Confusing ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ could lead to dangerous mistakes, doctors warn

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — There are clear differences between “sex” and “gender,” and mistaking the two could cause unrealized harm for individuals across society, doctors warn.

Sex relates to biology, reproductive organs and hormonal differences, while gender reflects societal roles. But contemporary medical research and clinical practice often “erroneously” use sex and gender interchangeably. Doing so risks causing errors and harm, caution top medics at the University of St. Andrews.

Practicng doctors and researchers from the university with decades of experience in gender and sex issues published an article in the British Medical Journal which makes it clear sex and gender are not the same.

“There are many instances of sex and gender being confused by the research community and society more broadly,” says Dr. Margaret McCartney, of the School of Medicine at the university, in a statement. “Unless we identify and count categories correctly, we will end up with errors which serves all populations poorly, including minority populations.”

Both categories are important and describe different attributes that must be considered depending on the purpose they are intended for, suggests the paper.

According to the The World Health Organization, “gender is used to describe the characteristics of women and men that are socially constructed, while sex refers to those that are biologically determined.”

Professor Susan Bewley, a professor in Obstetrics and Women’s Health at King’s College London says healthcare providers must know the difference between the two in order to ensure the best possible outcomes.

“Medical care requires an understanding of the difference between sex and gender categories. Untangling them is crucial for safe, dignified, and effective healthcare of all groups,” she says. “Avoidable harm may result when they are conflated – for example, if sex specific laboratory reference ranges are used for people whose gender is recorded but not their biological sex or hormone prescription.”

SWNS writer Sarah Ward contributed to this report.