by Amy Alexander Catherine Bolzendahl and Lena Wängnerud
25th February 2021

In our first article to mark the special issue of The European Journal of Politics and Gender on new approaches to measuring gender in political science research, guest editors Amy Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl and Lena Wängnerud argue for reform of measures of gender identity in surveys and research.

We live in gendered societies. The physical and social categorisation of humans into identities as ‘men’ or ‘women’, ‘male’ or ‘female’ has been, and continues to be, a central force for creating difference and inequality. Yet, most of us also recognise that there are huge differences among these simplistic binary categories. There are many, varied ways of performing, perceiving and being gendered humans.

A case in point is the recent attack on the US Congress. The largely white, male participants in the violent insurrection attempt present a picture of toxic hypermasculinity. They reflected this in their sartorial choices: boots, bare chests, military-style clothing and weapons, but also in enacting aggression and superiority toward marginalised populations. Contrast that with the statements by Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. As the first man to hold the office of partner to the US Vice President, he adopts the title ‘Second Gentleman’ and unwaveringly celebrates the accomplishments of Ms Harris and of women and people of colour. No one would question whether he is a man/male, but some public figures will debate whether and how he is performing ‘masculinity’.

Lost in translation?

Gender scholars across a variety of disciplines in the humanities, social sciences and biological sciences have, for decades, grappled with the complexities of measuring and understanding gender. Old arguments about whether woman/man categories emerge from biology (‘sex’) or society (‘gender’) have given way to more nuanced theoretical formulations that conceptualise the role of both biology and society, and the nearly limitless variation this interaction produces. Almost all perspectives conclude that our binary concept falls woefully short of capturing this complexity.

Despite a widespread recognition that social sciences need to ‘do better’ when it comes to capturing these complexities, empirically, especially in quantitative survey research, capacities have lagged far behind. Certainly, a great deal of empirical research (our own included) shows the powerful role of binary gender categories in shaping political inequality, but we have to wonder what better measures could show us.

Perhaps part of this lag is due to the complexity of the topic itself. Gender is constructed within individuals, through social interactions and by institutional contexts. Yet, to be fruitful, new measures need to be simple enough for mainstream scholars and political analysts to incorporate in their work. Existing non-categorical gender scales, most often used within psychology and social medicine, tend to consist of long lists of predefined typical feminine, masculine and neutral attributes. Such lists are resource-demanding but they also run the risk of reinforcing, rather than challenging, gender stereotypes.

A path forward

Fortunately, several researchers are trying to find paths forward; to craft options that better address gender variation and how it links to political outcomes. We are proud to join these efforts in our newly published special issue Beyond the binary: New approaches to measuring gender in political science research (European Journal of Politics and Gender 4:1, 2021). In this issue, our contributors focus on much-needed reformations of measures of gender identity. The issue brings together internationally leading scholars and discuss measurement issues, drivers of gender heterogeneity and impacts on values and opinions of a ‘beyond-binary’ gender approach.

Through this work, we, the editors, have been convinced that new insights will be (and already have been) gained by the use of non-binary gender measures in large-scale surveys. Most articles in the volume centre on continuous gender-rating scales but some elaborate on other alternative measures of sex and gender. The conclusions of the volume can be summarised as follows:

Reflecting on this work, and the findings of the papers in the issue, our conclusions lead us to suggest that future social science research use a multidimensional measure of gender that allows masculinity and femininity to vary simultaneously. This approach may be especially useful in combination with other efforts to understand the sociobiological complexities of gender, which can allow for even more nuanced understandings of whether masculine/feminine self-assessments correspond to (non)binary identities. Finally, more attention to heterogeneity within the groups of ‘women’ and ‘men’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’ may help to reduce stereotypes in everyday life and widen the available set of role models for kids growing up. There are so many ways of being a human; it is about time measurement is expanded to capture the gendered societies into which we all are born in less categorical ways.

Amy Alexander is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg. Her research focuses on the sources of gender equality and its effects on political representation, social values, democratization and governance across the globe.

Catherine Bolzendahl is a Professor of Sociology and the Director of the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University. She studies gendered political change, as well as the meaning of family and gender in the political culture of the U.S. and Western industrialized democracies.

Lena Wängnerud is a professor in political science at the University of Gothenburg. Her research focus on political representation, the link between gender and corruption, and socio-tropic anxiety.


Cover of the European Journal of Politics and Gender

Amy Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl and Lena Wängnerud are guest editors of a special issue of The European Journal of Politics and Gender, ‘Beyond the binary: new approaches to measuring gender in political science research’.

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Image Credit: Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

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