Sex and gender are not synonyms, and yet some scientific journals continue to use them interchangeably.
First, the definitions. Sex is a biological term. It refers to the reproductive and genetic pieces an organism has. Gender is an identity, something a person defines internally and, often, in response to cultural cues, as well. (Yes, it can get even more complicated than that, too.)
Alex Bond, a researcher and blogger, is so annoyed by people mixing up these two ideas that he actually counted the number of times a handful of scientific journals made the mistake. It’s not a scientific survey, but Bond went through thirteen different journals in his field, and even made a table of how often they used gender to refer to organisms. He writes:
It is impossible to identify the gender of a butterfly (the butterfly’s internalized concept of self), while it’s sex can be readily apparent. The same goes for fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, tardigrades, ctenophores, or sea urchins. Until we have a way to convey the human concept of gender to these animals, and understand their response, we will never know their gender (or if indeed they have a gender at all, or multiple genders for that matter). So when writing about differences between male and female animals, stick to sex, and avoid gender.
For a scientific journal to refer to the gender of a frog is incorrect (unless they can talk to animals, in which case we have a lot more questions). And yet it happens more often than you might think. Some journals are key offenders, like Wilson Journal of Ornithology, which replaced all instances of “sex” with “gender” for a while—a policy that is now reversed, according to Bond. Other journals aren’t as bad, but still confused sex and gender between five and 22 percent of the time. Bond writes:
What’s evident...is that just about every journal has a mish-mash that largely depends on the author (only The Auk and The Condor had a copyediting policy of replacing gender with sex). Yet there’s an increasing use of gender (rather than sex) in journal titles in the sciences.
Looks like some scientists could use a quick Gender Theory 101 course.