Gender : Words

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The Independent Online

CLARE SHORT, the Labour Party's women's spokesperson, has produced a document proposing among other things that government departments compile "gender disaggregated statistics". This is a dignified variant of the statisticians' corny old joke about people being broken down by sex, and the idea is not original, but I suppose Ms Short thought it sounded better. Women's rights attract that sort of pompous talk, which is a great shame. Tony Blair has caught the habit, using "gender impact assessment", by which he meant the impact of government policy on women, rather than the other way round, though the grammar could mean either.

, from the Latin genus meaning "sort" or "kind", was once little more than a way of classifying grammatical inflections, only some of which had anything to do with la diffrence. Restoration wits used the word rather facetiously instead of saying sex ("the tender gender"). It was well into this century before the social psychologists took it up and made a solemn word out of it, talking about "gender roles" where, until 30 or 40 years ago, they would have said "sex roles". Their trouble was that sex meant too many other things, and sociologists like to be precise.

Or precise enough for their own purposes, if not for ours. "Economic growth," the great iconoclastic philosopher Ivan Illich has written, "is intrinsically and irredeemably gender-destructive, that is, sexist." Other writers take a different line - many of them use gender pejoratively, deploring the gender gap.

So you could say that sex unites, but gender divides. However, as the feminist academic Stella Ting-Toomey of Rutgers University says, "all male- female communication occurs in a contextual matrix", or, more simply, it depends on what you are talking about. But perhaps I had better leave the subject before someone starts accusing me of being genderist.

Nicholas Bagnall