Gender – Critical Aspect of Social Inequality

Gender has been defined as a means to serve to reduce assumed parallels between biological and psychological sex or at least make explicit any assumptions of such parallels (Unger 1976, p. 1086). Gender inequality is a prevalent issue in society as a whole, and America is no exception. It is a sociological construct which carves the path in which men and women will live their lives, affecting a broad range of choices and availability of resources (Macionis, 2018). Gender inequality exists due to the fact that women and men are clearly defined as distinctive types of people (Macionis, 2018).

Gender inequality primarily impacts women. For instance, women often encounter a glass ceiling which defines the maximum potential for promotions in their often male dominated professions. Alison Bechdel demonstrated gender inequality in the form of a simple cartoon which depicted a test where a movie passed if it met this criteria: there are at least two female characters with names, those characters interact with one another, and their discussions include something other than men (Macionis, 2018). Applying this test to recent films, analysts claim that around half do not pass this test (Macionis, 2018). This simple test depicts the way in which men dominate society, and while some women do rise above, many hit the glass ceiling. In fact, due to the presence of several forms of gender inequalities, the workplace has been claimed at times to be inhospitable for women (Abrams, 1991).

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Additionally, books and media influence children by presenting stereotypical roles of men and women, with women lacking representation in traditionally male roles (Purcell and Stuart 1990). More over, these influences continue later in life and spread to other means, such as video games, social media and celebrities. Even advertisements perpetuate gender bias and reinforce gender norms, with men in advertisements shown to focus on the product they’re representing, while women focus on the men (Goffman, 1979). In fact, gender is instilled into children even before they are born by parents carefully selecting gender appropriate clothing, such as pink for newborn girls and blue for newborn boys (Zosuls et al., 2001).

Why is it that gender exists at all? In earlier times, the use of gender and the roles each sex played were more abundant than in today’s time. The differences in biological make up that each sex carried were far more important (Macionis, 2018). For instance, in the time of hunters and gatherers, there was no means of controlling pregnancy and reproduction, which burdened women as being caretakers of their many children (Macionis, 2018). Because women were bound to their homes and their children, women were forced to construct their roles around the home (Macionis, 2018). Thus, women often took on such jobs as planting and gathering vegetation to provide food for themselves and their family (Macionis, 2018). Men, on the other hand, boasting their stronger and larger size due to the biological differences in their genetic make up, often took on the role of hunting or warfare, which left the women, again, with no choice but to be bound to their homes (Macionis, 2018).

As time continued on, gender roles became less and less fundamental. When the Industrial Revolution took place, there were effective means of preventing pregnancy (Macionis, 2018). The ability to decide when and if to get pregnant gave women more of a choice in their home-maker status. Additionally, the Industrial Revolution developed more advanced technology that diminished the need for physical strength in the workplace and for economic production as a whole (Macionis, 2018). Many advances in technology and changes to society that have followed in the time after the Industrial Revolution have led to gender roles becoming less and less of a determinant for what kind of job one may possess.

With the need for gender to exist diminishing more and more with each step society and technology takes, what is it that makes gender still relevant? One may turn to sociological perspectives in order to gain insight on such a question. According to the structural-functional theory, gender is society’s recognition that women and men differ in some respects (Macionis, 2018, p. 118). Gender is viewed as complementarity, meaning the differences between men and women are limited but important (Macionis, 2018). Gender, according to the structural-functional approach, defines the different obligations each sex is required to perform (Macionis, 2018). Due to these differences, the genders are complementary in the way in which both sexes rely on one another to perform their duties, which is said to bring unity to families and in a broader sense, communities as a whole (Macionis, 2018).

Talcott Parsons, who was born in 1902 and passed away in 1979, was an American sociologist. Parsons developed the most well known theory of gender in the realm of structural functional outlooks (Macionis, 2018). According to Parsons, the differences in gender continue to grow smaller as time moves forward, yet are still encouraged by modern societies as they are a useful integration tool and encourage the sexes to work together (Macionis, 2018). The main point of specification of this is that gender is defined in a complementary way that encourages both men and women to rely on one another and see one another as an asset (Macionis, 2018). For example, women are child bearers, and the biological drive in men to produce offspring brings the two genders together. Due to this reliance, both genders see benefits in forming a relationship and, more importantly, a family (Macionis, 2018).

