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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


Updated: Aug 4, 2019

We couldn’t have a gender equity project without breaking down exactly what we mean when we talk about gender.

When we talk about women and girls, we often mean cisgender women and girls, and rarely consider non-binary people or transgender women and girls. In the journey for equity and inclusion, we need to have an equitable and inclusive approach – this includes understanding what words really mean.

Simply put, nothing is binary, and gender ≠ sex / sex ≠ gender.

Below I have explained some common phrases and words that can help you better understand the social construct that is gender, and that can help you speak and write inclusively.

A fantastic graphic is the Gender Unicorn developed by Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), and the resources that have been adapted here are detailed below – check them out for a much more detailed journey into language.

The Gender Unicorn
Figure 1 - The Gender Unicorn showing the spectrums of gender identity (female / woman / girl, male / man / boy,) gender expression (feminine, masculine, other), sex assigned at birth (female, male, other / intersex), physically attracted to (women, men, other genders), and emotionally attracted to (women, men, other genders).

Gender identity

Gender identity is not binary (i.e. not only woman / man). It is a spectrum, and it is how you identify your gender, not necessarily the sex you were assigned at birth. Gender identity is your internal deeply held sense of gender, and it is not visible to others (see gender expression).

Side note: some people use female / male to describe gender identity, however in this work I will only use those terms when discussing sex assigned at birth. When discussing gender, I will use woman / man / non-binary / gender fluid etc. to be inclusive of the spectrum of identities, and to not confuse identity with sex assigned at birth.

Gender expression

This is how you express your gender identity. It can be expressed through your pronouns (i.e. she / he / they etc.), behaviour, clothing, voice or body characteristics. Societally, these cues vary from the feminine to the masculine, and everywhere in between – but these cues can be dependent on the societal and cultural context.

Sex assigned at birth

Sex assigned at birth is generally based on the appearance of external anatomy of infants. This phrase captures the complexity of the biological, anatomical, and chromosomal variations that can occur, rather than the simplified ‘biological sex’.


This is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and / or gender expression differs from their sex assigned at birth. Transgender identity is not dependent on medical procedures or physical appearance, and transgender people use a variety of terms to describe themselves, including transgender, male, female, etc.


This term describes people whose gender identity corresponds with their sex assigned at birth.


A gender identity and / or gender expression for people who identify as neither a woman or man. This is not a synonym for transgender.


A gender identity and / or gender expression for people who identify as neither a woman or man. This is not a synonym for transgender.


Someone whose gender identity and expression are a spectrum, who doesn’t confine themselves to one or even a few genders.

Personal Gender Pronouns

The pronouns a person uses to describe themselves. These could be she / he / they / ze etc. Rather than assuming someone’s pronouns based on your assumption of their gender expression, you can ask “What pronouns do you use? / Can you remind me again what pronouns you use?”. Remember, pronouns are not a preference, so don’t ask “what are your preferred pronouns?”.

They / their

Common pronouns for people who identify as non-binary. An excellent replacement for the exclusive ‘he or she’.

Helpful resources that explain many, many more terms and concepts:

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