Biology GCSE criticised for confusing sex and gender

Edexcel exam board admits it would have been more consistent to have used the word 'sex' rather than 'gender'

GCSE biology sex and gender

A GCSE biology paper has been criticised for confusing sex and gender.

In the paper from the Edexcel board taken by pupils last month, candidates were asked to identify the “gender” shown by a set of chromosomes.


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Scientists said the paper should have used the term “sex”, which refers to biological differences between males and females including genetics, rather than “gender”, which refers to socially constructed roles that men and women are expected to play.

Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston Brain Centre in Birmingham, said the question sowed “scientific confusion,” The Times reported.

Professor Cordelia Fine, a psychologist who writes about gender, said: “About 200 years of feminism has been trying to untie the link between sex and gender, arguing that the former doesn’t and shouldn’t dictate the latter.”

“Using the terms interchangeably blurs importantly distinct concepts, and we need both — scientifically and socially.”

Dr Nicola Williams, a biologist who is a spokesman for the campaign group Fair Play for Women, has submitted a complaint to Edexcel.

She said: “When children are bombarded with unscientific ideas like ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ brains, it is crucial that basic science is taught correctly. Our sex, not gender, is written in our genes and can never be changed.”

Dr Georgina Toye, a biochemist and examiner, also complained. “I was stunned to see the word ‘gender’ used in a biology paper – especially in a question that concerned biological sex,” she told the Mail on Sunday.

“This is a fundamental error and a scientifically inaccurate use of language that I think will confuse students by giving them the wrong impression that gender and sex are the same.”

A spokesman for Pearson, which runs Edexcel, said the word was used for "practical reasons" to support candidates.

He said: "We have consulted our senior examiners and subject advisors and can confirm the word used in this question was ‘gender’ for practical reasons, to support foundation tier students in understanding the question better.

"Our evidence suggests students have understood the question and have been able to answer it accordingly. We publish the final mark scheme towards the end of July."

But he added: "We recognise it would have been more consistent to have used the word 'sex' in the particular question to be consistent with language in the specification.”

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