Gender Research

WOMAN

Forget Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
The Stanford campus is abuzz with the latest research on gender.
Prepare to be surprised.

By Sally Lehrman


On the eve of one of the most important events of their lives, Jennifer Azzi, Jenny Thompson, Regina Jacobs and other Stanford athletes had to prove they were women. Using a highly sensitive test, doctors at the Olympic Games last year searched for traces of a Y chromosome to make sure the competitors were not men in disguise.

Since the 1960s, the International Olympic Committee has verified the sex of athletes entering women’s events. Over the years, the 13 women who have failed the test have had to develop a sudden illness, injury or another reason to explain their withdrawal. Secure until that moment in their identity as women, they were suddenly thrown into traumatic uncertainty about their sex.

The apparently clear-cut test that undermined these athletic careers belies an increasingly complex understanding of sexual identity. The very science that enables sex testing is demonstrating that simple definitions are no longer biologically sound. An individual’s genes, chromosomes, anatomy and psychosocial sex characteristics may not always agree. Try as they might, researchers are having trouble stuffing human biology into two distinct boxes labeled “male” and “female.”

“Gender is much more than a biochemical construct,” says Andrew Pipe, former president of the Canadian Academy of Sports Medicine and chair of the Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport. “It’s bizarre to think you can determine whether someone is male or female based on one of these tests.”

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