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01.12 Gender Inequality

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  1. Outline
    1. Gender vs. Sex
    2. Sociological perspectives
    3. Gender inequalities in data
    4. Conclusions
  2. Gender vs. sex
    1. Sex: biological differences between males and females
    2. Gender: social and cultural differences
    3. Gender inequality: when members of one gender category consistently receive more valued resources than another
    4. White both sex and gender are important, sociologist’s main focus is on gender. Gender inequality has been an ever-present aspect of human societies dating back 10,000 to the invention of agriculture.
  3. Sociological perspectives
    1. Structural-functional
      1. Structural-functional thinking points to possible benefits of gender inequality. The possible benefit is that a gendered division of labor clarifies expectations and allows society to run smoothly. This is easy to criticize today as society has undergone significant changes yet this perspective is perhaps best to suited to helping us understand the emergence of gender inequality. It emerged initially because it provided a benefit to society.
    2. Conflict
      1. The conflict perspective view gender inequality through the lens of competition between men and women. The argument is that men have purposefully worked to keep women in their place by creating a system in which “women’s work” is not as valued. Men can be found disproportionately in influential and powerful positions and use this influence/power to maintain that gender advantage. Thus, gender inequality is maintained via coercion and force.
    3. Symbolic Interaction
      1. This perspective highlights how differences in socialization contribute to gender inequality. Essentially, because as a society we treat boys and girls differently, they come to define and view themselves differently. These differences translate to differences in behavior and thus some level of gender inequality is maintained via different gender identities.
  4. Gender inequalities in data
    1. There is considerable variation globally in the presence on anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. Roughly half of African countries, the Middle East, and Asian countries do not have such laws. Importantly, 17 0f the 20 countries that have the lowest female employment rates do not have anti-discrimination laws. This makes sense as these societies feel less pressure to create these laws.
    2. There is also considerable variation globally in the presence of domestic violence laws. Most countries in Afria, the Middle East, and western Europe do not have them. Even despite having these laws, there are still countries in which 40% of women report experiencing domestic violence. This shows that changing behavior is not as simple as enacting regulations.
    3. In the U.S. labor force, women comprise only 5% of top CEOs, yet occupy 63% of low wage jobs. Among the top 10% earners in the U.S., women only made up 15% of that population as of 2015. This is staggering when we consider that women make up over 50% of the entire population.
  5. Conclusions
    1. Sex is biological; gender is social/cultural.
    2. Sociological perspectives help us understand the nature of gender inequalities.
      1. Structural-functional thinking highlights possible advantages of gender inequality
      2. Conflict thinking argues gender inequality is the direct result of coercion via men
      3. Symbolic interactionist thinking argues gender inequalities are maintained via differences in gender identity
    3. Gender inequalities manifest today in many distinct ways both globally and in the U.S.

Reference Links

Video Transcript

Welcome in everyone. Today we’re going to be talking about Gender Inequality. 


To start things off we will distinguish gender from sex. While both are important concepts to understand, our focus will largely be on gender. Next, we will tackle different sociological perspectives that give us insight into understanding how gender impacts society. Building on these understandings, we will examine some data that shows existing gender inequalities globally and in the United States. We will finish with some main points and important takeaways.


Right off the bat, lets distinguish between gender and sex. Sex refers to biological differences between males and females. Gender on the other hands refers to social and cultural differences. Think about sex as male/female and gender as masculine/feminine. Males can be masculine or feminine just as females can be masculine or feminine. Sexual /biological differences are important, but for sociologists, gender is more important to understand.

Our focus for the remainder of this lesson will be on gender inequality. Gender inequality occurs when members of one gender category consistently receive more valued resources than members of another. Gender inequalities have been an ever-present component of human society since the invention of agriculture. As our society has changed over the past 10,000 years gender inequalities have become an ingrained part of our social fabric. In many parts of the western world, gender inequalities are not as extreme as they once were but still manifest in various ways today.

Each of the 3 major sociological perspectives can help us understand the roots of gender inequality and also why gender inequalities are resistant to change. Let’s begin with the structural-functional perspective. Recall, the structural-functional perspective views our social world as one interconnected system in which each part of society performs a function. So a structural-functional thinker would ask, what might the function or benefits of gender inequality be? A structural-functional take on gender inequality might argue that it was useful throughout most of human history to have a clear division of labor between men and women. This clarifies roles, eliminates conflict, and perhaps allows family life and society to run smoothly. Today, structural-functionalists would have a hard time explaining why gender inequality is still so pervasive given the changes that society has seen. Yet, this perspective may help us understand the emergence of gender inequality historically. It may have emerged because it was functional for society.

