Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 22, 2019

The Perils of Thinking of Gender as Biology

by Leigh S. Wilton
illustration of man and woman in silhouette

On April 12, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump restricted the rights of transgender military personnel. Before this date, people could serve as the gender with which they identify, receive hormone treatments, and undergo surgery to change their gender. Under the new ordinance, enlisted personnel who identify with a gender that is different from the one assigned to them at birth may no longer receive these benefits unless they already had a gender dysphoria diagnosis. In addition, transgender people can no longer enlist in the Armed Forces unless they have been committed to their gender assigned at birth for 36 months or longer. The motivations for supporting these policies are complex, but one reason may lie in how people think about gender. 

By forcing transgender individuals to serve as the gender they were assigned at birth, this ordinance adheres to an “essentialist” view of gender. That is, it defines gender as an unchangeable, biological, and meaningful condition that is determined by a person’s genitalia at birth. Many people think that gender groups have inalterable biological differences that explain differences between the genders in traits, abilities, and behavior. In fact, gender is one of the most essentialized social groups. Far from being an esoteric point of academic interest, understanding why people define gender in an essentialized way is critical. Essentialism is strongly associated with bias, such as prejudice and stereotyping, toward many social groups. 

My colleagues and I recently conducted four studies to examine whether gender essentialist beliefs reduce support for the legal rights of two marginalized gender groups—transgender people and women.  We measured how much people were willing to support laws and policies that assist transgender people, for example, by allowing them to serve in the military, use restrooms or other facilities that align with their gender, and change their gender on official documents like driver’s licenses and passports. We also measured how much people were willing to support laws and policies that support women, such as guaranteeing women the right to serve in military ground units that engage in close combat, receive paid maternity leave after welcoming a child into their family, and have access to birth control and abortions. 

Our results provided consistent evidence that people who hold essentialist beliefs about gender—those who believe that gender is unchangeable, biological, and meaningful—are less likely to support the legal rights of both transgender people and women. For example, we found that the more strongly people supported statements that endorse a gender essentialist point of view, the more strongly they opposed both transgender people’s and women’s rights. These results were obtained even when accounting for people’s political orientation and beliefs in social hierarchy, which are associated with lower support for transgender people’s and women’s rights.

In some of the studies, we asked people to read articles that talked about gender using either essentialist or non-essentialist language. Compared to the people who read the article written using essentialist language, the people who read the non-essentialist article reported less endorsement of gender essentialism, which was related to more support for the rights of both gender groups.

We also found that people may show more support for the rights of these two groups because they were less prejudiced in the moment. People who read the non-essentialist gender articles reported less gender essentialism, which was associated with less prejudice toward either transgender people or women. And less prejudice was associated with more support for transgender people’s or women’s rights. 

As illustrated by the Trump administration’s restriction of the rights of transgender military personnel, transgender people experience significantly higher discrimination and violence than non-transgender people. In fact, transgender people are one of the most underserved, under-researched, and at-risk populations in the United States. And, although American women have more legal protections than in the past, their legal rights are under threat in many areas, including reproductive and maternity rights.

Our studies suggest that gender essentialism may play an important role in reducing support for the rights of women and transgender people. Perhaps most importantly, they also suggest that this harmful process may be interrupted by thinking about gender in a non-essentialist way.

For Further Reading:

Wilton, L. S., Bell, A. N., Carpinella, C. M., Young, D. M., Meyers, C., & Clapham, R. (2019). Lay Theories of Gender Influence Support for Women and Transgender People’s Legal Rights. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(7), 883–894.

Brescoll, V., LaFrance, M. (2004). The correlates and consequences of newspaper reports of research on sex differences. Psychological Science, 15, 515–520. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00712.x

Flores, A. R. (2015). Attitudes toward transgender rights: Perceived knowledge and secondary interpersonal contact. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 3, 398–416. doi:10.1080/21565503.2015.1050414


Leigh S. Wilton is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Skidmore College. Her research explores diversity and intergroup relations.

About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

Search the Blog

Get Email Updates from the Blog