What Does It Mean To Assign Babies A Gender?

More Philosophical Difficulties With The Concept Of Gender

I’m posting this because I think it raises some interesting philosophical issues about what it even means to assign a child a gender at birth as opposed to merely assigning them a sex. I mean surely the article isn’t advocating that we stop observing which genitalia a child has at birth or even that we stop using those facts to make decisions1. So then what even does it consist of to assign a child a gender at birth?

It seems to have something to do with assuming they will fill a certain kind of societal role, i.e., will comply with the societal expectations we have for men or women. So, for example, merely having a doctor note the genitalia expressed by the child or passing that information on to others wouldn’t count but having a “It’s a boy” party, and thereby encouraging guests to give boy appropriate presents, would.

However, this raises interesting questions about whether it is meaningful to claim to have a certain gender (say one different than the usual one for your sex) but be non-conformist to the usual social stereotypes. Or, indeed, what it would even mean to claim a given gender identity in the absence of such gender stereotypes and whether one can coherently support the idea of someone being transgender (as opposed to simply gender non-conforming) while opposing the idea of expectations of gendered behavior, i.e., in order to support the idea of someone claiming a different gender must one in some sense assent to the idea that it is appropriate to have certain gender specific expectations of behavior?

Interestingly, if on accepts the analysis I offer below, on which gender identity is ultimately about a preference between various gendered societal roles it may be that the suggestion in this article is in a sense conceptually self-defeating since if society ever got close to the point of adopting this solution the very concept of gender as distinct from sex would dissolve.

Why we should stop giving babies a gender when they are born

Trans rights have burst into the spotlight in the past few years thanks to high-profile figures like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, with the former’s 2014 Time cover seen as a watershed moment for the movement. Now, the debate has turned to children and gender.

Before I go one I’d like to impress the importance of distinguishing theoretical considerations from more practical ones. For instance, one could believe that gender identity doesn’t really make sense because it rests on the inappropriate idea that we should have different expectations and social roles for men and women while believing that since, in the near term there is no practical means of eliminating those expectations/roles the best thing to do is to support people’s ability to change which set of expectations/roles apply to them (or make the effort of opting out). This isn’t quite the position I hold but I would like to stress that however the theoretical discussion turns out I firmly believe that, as a matter of simple human compassion and empathy, we should respect people’s requests to be referred to and treated as the gender they identify with. Regardless of whether the notion of gender is philosophically suspect or not it causes people real pain to be misgendered and doing so benefits no one. Even if you believe transgender identification is a mental disorder2 which doctors should try to cure rather than accede to refusing to gender colleagues as they request or let them use the restroom of their choice, like screaming at someone whose religious beliefs you disagree with, accomplishes nothing but making more people miserable.

Tentative Thoughts

These kind of questions push me towards the view that the only sense in which one can claim to have a certain gender (as distinct from sex) is insofar as one is announcing an intention to comply more with the social expectations of and fulfill the social role of your chosen gender and requesting others apply those expectations to you. Obviously, one need not intend to comply with all the stereotypes and expectations society has of your chosen gender or request they all be applied to you but by announcing a particular gender identity one is suggesting that in the main you intend to comply with or wish to be treated according to the stereotypes for your chosen gender more so than the other gender. Or in the case of a declaration of a non-binary gender identity that one doesn’t intend to fill either social role and doesn’t wish to be treated as if one belongs in either.

Ultimately, this means that there is a certain sense in which I don’t think it makes sense to ‘really’ be intrinsically male (female) despite being biologically female (male). There is no societally independent objective notion of gender relative to which one is really male or female. There are only certain societal roles, expectations and stereotypes about men and women and attitudes people have about how they wish to relate to those roles, expectations and stereotypes. Thus, its simply incoherent to claim that one’s gender is really female but that one doesn’t intend to play more of the stereotypical female role in social interactions nor does one want others to treat you more according to the usual social expectations we have of women. In other words, the only real concept of gender (as distinct from sex) which we have recourse to is the operational concept defined by way of society’s gendered expectations. As such, the common implicit assumption in discussions of gender identity that gender is some kind of intrinsic property of the individual must be rejected.

