innate differences.

There is also some question over what information can accurately be gleaned by neuroimaging. Most neuroimaging research has been done on adults and as we know the brain is shaped because of repeated actions or behaviours. An example of this is the research that came out of University College London a few years ago which had scanned trainee taxi drivers' brains before they started The Knowledge and again after. They found that the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory, had grown in the trainees that had passed the test, but not in those who failed. Now had they done MRIs only after they'd passed the test, researchers might have concluded that their hippocampus was naturally larger and therefore they had a genetic predisposition to having a good enough memory to pass the test. As it is, one can't tell anything about those who passed other than their brains grew.

The same could be the case with neuroimaging looking for differences between the sexes. As research shows, from immediately after birth male and female children are treated differently by not only their parents but by other children, teachers, strangers, everyone. A lifetime of this gendered treatment is bound to cause different behaviours and therefore differences in brain patterns.

Brain scans of newborns, however, have shown that there is very little difference between male and female brains at birth.

What does being a woman mean to you?

I've thought about this a lot recently specifically because of this panel discussion.

I don't feel I have ever conformed to the "feminine gender role". There has always been a disconnect between who I feel I am inside, which is simply "a person", and who the outside world expects me to be because of my female body. I have always fought against the roles that have been forced upon me, as have most of the women I know. And yet, I am still "a woman".

My biology is very important. My period, my menarche, the supposed shame of menstruating, hormonal fluctuations every month are important. My menopause will be equally as important. The spectre of pregnancy is important. Being pregnant and giving birth were important. My (dysfunctional) relationship with my body is important. Sexual harassment and assault and the constant risk assessment to avoid them are important. Not being successful at avoiding either of them is important. Male violence, control and power being used against me is important. Being treated as inferior by the vast majority of males I've come in contact with is important. Doing so much more work for so much less money is important...

For me, it seems to be a combination of my biology and the way I am treated by wider society that make me "a woman".

What is the fundamental question at the heart of this which arouses so much hostility?

I am an outsider to all of this I can only say what I think based on my observations of the "discussions" between trans* activists and radical feminists and my understanding of their respective positions.

The trans* community as a whole is a victim of high rates of violence, depression and suicide. Many of them, rightly, feel they are literally fighting for their lives. Recent years have seen laws enacted around the world giving transgender people more and more legal protections from the bigotry, hate and violence they face on a daily basis. In the UK, recent additions to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have provided transgender people with protected class status and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 entitles them to the legal recognition of their gender identity without requiring any gender reassignment treatment, it only requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

For radical feminists, the concept of "gender identity" is nonsensical, as they believe gender- the roles, activities, behaviours and even clothing that are considered acceptable for males and females- is socially constructed. Subsequently, they question what it means for a person born male to "live as a woman". Does it mean having long hair  or wearing make-up and dresses? Does it mean wearing trousers and sensible shoes? Does it mean having a female name? Could you be called Jo, Alex, Kris, Jamie, Terry, Pat? Does it mean being bad at maths or great at computer coding? Does it mean being a good communicator or interested in DIY? Does it mean being good at sport or bad at sport? Does it mean being "a stereotype"? And if it doesn't require sex reassignment surgery to legally be recognised as a woman does that mean people with penises are women? And if so, why are females the only oppressed class who are legally unable to define themselves?

And this final point, I think, might be at the heart of it. On the one hand, radical feminists can come across as a bit like out-of-touch Middle Englanders who complain about immigrants coming in and changing what it means to be British. On the other hand, females are without a doubt an oppressed class and people perceived to be from a privileged class are "invading" and "colonising" and telling females that everything they know about being women is wrong. And when they are shouted at, threatened and told to shut up and accept it, it can cause a great amount of hostility.

I have seen both radical feminists and trans* activists behaving appallingly to each other. From what I have observed over the past 9 months, there is a lot more violent language coming from the trans* camp, and there is more taunting, name-calling and ridicule coming from the radical feminist camp.

Do you think there is such a thing as a “male brain” and a “female brain”?

I think there are innate differences between individuals, but no innate differences between the sexes. 

Soho Skeptics: The Battle over Gender is on 24 September. It is now sold out.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.