In a letter in Nature Genetics , and more recently as a paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior , Pr D. Haig digs into a curious but nevertheless interesting case of evolution in the use of words: the replacement of “sex” by “gender“, a replacement which occurred during the mid-80s (though the observed trend indicates more of a long lasting conversion between 1980 and 1990). The use of “gender” meant as “sex” has apparently been taking off in academic discourses (as demonstrated by its rise in paper titles as documented in these two studies) probably under the impulse from feminist discourse and the rise of the women movement at that time.
The concept of “gender” was nevertheless initially defined as the societal constructed roles of men and women as opposed to a biologically determined “sex“. But with time, and with the renewed adoption of the word ‘gender’ in academic discourse, these original conveyed meaning faded down to be replaced back by the unoriginal and simpler concept of sex differences. In other words, we are blurring the efforts of initial emphasis on constructed differences to replace it with the conventional meaning of mere biological differences. I guess this was first a perfect example of successful framing, and it was indeed so efficient that it has now become a victim of its own success, precipitating its fall…
I unfortunately happen to belong to the group of people using “gender” as a synonym for “sex category” without any reference to its historical reframing. Not that I don’t consider the issue as one of importance, this is definitely not at stake. I tend to use “sex” when sex organs or mating are actually involved, while “gender” comes spontaneously when it deals with natural sex categories (just here as an example). This is very probably due to the fact that I am working with plants, and I now realize how widespread is the use of “gender” in the literature dealing with plant sex. As to whether we really should stick onto the “feminist” use of gender as to mean a social construct of sex roles, I don’t know.
My current study species for example is gynodioecious, which means both females and hermaphrodites co-exist in natural populations. Sex is generally easy to tell apart: male-sterile plants (females) do not have stamens, or when they have some, these are empty and vestigial stamens. Hermaphrodites are also easy to define: they bear functional stamens, i.e. male organs full of pollen grains.
It nevertheless gets more complex when we are trying to deal with the actual sex as expressed throughout the season. In this case, hermaphrodites fall into very different categories: some are functionally males, i.e. invest very little in their female function (they have stigma but almost never produce fruits and seeds), while on the other hand some are functionally quite similar to females (i.e. invest heavily into female function and produce a lot of fruits). Between those two extremes, we observe a broad spectrum of hermaphrodite types… It is thus justified to speak of genders here, since the expressed/realized sex of hermaphrodites is clearly not a simple function of their phenotypic sex…
Last, I have to say that I find the initial intent of the “gender” concept to be somewhat confusing. Indeed, one of the meanings of gender can be defined as a grammatical categorization (English has three: she/he/it, French – my mother tongue, only has two). This is clearly stated in the references below , but I would like to emphasize that this grammatical categorization originally relies on the sexual categorization (my point is that it’s not fortuitous and there is a very basic reason to it). Therefore the ‘choice’ of “gender” as the target for the new concept was maybe not the best way to make it last.
Apart from that, is there anything special to botany in here? Should we really restrain our use of words even when we are dealing with a gender context outside the human experience? Does it really matter?
 – D. Haig. 2000. Of sex and gender. Nature Genetics 25: 313.
 – D. Haig. 2004. The inexorable rise of gender and the decline of sex: social change in academic titles, 1945-2001. Archives of Sexual Behavior 33(2): 87-96.