To be clear I’m not suggesting that talk of gender identity is misguided or can’t be made sense of. The operational definition (or a precisification thereof) I gave above works perfectly well and makes sense of what is going on when someone makes a male or female gender identity claim. However, it does suggest a certain skepticism about claims of gender identities other than male, female and none of the above (if gender is understood as a desire to be treated as if you belong/don’t belong to certain societal categories it doesn’t really make sense to call categories that society doesn’t have gender identities) and suggests a certain degree of skepticism regarding the implicit assumption of intrinsicness often made about gender. Accepting this view, however, does limit one’s ability to simultaneously claim to have a male/female gender identity while resisting the idea that gender specific social norms and stereotypes should be applied to you.

Gender As Personal Identification

I suspect a common response to my suggestion above is that I’m ignoring the very real sense in which some individuals strongly identify as a given gender. I fully accept the fact that some people simply feel male or female and are more comfortable thinking of themselves in that way. For those of us, like myself, who are cis by default such feelings certainly seem puzzling but I’m very much convinced they are real. But if I’m convinced these feelings are real why not just accept that the concept of gender merely refers to the sense of personal identification as male or female?

For one thing, the discussion of personal identification (driven by a noble desire to be inclusive) elides the fact that this can mean very different things to different people. I found the answers to this question I asked on quora about the experience of gender dysphoria quite illuminating. In particularly, it suggests that while some people’s experience of gender dysphoria is best described as a desire to be socially treated as a member of the other gender other individuals feelings were directly related to a feeling of discomfort with the genitalia they were born with. However, the focus on social role seems both more common and more faithful to the idea that gender is something distinct from biological sex (or even desired biological sex) and the operational definition above seems to capture the primary ways people want to use the term.

But why not go further and simply accept the claims of strong personal identification with a gender as defining the concept of gender? This, after all, seems to be what most transactivists seem to favor and would allow one to make sense of both the variety of non-binary gender identification and those individuals who want to both claim a given male/female gender identity while rejecting the operational aspects, i.e., the request to be treated according to gendered societal expectations or desire to fit into gendered roles.

Unfortunately, this approach has several serious flaws. First, it seems unable to cope with the phenomena of cis by default as such individuals lack any particular feeling of personal identification but we don’t want to deny they have the default cis gender. One could offer a disjunctive definition of gender but such unwieldy theoretical constructs should generally be avoided. Even more problematic is that such an approach fails to pick out a clear concept as what feelings count as identifying as a particular gender will vary from person to person. Of course, one might try and offer some kind of objective yardstick of male/female identifying against which various feelings can be measured but that just pushes the problem of choosing a conception of gender back a level. More broadly, it still leaves us in want of any sense in which we should regard a particular kind of feeling of identification to be a feeling of gender identification rather than some other kind of psycho-sexual identification.

Besides, as a purely practical matter it might be best if the transrights movement, at least temporarily, disassociated themselves from the idea that one can simply choose a word that describes how you feel about your `gender’ and call that a gender-identity. Even if you don’t share my conceptual concerns about calling such identifications, no matter how sincerely felt, gender identities it may be a necessary tactical move just as it was tactically necessary for gays to disassociate themselves from other non-traditional relationships like polyamory in the pursuit of gay rights.

Philosophical Work

Yes, I’m aware that there is some philosophical work on this subject. Unfortunately, while there are a few interesting papers in the analytic tradition far too many are nothing but ideologically driven continentalesque concept association. Of the papers that are worth reading the only one that I’ve found which directly tackles these hard conceptual issues is “Science Fiction Double Feature: Trans Liberation on Twin Earth” but even this paper doesn’t, to my mind, give enough weight to how these terms are actually used and (perhaps motivated by understandable3 concerns about harmful effects on the trans rights movement or perhaps the authors simply don’t share these intuitions) avoids bullet biting when such bullets would conflict with transpositive ideology. However, It’s quite likely I’m unaware of some good work on this subject and would appreciate being pointed in the direction of other good analytic philosophy papers dealing with this subject.


