Unit Nine: Gender Inequality

Gender Inequality

Before it is possible to understand the different social roles of men and women, it is important to distinguish the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to the biological characteristics that distinguish males and females.  There are primary sex characteristics, such as genitals and organs used for reproduction, and secondary sex characteristics, such as wider hips and milk-producing breasts for girls, and expanded muscle mass and deeper voices for boys.  Gender refers instead to the social or cultural characteristics deemed proper for males and females.  In other words, gender describes what is masculine and feminine within a society.  Gender opens and closes doors in society.  It also determines what roles individuals assume within a culture.  The term gender stratification is used to describe males and females unequal access to power, property, and prestige, based on sex, within a society.   Sociologists believe that gender roles and gender differences are learned through the socialization process that occurs in each culture.

Although numerically a majority, women in many parts of the world fit the description of a subordinate  minority.  Throughout history, gender has been a master status that has cut across all aspects of social life.  Different expectations of males and females result in their having different life chances.  This unit examines the structural social inequalities that exist for the  female members of society.

All human societies, in the past as well as in the present, have been patriarchies.  Patriarchy refers to the male domination of society.  How did societies become patriarchal?  Why haven’t there been matriarchal societies?  The answer to these questions may be lost to history.  But the prevailing belief among sociologists is that females became a minority group in their societies because of the physical limitations of childbirth.  Because an infant needs a nursing mother, childbirth and childcare limits the ability of females to engage in other societal tasks such as hunting and warfare.  These activities also gave men the opportunity to be around weapons and to become skillful in their use.  These opportunities were not available to women.   In addition, men were also physically better suited for these tasks.  Is this theory correct?  Perhaps in the future sociologists will come up with other views that will in some degree contradict this theory.  However, it is hard to ignore the influence of biology altogether.  There have also been societal changes that have contributed to gender inequality.  If you recall from unit 3, hunting and gathering societies had a high degree of equality.  With the invention of the plow, and the move to agricultural societies,  gender inequality increased dramatically.  With more resources, there was more to fight over.  Female fertility gods gave way to male warrior gods.  Many of these new male religions carried a dogma that stated that men should rule over women. The move to industrialization around the world was another social event that facilitated gender inequality.  Men left the family farm to work in public settings such as factories and offices.  This moved economic production outside of the household.  Men earned their wages away from home, and therefore assumed larger roles in economic decision making.  Women’s work was regulated to the private domain of the home.  It wasn’t until the second wave of feminism beginning in the 1960’s, that women entered the public sphere in large numbers.

1.    US Census Bureau Report on the State of American Women

2.    Gender and Society

3.    Matriarchy:  History or Reality?

4.    History of Matriarchy

5.    Gender Issues Research


The Development of Feminism

womensuffrageNot all females have been happy with the arrangement of a patriarchal society.  Women have for a long time expressed their dissatisfaction with such a system.  Beginning in the nineteenth century, women began to question in public their second class citizenship.  Feminism is the political movement that tries to rid society of inequalities based on gender.  There have been two waves of feminism in the United States.  The first wave began in the 1840’s and peaked in the early 1900’s.  Here the emphasis was on obtaining the right to vote for women.  After this right was achieved around 1920, the movement lost steam.  The second wave of feminism began in the 1960’s.  This wave focused on gender inequalities in the workplace, at home, in marriage, and in education.  This second wave of feminism was in part inspired by the success of the Civil Rights Movement.  Many women today have held demonstrations, lobbied politicians, and formed women’s organizations in an attempt to eliminate gender inequality.

