Guest Post by Gracie Watson
It’s something that most people don’t immediately ask, but sooner or later they wonder. Why are connectors male and female? As crucial parts of modern electronics, these are something that pretty much everyone has seen before. They’re out USB ports, our electrical outlets and plugs, and even our audio jacks for sound equipment.
Yet, sometimes when people start looking into things, they wonder why there are male and female ones. Some might also be inclined to wonder what makes the two different. Is it simply a matter of one being plugged in and the other being the one that’s plugged into? Is there a technical reason why the connectors have to be different?
First, What’s Male and What’s Female?
Each half of a pair of connectors is either male or female, though A and B might be used as alternates. Physically speaking, one of them will have protrusions and is the designated male. The female has indentations meant for the male protrusions to fit into. This behavior and the obvious analogies to be made to human behaviors has also led to the connection process being referred to as mating.
When It’s Rigid
In some cases, particularly when it comes to electrical power, the gender is rigid. The rules are specific in defining what male and female connectors are, as a means of enforcing a proper flow from the source to the intended device. This limits the risk of non-safe configurations and ensures proper functioning and flow of power.
When It’s Fluid
In electrical connectors, one of the challenges is that what is male and what is female isn’t always obvious. Whether it’s Mini Fit Jr connector or a -subminiature, all connector genders are made according to a specific convention. However, the variance of construction despite these specifics means that telling one from the other can be a challenge if you aren’t aware of what to look for in these products.
The most applicable rule is the presence of pins. The male was pins rather than protrusions, and will often also have lug connectors meant to screw into a post. However, just looking at the ends alone will not identify which connectors are male and which ones are female. A closer inspection is required. The simple fact is that gender-based usage is strictly informal and never fully conforms to reality.
The Issue of Jacks
Though it should be noted that jacks use female connectors in most cases, which means that the gender-based terminology is a functional description. There are a few instances when this is not the case, such as male coaxial jacks for connecting external power sources. Another example where this is not the case would be a computer’s AC power inlet, which traditionally is built with a male connector.
When Gender is a Factor
There are some instances when gender can factor in the design. This is not typical, but it can affect a number of products.
Electronics tend to prefer female jack connectors when they need fixed mounting for equipment. Female designs can take damage and risk of contamination better than male ones, due to concealment or recessed contact points. Motherboards are a prime example since damage can result in having to scrap it. Since male contact points are more exposed, using female ones lowers the chances of needing repair or replacement.
In the case of the RS232 standard serial port, male connectors aren’t favored. They are seen as more fragile and the female variant is the one that sees use more often. The male coaxial is also believed to be more prone to damage, though this is a subject of some debate.
Reliability considerations often affect the design. The decision to use female jacks for computer terminals and related devices is one of these major changes, though not the only ones. Serial ports also use female connectors, in violation of the standards set. This has caused a bit of confusion at times, as technicians were relying on incorrect instructions because of the differing ports.
For power connections, designers don’t pull reversals of gender specifications. This will expose the live AC line to male connectors, which is both illegal in many countries and is considered unsafe. Any device that needs to have a robust resistance to mechanical damage will often use a male IEC connector, recessed below the mounting panel surface, to provide conformity to safety standards and the level of necessary physical protection.
Finally, there is a safety issue that can blur the lines in a small way. In any instance where electrical discharge is a risk, female parts will often be used to conceal male connectors. The contacts may also be concealed, again using female parts to cover up male ones. This prevents accidental contact of live conductors, which can cause serious harm to those who are unwary.
Male and female connectors exist. While they are both meant to fulfill the same function, in the world of electronics, there are differences. However, in general, both see a great deal of use in different areas. Their physical attributes and properties, as well as regulations and performance needs, dictate where they are used.