by Amori Marais
Research Psychologist / PsySSA’s Sexuality and Gender Division Co-Secretariat /NRF Intern, University of South Africa, Psychology Department

South Africans, in many respects still tend to conform to heteronormative ideals. These ideals manifest in socially constructed practices that prescribe ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviours on the basis of sex (Ingraham, 2002). Within the South African society, conforming to heteronormativity perpetuates the notion of patriarchy which contests the right to equality granted to women by the Constitution (Albertyn, 2009). As such, individuals may be socialised to act or perform gender roles according to these constructed norms (Butler, 1990; Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt 2001). This maintains gender ideologies and structures of inequality such as patriarchy, which Oakley (2005, p.13) describes as “the parallel and socially unequal division into femininity and masculinity.” Masculinity and femininity comprise ‘normalised characteristics’ for males and females and through these ideologies, males and females are depicted as having ‘naturally’ opposite and complementary qualities (Bradley, 2007). The social role theory recognises that the dichotomy of the male, female binary, leads to the occupation of very specific roles and identities (Forsyth, 2014). Such identities refer to the manner in which individuals define themselves in relation to their social setting and interpersonal interactions (Erikson, 1968; Geukes, Harvey, Tresize, & Mesango, 2017; Joncheray, Level, & Richard, 2016). This is not only evident in South Africa, but also appears in societies typically considered as advanced in matters of equality. The roles and identities are accompanied by external expressions of gender and may extend to prescribe professional behaviours, conveyed, for example, through choice of occupation, dress code and physical appearance.

If these expressions don’t match the norm, it may result in discrimination as evident in the example of British, London-based nurse, Jessica Anderson, who attempted the world record for the fastest marathon time, for a woman wearing a nurse’s uniform. Guinness World Records disqualified her from the record, which she did indeed break. They based the disqualification on her wearing medical scrubs which is not interpreted to “meet the criteria” for a nurse’s uniform. Instead the required outfit was described as a blue or white coloured nurses’ dress, a white pinafore apron and a traditional nurse cap. Anderson contested this as she described the uniform as “old-fashioned”; evidently it did not match her preferred professional identity and expression. Interestingly, the rules also apply to men who want to compete for the same record. Essentially the nursing profession as a whole, remains feminised by the identified uniform, which portrays the continued influence of heteronormativity on certain professions, inherently linked to outdated gender roles. Additionally, Anderson described these views as “outdated and sexist”. However, the response she got was that the scrubs are too similar to that of a doctor’s uniform which consists of scrubs, a white coat and a stethoscope. The identified scenario strikingly conveys public perception and fixed thought patterns regarding certain professions and the continued influence of gender ideologies. The full article can be found at the following link:

In South Africa, a current issue relating to professional expression and competency is the case of Olympic athlete, Caster Semenya, and her case against the International Associations of Athletics Federation (IAAF). Sport has been identified as an element of culture where gender and gender identities are put on display (Bogopa, 2001). Therefore, ideologies relating to gender have a critical impact on the organisation of sport which has been evident in the Semenya case (Ming, Simpson, & Rosenberg, 2016). The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) also stressed that differences in sex development (DSD), intersex or “hyperandrogenic” athletes should have their levels of testosterone regulated, to allow other female athletes to see the path to success. This is based on the assumption that female athletes with DSD may have increased levels of testosterone and could therefore benefit from increased bone density and muscle mass, which may give them a significant performance advantage over their peers in certain events.

The judges in Semenya’s trail confessed the ruling as discriminatory but justified it as necessary, reasonable and appropriate in preserving the integrity of female athletics. This emphasises binary thinking with regard to professional competencies. However, just because regulations exist does not mean that they are evidence-based, ethical, or even effective (Bekker, 2019). This kind of regulation has its legacy in the long and problematic history of “sex testing” female athletes. Importantly, the vast majority of athletes affected by these regulations are women of colour from the global South who do not conform to Western ideals of femininity (Bekker, 2019). Cases like Semenya’s preserves the notion of binary gender roles and ideas around femininity, while questioning the operationalisation of South Africa’s progressive legislation.

In keeping with an affirmative stance, the Psychological Society of South Africa’s (PsySSA) Sexuality and Gender Division (SGD) also expressed their opinion on the highly unfortunate Semenya testosterone ruling. More can be found at the following link:

Both scenarios reinforce the workplace as a preserver of dichotomous ideals and normative, so-called ‘sex-appropriate’ behaviours, expressions and identities. However, it is important to understand gender as a multi-faceted construct, not only limited by biology and physiological features like chromosomes, anatomy and hormones (Killermann, 2017). Gender is also deeply rooted in the fields of psychology, where it manifests as self-defined gender identity, and sociology, examining the influences of socially defined gender behaviours (Killermann, 2017). Accordingly, the gendered self can be interpreted as a socially constructed part of an individual’s identity, developed in response to situational constraints (Joncheray, Level & Richard, 2016; West & Zimmerman, 2002).

Therefore, we need to stop for a moment and ask ourselves whether the traditional and fixed notions of gender should be the measure of professional competence or whether societies should start accommodating more fluid expressions of gender within the professional sphere.


Albertyn, C. (2009). ‘The stubborn persistence of patriarchy’? Gender equality and cultural diversity in South Africa, Constitutional Court Review, 2(1), 165-208.

Bekker, S. (2019). Opinion: Semenya v IAAF: Implications for women’s participation in sport. Eyewitness News. Retrieved from semenya-v-iaaf-ruling-will-have-big-implications-for-women-s-participation-in-sport

Bogopa, D. (2001). Sports development: Obstacles and solutions in South Africa. The African Anthropologist, 8(1), 85-95.

Bradley, H. (2007). Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.

Caster Semenya loses IAAF testosterone legal case. (2019, May 1). Sport24. Retrieved from     testosterone-legal-case-20190501

Eagly, A.H., & Johannesen-Schmidt, M.C. (2001). The leadership styles of men and women. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 781–797.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York, NY: WW Norton.

Forsyth, D. R. (2014). Group dynamics. (6th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Geukes, K., Harvey, J. T., Tresize, A., & Mesagno, C. (2017). Personality and performance   in real-world competitions: Testing trait activation of fear of negative evaluation, dispositional reinvestment, and athletic identity in the field. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 30, 101-109.

Ingraham, C. (2002). “Heterosexuality: It’s just not natural!” In D. Richardson, & S. Seidman, (Eds.), Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. (p. 73-82). London: Sage Publications

Joncheray, H., Level, M., & Richard, R. (2016). Identity socialisation and construction within the French national rugby union women’s team. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 51(2), 162-177.

Killermann, S. (2017). A guide to gender: The social justice advocate’s handbook (2nd ed.). Austin, Texas: Impetus Books.

Ming, S., Simpson, D., & Rosenberg, D. (2016). An exploration of experiences of female participants in power and performance sports. Women in Sport and Physical Activity, 24, 35-42.

Oakley, A. (2005). The Ann Oakley reader: Gender, women and social science. London: Policy Press.

West, C., & Zimmerman, D.H. (2002). Doing gender. In S. Jackson and S. Scott. (Eds.), Gender: A sociological reader (p.42–47). London: Routledge.

Share This