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Understanding Gender in Development

19th November 2016

Liana Zordan

Let me start with a simple question. What do you think about when you hear the word gender?


Do you think about the obvious physical difference between men and women? Do you think about ticking that little box whenever you fill out white papers that identifies you and categorises you strictly either male or female, like that really matters? 


Seems obvious, but if they were amongst the top of your thoughts you better keep reading because there’s a lot more to it than that…and alright I lied it was never meant to be a simple question, in fact it’s an ever evolving question I’m still trying to answer myself. I’m here to explore the notions of gender and how complex it can be in its inclusion in development theory and practice.


Gender is not strictly about the division between male and female bodies in development. In understanding gender in development it is critical to recognise the difference between gender and sex, so stop thinking about the male/female division now! Such an understanding of gender reinforced through the gender binary of the male and female body has been the very detriment of development practice in the past. Something to explore later on.


Gender is not absolute nor assigned. To critically analyse gender in development it must be understood as a product of social reproduction. Gender refers to socially constructed roles, behaviours, attributes and activities that have been appropriated through society to fit the sex of men and women. But it doesn’t stop there, the fluidity of gender includes recognising not only the identities of male and female but the gendered identity and therefore the development towards the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and non gender identifying individuals - therefore gender cannot be homogenised.

What’s she talking about ‘gender cannot be homogenised’ PLEASE DON’T BE SCARED AND KEEP READING! In that paragraph above there is so much more to elaborate on, like when I say jargon like ‘social reproduction,’ ’socially constructed’ and ‘appropriated through society.’ What I really mean is gender is preformed differently and gendered roles change and vary all over the world. Gender is impacted by a multitude of factors with prominent ones being culture, religion and race.

If you think about it really simply for a minute, by reverting back to the gender binaries of men and women and the roles in which they assume in day to day life and access and involvement in paid labor. For example, here in Australia it’s fair to say women have somewhat equal access to paid work as men, right? Latest statistics from the World Bank indicate that the females accounted for 45.4% of the labor force participation rate in Australia in 2014. Unfortunately, that can’t be said for women’s access to paid labor in a country such as Saudi Arabia, where in 2014 women only account for 15.2% of the labour force (World Bank Group, 2016). The difference here lies in the gender binary roles and expectations assigned to men and women in the public/private dichotomy of labor. Typically, expectations and burden falls on the male to participate in the public sphere, to work and earn a wage. Women are expected to negotiate the private sphere of unpaid labor burdening women with tasks such as housework, childcare and in the case above cultural limitations such as freedom of movement as an example of gendered socially constructed and appropriated behaviours which restrict women’s ability to be involved in paid labor. 


Alas, that’s not to say Australia is perfect or free from these gender binaries!. If you’ve ever heard or made the joke about the mother/sister/daughter/girlfriend or wife to get ‘back to the kitchen and make that sandwich,’ think twice, thats the very mould in which gender binaries are made. That ‘joke’ is an example of enabling socially constructed ideas (get back to the kitchen and women’s role in the private sphere) to appropriate behaviours in society (to make the sandwich as a performance of the gendered role of domestic duties) to impact on the different roles that men and women assume through social reproduction, which many women are still fighting against. It’s time to remove the proverbial ‘men as the ‘breadwinners’’ and if that’s going to be the case, well I say to men; take that very bread and make your own sandwich! 

About the Author

Liana has studied a Masters of International Development Practice at Monash University and now works for a number of gender focused NGOs in Melbourne, Australia.



The World Bank Group. 2016. Labor force, female (% of total labor force) International Labour Organization, using World Bank population estimates.. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].



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