1.  Rules for Female Teachers (1915)

2.  Invisible Privileges That Men Have That Women Do Not


What is the feminist movement struggling against?  Sexism.  Sexism is the belief that one sex is innately superior to the other.  It is the ideological basis of patriarchy.  It justifies the unequal treatment of women by men.  Sexism is a burden to society.  It opens doors to men, while closing those same doors to women.  Sexism offers more opportunities and access to more resources for men than for women.  An example of the effect of sexism can be seen in the following quote.   In 1985 Microsoft hired its first two female executives to win a government contract.  Bill Gates, the President of Microsoft, gave the following statement as to why, “Well, let’s hire two women because we can pay them half as much as we will have to pay a man, and we can give them all this other ‘crap’ work to do because they are women.” 1

Sociological Theories That Explain Gender Inequality

The Structural-Functionalist Perspective: Structural- Functionalists view inequality as a product of the traditional division in human societies. Men tend to attend to more instrumental (objectively rewarded) tasks such as wage earning and women attend to more expressive (subjectively rewarded) tasks such as those involved in child rearing. While both types of labor are functional (indeed vital) for society’s survival, the instrumental tasks, looked after by men, always have been more highly rewarded than the expressive tasks looked after by women. Men and women are taught these traditional roles and have tended to conform to their requirements. Functionalists point out that, while gender roles and their accompanying inequalities have changed somewhat in industrialized societies, traditional arrangement remains in force in most societies.  Women and men are seen as performing necessary and complimentary roles.

Traditional gender roles are viewed as important not only for the individual but also for the economic and social order of society. Failure to maintain the traditional division of labor is believed to lead to destruction of family life as well as higher rates of crime, violence, and drug abuse. Structural-functionalists theorists see wage inequalities as the result of choices women make, which involve family roles that compete with their work roles.

The Conflict Theory Perspective: Conflict theory focuses on the exploitation of power and the means to achieve power in society. Gender role inequalities reflect exploitation of dominant (male) segments of society over secondary (female) segments of society. Females may be alienated from society due to gender role inequalities.  From this viewpoint, wage inequalities that exist between men and women result from men’s historic power to devalue women’s work and benefit as a group from the services that women’s labor provides.

The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective: Symbolic interactionism focuses on the effect of language and behavior and how it affects and is affected by groups, organizations, and society. Gender role inequalities are learned through language. Behavior toward persons is based in part on their gender.  These theorists also focus on how gender roles are internalized by males and females.


Gender and Power

Like race and class, gender is a multilevel system of differences and disadvantages. gender inequality is tied to other inequalities. These inequalities also work together to produce differences among women.  Some women derive benefits from their race, their class, or their sexuality while they are simultaneously restricted by gender. Sociologists classify women as minorities in human society because even though they outnumber men, they do not have equal access to power.

One area where male dominance can be reinforced is language. Language perpetuates male dominance in many ways. One is the use of the pronoun “he” when the sex of the person is unspecified. Another is the use of “mankind” when referring to humanity. Women, more than men, are commonly referred to in terms that have sexual connotations. Terms referring to men (studs, player) have sexual meanings that imply power and success, whereas terms applied to women (slut, bimbo, ho) imply promiscuity and lower status.


Gender Inequality in Education

Historically, women have been denied access to many fields of study.  Today, more women than men enroll in U.S. colleges and universities and they earn more post-secondary degrees.  While progress has been made, a closer look reveals that there are still areas of concern.  Women still earn 90% of the nursing degrees while men still earn 85% of the engineering degrees.  In 1972 Congress outlawed gender discrimination in public schools through Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act.  With respect to sports, Title IX has increased the participation rate for females. In 1971 there were 300,000 high school girls participating in sports. By 2008, that number had risen to 3.1 million.  However, at the collegiate level,  male athletes receive $179 million more in athletic scholarships than their female counterparts.  The progress that women have made in the past few decades has caused a division amongst some feminists.  Should they rejoice in their success, or push on for more?  The links below offer information for you to make your own determination.

1.   Educational Progress of Women 

2.   An alternative viewpoint of women and educational discrimination

3.   Gender Differences in Participation and Completion of Undergraduate Education


Gender Inequality in Health Care

Women have also experienced discrimination in administering of health care.  Sometimes it takes the form of recommending unnecessary surgeries, such as hysterectomies, or in the lack of research, as in bypass surgery or breast cancer research.  The links below offer opinions on the gender inequalities in health care.