The conflict perspective views our social world through the lens of domination and power struggle between the haves and have-nots. Thus, conflict theorists view gender inequality through the perspective of men vs. women. In this view, gender inequality began and continues via overt and purposeful action by men. They  argue that men have purposefully created a system in which many jobs that are less-valued by society are viewed as “women’s work” such as secretarial or secondary education work. In turn this has created a society in which a disproportionate amount of men are found in prestigious business and political positions. In this fashion, men hold disproportionate power and influence relative to women, and use it purposefully to keep women down. Thus,  gender inequality is maintained via coercion and force.


Our 3rd and last perspective, symbolic interactionism focuses on how gender is a process and not a stationary concept. Symbolic interactionists highlight differences in socialization between boys from girls. Think back to your own experiences as a child. Did your parents and others treat you in specific ways because of your sex? If you are female, did your parents paint your room pink, buy you dolls to play with and maybe restrict you from playing with toy guns? If you are male, did your parents encourage you to play sports, dress you in blue, and prevent you from playing with dolls? Experiences for any child will be different yet there are consistent patterns in our society by which young boys and girls are treated differently. This different treatment results in boys and girls internalizing ideas about what it means to be a “boy”, “girl”, “male”, or “female”. Therefore, boys and girls behave differently, not because they are inherently different but because society socializes them to behave differently. So for symbolic interactionists, gender inequality is maintained as we develop gender identities that drive our behavior. Gender is learned and perpetuated overtime via socialization. It is not a stagnate concept but rather a process.


Alright, so we now understand the difference between sex and gender, and have an understanding of how gender inequality is viewed via the 3 different sociological perspectives. Let’s examine some data that demonstrates the reality of gender inequality globally and then in the United States. Globally, there is considerable distribution in the legality of discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender. While the U.S., most of Europe, China, India, & Brazil do have such laws, roughly half of African, South American, and Asian countries do not. Notably, Canada did not have such legislation as of 2017.


Notably, according to the World Bank, 17 of the 20 countries with the lowest female employment to population ratios don’t have nondiscrimination laws. This is easy to make sense of. If women are not working much outside the home, then there is less pressure on a society to enact laws protecting them from gender discrimination in the workplace. On the flip side, employment rates for women are highest in places that have laws preventing gender discrimination in hiring. This is a great example of how society and gender interact to impact human behavior. Especially for women, your life can be extremely different depending upon where you are born. If you are born in the U.S. you are much more likely to work and be protected from discrimination than if you are born in many other places around the world.



Another snapshot of global gender inequalities involves criminal penalties for domestic violence. While almost all countries in the Americas have criminal penalties for domestic violence, most countries in Africa, the Middle East, and western Europe (including Russia) do not. According to the world bank, in Afghanistan where there are no penalties, over 45% of women report violence from an intimate partner. Even more worrying, in many countries that do have laws, up to 40% of women still report violence from an intimate partner. Changing behavior is not as simple as enacting legal regulations. This is another example of how gender and society combine to influence human behavior. While men and women both are victims are domestic violence, women are more likely to be impacted. Imagine how your living in a country that does not have clear legal penalties for domestic violence might impact your life?

Let’s look now specifically at some data that shows the extent of gender inequality in the United States in the workplace. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, women only comprise about 5% of the CEO positions at fortune 500 companies. This is despite women comprising greater than 50% of the total U.S. population. On the flip side below, women comprise around 63% of all minimum wage jobs. All told, these data show some large inequalities between men and women in the workplace. Women are less likely to be found at top and more likely to be found at the bottom.


As you might imagine, the inequalities between men and women in the workplace translate to large differences in income as well. Among the top 10% earners in the United States women comprised 5% as of 1960, 10% in 1985, and around 27% in 2015. Among the top 1% this drops to 3% in 1960, 5% in 1985, and 15% as of 2015. Narrowing even further, among the top 0.1%, women only comprise 10% as of 2015. As women as have a much smaller share of valuable assets in the form of jobs and wages in the United States, it is much harder for women to make their voice heard and push for change on issues they care about.


Alright, let’s wrap up today’s lesson. Sex refers to biological differences between males and females. Gender refers to social and cultural differences. Sociological perspectives gives us insights into the causes of gender inequalities. Structural-functional thinking points us towards advantages early societies may have had with a gendered division of labor. Conflict thinking argues that men have purposefully kept women down via greater power and influence. Symbolic interactionists argue that gender is a process and not a stagnate characteristic. Lastly, we saw that gender inequalities manifest in many ways both globally and in the U.S. including discrimination laws, occupational status, and income.


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