To appreciate agency as a factor required a shift from looking at how we become gendered to how we do gender. To say that gender is something we ‘do’ can mean that we perform it like a role in a play (for example, Goffman, 1979), or it is accomplished through the ongoing work we do in interaction with others (see West and Zimmerman, 1987). How peo­ple do gender and how it is done to them emerges within particular social situations in which judgements are always being made about what is ‘properly’ feminine and masculine in those situations (see Garfinkel, 1967). There is considerable effort, or work, involved in this ongoing management of our actions in relation to gender. The trick is to try and make it look effortless, to make it look ‘natural’ (Goffman, 1979; Tyler and Abbott, 1998;West and Zimmerman, 1987).

Judith Butler’s work (for example, 1990) also emphasizes the way in which gender is a masquerade — the point of which is to make it look natural. Butler, however, is trying to argue that gender is not something we do, but rather that gender produces us. It is almost impossible to make sense of anyone without thinking of them as gendered — even if we decide that a man is rather ‘feminine’. So doing gender is not optional, but gender does us; and therefore understanding gender is crucial to understanding how the world works and how societies could be organized differently. Gender theorists take up these challenges.