1.  Gender Inequities and Women’s Health


Gender Inequality in the Workplace

glassceilingWomen have historically faced discrimination in the workplace.  Although this situation has improved recently in the United States, there are still areas of concern.  In the United States it is culturally acceptable for women to work outside of the home.  The trend of women entering the labor force has created a need to change workplace attitudes.  Their still exists a pay gap between male and female workers.  In the United States,  full time female workers still make only two-thirds the pay that full time male employees do.  Full time working women today make about 78 cents for every dollar a full time man earns.  Sociologist say there are a number of reasons for this.  Some of that 22 cent gap can be explained by gender discrimination.  The above quote from Bill Gates demonstrates the effect discrimination can have on wages.  For the top positions in our society, there also exists what is called the glass ceiling, an invisible barrier that keeps women from reaching the top executive positions.   Another reason for the pay gap is the heavy domestic burden shouldered by women.  Because of the interruptions from work due to pregnancies and the responsibilities of being a parent, women devote fewer hours to paid work than men.  Many women take part time jobs when they begin a family, further reducing their wages compared to men.  The most important reason to explain the pay gap between men and women, according to sociologists, is the choice of careers.  Women are still clustered in areas of employment such as clerical and teaching, that do not pay the high wages found in career clusters dominated by men.  This factor probably explains the greatest amount of the 22 cent disparity in wages between men and women.

1. Sources of the Wage Gap


sexualharassmentThere is also the problem of sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment refers to the unwanted sexual attention that affects a person’s job performance or creates a hostile work environment.  In the past decade or so sexual harassment has become an issue of national importance which has changed the way the different sexes interact at work.  Most victims are women, and most perpetrators are men in positions of power.

1.  A Woman Walking Down the Street Getting Sexual Harassed (video)




Gender Inequality in Politics

It has only been in the previous century that women around the globe began obtaining the right to vote in democratic elections.  Along with voting, came running for political office.  If one looks at the number of women worldwide who hold elected office, a good argument could be made that human society is still a patriarchy. There exists a gender gap in the United States government. Congress has two classes of personal staff employees: highly paid men who hold most of the power and lower paid women who are relegated to clerical and support staff.  Women had a major influence in the 2008 presidential election, with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and Sarah Palin as the Republican nominee for vice president.  In 2008 Nancy Pelosi also became the first female Speaker of the House.

1.  Women in National Parliaments

2.   Women Still Underrepresented in Politics

3.  Double Standard for Female Politicians (the Daily Show)


Gender Inequality in Religion

Virtually all of the world’s major religions encourage male dominance.  In many early human societies, God was seen as feminine- a fertility Goddess who made crops grow and gave life to the world.   As human societies evolved and became more patriarchal,  God underwent a change from female to male.  The world’s religion’s began to ban female participation in the hierarchy and regulated women to second class status. Gender inequality can still be found in religion today, as evidence by the  Catholic Church prohibition on female priests, or the segregated prayer at Mosques.

womenreligionMost U.S. religions follow a typical pattern. The clergy (organizational power structure) is male, while the vast majority of worshipers are women. If one looks at the world’s major religions, it is very difficult for a  women to become a Jewish Rabbi, Buddhist monk, or Roman Catholic priest. Looking at the Old Testament, male supremacy is found in many ways. Images of God are male. Females were second to males because Eve was created from Adam’s rib.  The New Testament seems to support gender inequality as well:  Women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive, as the law also says.”(1 Corinthians 14:34).  The issue of gender inequality in Islam has been studied extensively both by Muslims and Non-Muslims alike.

Click on the links below to see how some of the world’s major religions view the role of women.

1.  Insults to Women in the Quran

2.  Women in the Bible

3.  Insults to Women in the Book of Mormon


Religion is often used to deny the fundamental women’s human rights. It is used to justify women’s marginalization in decision making positions, which in return has alienated women from participating and influencing civil and political lives.

The percentage of female seminary students has increased dramatically in the past few decades. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report from 2009 states that women make up approximately 15% of the clergy in the United States.   The stained-glass ceiling is a sociological phenomenon in religious  communities similar to the concept of the “glass ceiling”. This concept revolves around the apparent difficulty for women who seek to gain a role within church leadership. The use of the term “stained-glass ceiling” is metaphorical, indicating a certain level of power or authority within church structures that women tend not to rise above within church hierarchies. This could range from a group’s de jure  barring of women from positions like priest, bishop, pastor, rabbi,  or similar clerical figures, to gender discrimination  at the level of local congregations that prevent women from rising to any role of particular status or power.