  1. For example, parents who are perfectly balanced between choosing to relocate to an area with far more boys than girls or an area with far more girls than boys could presumably consider the fact that the balance of probabilities favors their child being attracted to individuals with the other kind of genitals when they grow up. 
  2. Personally, I think even phrasing it this way is to miss the point. Of course transgender individuals are suffering from a mental disorder as is anyone experiencing mental anguish. The only relevant question is whether things like gender reassignment surgery or claiming a different gender identity are effective means to reduce that suffering and I believe the evidence suggests they are. 
  3. Understandable and well-intentioned perhaps but still, in my opinion, a mistake. It’s my view that people can sense when certain conclusions or arguments are being avoided out of concern for their harmful impact and this works to push many readers towards a generalized skepticism of such work. At least in the context of an academic philosophy paper where there is little risk of being quoted out of context in the mainstream media, far better to defang the best arguments that can be raised against a position (or at least the public rhetoric associated with a position) and bite any required bullets while showing that need not force one to take an unsupportive or uncompassionate position regarding the vulnerable group in question. 

Skepticism About MIT’s Gender Balance Win in MechE

If it really is true, as MIT suggests, that the gender ratio in their department is convincing a substantial percentage of women to enter MechE who otherwise would have avoided a STEM field its a big deal. However, upon reflection there are some aspects that are troubling.

First, as the article suggests, they engage in fairly extensive recruitment and some degree of affirmative action for female students in STEM fields. This calls into question the existence of any such effect as for all we know MIT is just recruiting women interested in MechE away from other schools. Indeed, even just considering the benefit MIT is suggesting (women are more attracted to programs with a reasonable gender balance) one should expect MIT’s efforts here to be worsening the gender balance at other schools like caltech

But if you really believe that gender imbalance both makes life worse for female students and repeals them from the field it seems downright irresponsible to attrach female MechE majors from other schools (without a better understanding of how these effects work). If, as seems quite plausible, the discomfort (and willingness to drop out/not major) is most extreme when the percentage of women is the least (e.g. superlinear as percent goes to 0), then this could be a substantial net harm as the gains from greater gender equality at MIT are more than offset by the decreased gender equality at other schools. It all depends on the specific numbers but its concerning that people seem convinced this is a good thing without even having an intuition about the size and direction of this cross school interaction.

Before anyone applauds these results we really need some good studies checking that MIT’s efforts really are bringing more women into MechE. I hope they are but I fear that they may be doing the exact opposite. If I had to guess I’d bet that any positive effect of gender balance is offset by the fact that MIT is harder/more competitive than the other schools who would otherwise get many of the women MIT recruits and I expect the harder/more competitive a science class the more likely people (of either gender) are to drop out to a less quantitative subject (but that’s just speculation).

Also, I’d like to know what people whether MITs affirmative action efforts create a situation in which men tend to noticeably outperform women. As much as I hated the huge gender ratio at caltech I very much appreciated the fact that they were obviously equals. Now, like everything else, what I appreciated isn’t what matters but it does seem like we should at the very least have a pretty firm grip on what kind of effects on subsequent attitudes affirmative action has before we praise the policy. Even if, this effect doesn’t appear at MIT right now (e.g. they most just steal girls from caltech and cmu) it might if more schools try to implement such a policy.

I find it pretty crazy when MIT is congratulating itself when they don’t seem to have any grip (or at least are hiding it) on what they are trying to achieve or whether their policies achieve it.

Now, of course, most social programs will depend greatly on priors and I’d be happy with a short little explanation about why they think the net benefit of achieving gender balance in their departments is worth the effect it has on other schools. Are they suggesting their policy would and could universalize and benefits would be seen from that? Some words about why would be nice. Also some words about why they have the intuition any blowback is worth the cost. As it is it kinda makes one feel like you are being scammed with a meaningless advertising statistic.

I think its quite possible MIT’s policy is net beneficial but I’ve yet to see any cogent account of why I should think that so if you have one I’d love to hear it.

As an aside I’d add that while I don’t think there is any inherint moral value in making sure men and women are equally represented in every discipline, only in making sure they are equally welcome and have equal access, but I do think there would be substantial societal gains to increasing the number of women in STEM fields. Not only would this make scientists happier (and less socially isolated and less likely to accidentally harass) but merely making it clear that quantitative, systematic thing oriented reasoning isn’t anti-female.