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Sex and Gender: Transforming Scientific Practice

October 8–13, 2023

Frankfurt am Main, Germany

L. Zachary DuBois and Anelis Kaiser Trujillo, Chairs

Program Advisory Committee

Paula-Irene Villa Braslavsky, L. Zachary DuBois, Anelis Kaiser Trujillo, Julia Lupp, Margaret M. McCarthy, Stacey Ritz, and Rebecca Shansky

Goals of the Forum

  • To advance conceptualizations of “gender” and “sex,” to align dialogue across disciplines, and to promote sound application in research, policy, medicine, and public health.


Research into gender and sex has recently gotten heightened levels of attention, driven partly by institutional mandates to consider sex as a biological variable (SABV) as well as the rising profile of gender-focused clinical research and practice. Yet science exists within society, not apart from it, and must therefore contend with societal discussions and polarizing debates, where the meaning of sex, gender, and their entanglement is anything but straightforward. The use of binary conceptualizations, the interaction between gender experience and sex-linked biology, and the very nature of these categories are currently under intense scrutiny across a range of disciplines and communities.

To some degree, binary categories of sex and gender organize human society, and these categories are widely applied in myriad ways in research, science, and policy. The term “sex” is typically used to refer to the categorization of bodies into male and female based on a suite of characteristics linked to reproductive biology, whereas “gender” is often used to refer to a culturally embedded suite of socially recognized categories reflecting group and individual-level power dynamics, identities, norms, and experiences that are recognized today as fluid, complex, and diverse. Remarkable contextual variation exists, however, in how these binary categories are defined and operationalized. The initial impetus for the conceptual differentiation of sex and gender was to decouple practices, roles, social expectations, etc. from biology and challenge essentialist claims upon which discrimination is frequently based. “Sex” then became primarily the category for biological sciences and “gender” was anchored into the social sciences and humanities, reflecting the old and problematic division of realms in academic cultures. However important, this systematic separation of the two concepts now shapes what is (and is not) possible to study within different disciplines. Moreover, the partitioning of gender from sex blurs their entanglement and insufficiently captures the breadth of human variation and biological and social/cultural coevolution. The combined terms “sex/gender” and “gender/sex” have been proposed but are currently deployed in only a very small sector of science or policy work, and not at all reflected in public discourse. Although significant theoretical developments have been made in certain disciplines, the necessity of revisiting these concepts and their entanglement remains unrecognized in others. Often-contested new policies and funding streams for the study of sex and gender indicate the need for further integration of theory, practice, and policy.

This Forum is being convened to identify areas where sex, gender, and their entanglement remain insufficiently or divergently theorized. By advancing dialogue between scholars from diverse disciplines, it aims to advance conceptualizations of gender and sex, to align dialogue across disciplines, and to promote sound application in research, policy, medicine, and public health.

This Forum is supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

The German Research Foundation

DFG logo

Group 1: Entanglement of gender/sex dynamics in biological research

Utilizing expertise across a range of disciplines, including biological, neurobiological, behavioral, evolutionary, and medical sciences, this group will address the following questions:

  • How might the concept of “entanglement” of gender and sex transform research?
  • What might be lost if gender and sex are viewed as entangled in this way?
  • What do we know about how gender/sex development varies across the life course?
  • What do we know about gender/sex during critical periods of development (pre- and peri-natal, juvenile/childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and senescence)?
  • How can we better operationalize gender and sex entanglement across the life course?

Group 2: Entanglement of gender/sex dynamics and issues of operationalization and measurement

Drawing on expertise in both human and nonhuman animal research, this group will focus on the challenge of gender/sex entanglement in research design, data collection, analysis, and interpretation, guided by the following questions:

  • What do the categories of binary sex (male/female) and gender (man/woman) enable us to achieve? What harms and biases may result? What is rendered invisible by using these concepts?
  • What does the entanglement of sex and gender mean for animal and in vitro studies?
  • Can a framework be devised to guide how entanglement can be effectively incorporated into research design?
  • How can we guide and make transparent decisions regarding when to use proxy categorical variables of gender/sex or continuous variables, targeting instead pathways and mechanisms (e.g., testosterone or body size)?
  • How can we get beyond biological essentialism (e.g., centering sex assigned at birth) and individualized gender fixation (e.g., centering self-reported gender identity only) in research?
  • How can we account for the complex nature and/or social reality of gender, sex, and their entanglement?
  • How do analytic methods produce differences between groups? For instance, what do average comparisons between groups reveal? What can we learn from statistical approaches that allow us to focus on variability within groups?

Group 3: Entanglement of gender/sex dynamics in human biomedical and clinical research

To advance research capacities, particularly in empirical and clinical research, this group will consider gender/sex entanglement when working with human subjects:

  • What do the categories of binary sex (male/female) and gender (man/woman) enable us to achieve? What harms and biases can result? 
  • How can gender, gender identity, and gender experience be better integrated with systems biology-based understandings of physiology, epigenetics, clinical research, and public health practice?
  • How can gender identity (as distinct from “gender”), including the dynamism of gender identity within individuals and across historical and cultural contexts, be better integrated into health research?

Group 4: Entanglement of gender/sex dynamics in policy and practice

This group will explore the issue of entanglement and consider the application of gender/sex categories in policy and practice, thus linking understandings of these concepts to contemporary debates and emergent issues:

  • What are the consequences when biological definitions of sex that exclude entanglement with gender are used in social policies?
  • Where is scientific clarification of sex-linked biologies, gendered behaviors, and health outcomes most needed?
  • What alternative concepts/frameworks might more effectively account for human variation and diversity?
  • How can the complexities of gender/sex entanglement be leveraged to foster positive change?