The most important U.S. legislation in the gender discrimination area is the Civil rights Act of 1964. It criminalized discrimination in employment on the basis of gender, race, and other grounds. But Section 702  exempts “religious corporations, associations, or societies with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporations, associations, or societies of their religious activities.”

This exemption was widened in 1972 to allow religious groups to discriminate on the basis of an employee’s religion for all activities — not just in their religiously oriented activity. Thus, a denomination could refuse to ordain women and also refuse to hire women to staff their bookstore. The establishment clause of the First amendment guarantees unusual freedom for religious institutions to discriminate in their selection of employees — freedom that is not allowed other employees. There have been many attempts to sue Christian employers on grounds of sexual discrimination; almost all have failed.




Violence Against Females

There exists, even in the application of violence, an existence of gender inequality.  In the United States, as with the rest of the world, women are on the receiving end of more violence than men.  Some of the different forms of violence against women are listed below.

Rape.  The fear of rape is present in women around the world.  In the United States, the rate of rape, for 2008 according to the FBI’s Crime Report was 57.7 per 100,000 females. There is also the modern problem of date rape, where females are forced into unwanted sexual intercourse by men that they know.  Many rapes are never reported.

1.   Rape Statistics

Murder.  In the United States, when a woman is murdered, nine out of ten times the killer is a male.

1.  Women and Firearms Violence Factsheet


Violence in the Home.  Women are often the victims of family violence.  Family violence may take the form of assault and battery, marital rape, or incest.

1.   Domestic Violence in the United States

Gendered Violence.   This form of violence is culturally based and may even have the participation of other women.  Examples would be female genital mutilation and dowry deaths. International agencies have produced documents that have tried to define, as well as, ban gendered violence.

1.   Dowry, Sati, and Child Marriages

2.   Women’s Issues:  Third World

3.   Chinese Foot binding

4.   Accused Witch Burned Alive in Papua New Guinea

5.   Honor Killings Worldwide (2010 Report)

6.  Indian Village Bans Cell Phones for Unwed Women

7.  Hundreds of Girls and Women Jailed in Afghanistan for “Moral” Crimes

8.  Saudi Arabian Women Electronically Tracked

9.  8 Year Old Girl Dies on Wedding Night From Internal Injuries


In the lead up to the 2012 presidential election, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not there was a “war on women”.  Please click on the link below to view a graph that compares the number of women killed in the United States from 2001 – 2012 to the number of US troops killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

1.  War on Women



Gender Violence Throughout a Woman’s Life
Phase Type of Violence
Prenatal Prenatal sex selection, battering during pregnancy, coerced pregnancy (rape during war)
Infancy Female infanticide, emotional and physical abuse, differential access to food and medical care
Childhood Genital cutting; incest and sexual abuse; differential access to food, medical care, and education; child prostitution
Adolescence Dating and courtship violence, economically coerced sex, sexual abuse in the workplace, rape, sexual harassment, forced prostitution
Reproductive Abuse of women by intimate partners, marital rape, dowry abuse and murders, partner homicide, psychological abuse, sexual abuse in the workplace, sexual harassment, rape, abuse of women with disabilities
Old Age Abuse of widows, elder abuse (which affects mostly women)
Source: Heise, L. 1994. Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden. World Bank Discussion Paper. Washington. D.C. The World Bank



action   Social Problems in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

Yentl.  There are many sociology themes here, but the most important would be the prohibition against females studying religious texts.

Doloras Claiborne.   A story that looks at domestic abuse.

The Color Purple.  This movie touches on many sociological subjects, but the main focus is on the struggles of African-American women.


books03 Social Problems in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  The Feminist Mystique  by Betty Friedan

2.  The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America by Ruth Rosen

3.   Burned Alive:  A Victim of the Law of Men   Souad

4.  When God Was a Woman   Merlin Stone






Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca
2012  Social Problems  (Twelfth Edition) Boston:   Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2012  Introduction to Social Problems   (9h Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Copyright ©2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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