Despite the diminishing differences in women and men, women are traditionally still deemed as the primary caretaker of the household, while men are seen as the primary wealth holder and are deemed responsible for the economic advancement of the family (Macionis, 2018). In order to achieve a society in which the genders work complementarily, gender differences are engrained into a person starting from a young age (Macionis, 2018). For example, masculinity is an instrumental orientation, emphasizing rationality, competition, and a focus on goals (Macionis, 2018, p. 118). Femininity, on the other hand, involves an opposing expressive orientation: emotional responsiveness, cooperation, and concern for other people and relationships (Macionis, 2018, p. 118). These inherent differences in upbringing result in women smiling more, and maintaining politeness in situations where they would rather not. Societies pressures to fill these gender roles lead to disapproval of those who go against their gender norms, who often find loss of sex appeal amongst the disapproval (Macionis, 2018).

Today, the structural-functional theory is seen as less influential than when it was initially introduced fifty years ago (Macionis, 2018). This is partly due to the theories approach in reinforcing and rationalizing traditional gender roles, with some seeing complementary roles as a weakly disguised vail for male domination (Macionis, 2018). Additionally, the approach does not fully explain all roles that genders take and ignores those that do not fit into a clear cutting block. For instance, women and men do not need to see value in their gender differences to interact with one another. Moreover, their interactions may not fit into the traditional gender norm laid out by Parsons, as work roles (instrumental) are often not the same role one takes on in a relationship (expressive) (Macionis, 2018). Finally, the theory is said to ignore the issues caused by gender roles and norms, which falls heavily on the shoulders of those who stray from traditional roles in their lives. This fault has been made apparent in recent years as transgender or non-binary individuals continue to suffer from the insensitivities of persons who see gender roles as unchanging.

The social-conflict theory is another tool for analyzing gender in society. Rather than view genders as being complementary, the theory views the issue of gender inequality vertically (Macionis, 2018). The social-conflict theory asserts that gender is a divisive part of society, rather than a means of unification like the structural functional approach suggests. Friedrech Engels, who was born in 1820 and passed away in 1895, was a friend of Karl Marx and thus was very familiar with Marx’s thinking (Macionis, 2018). Engels believed capitalism to lead to the dominant position men hold over women, and the basis of this assertion is laid out by examining the evolution of society from hunting and gathering, to capitalism (Macionis, 2018).

Looking back at the time of hunters and gatherers, the social-conflict theory asserts that while men and women took on different roles, both roles were necessary and vital (Macionis, 2018). For instance, women played just as crucial a role by providing vegetation as men did when they were hunting (Macionis, 2018). Due to the necessity and importance of both roles, the social-conflict theory claims that simple societies such as those of the hunter-gatherers were close to achieving gender equality.

However, as time passed and industrial advancements were made (such as raising livestock and gardening), the availability of goods rose and some individuals or families were able to obtain a surplus of goods (Macionis, 2018). This addition of surplus goods led to the rise of social classes, with those enjoying the majority of the surplus becoming wealthy (Macionis, 2018). With the formation of social classes came the idea of private property, which was used as a means of the wealthy retaining their surplus of goods (Macionis, 2018). The idea of private property then led to the dominance of men over women, as men wished to carry on their legacies through their sons, rather than their partners (Macionis, 2018). Again, women were soon seen as their beneficial role being that of the caretaker of their homes and children.

As time passed on and technological advancements grew, capitalism came to rise and so did the male-dominated capitalist class (Macionis, 2018, p. 120). In order to continue the patriarchal society formed with capitalism, women were led to discover happiness in the form of male partnership, and domestic life and duties, while men were driven to factories to work long hours (Macionis, 2018). Women were taught to seek a man in order to prosper and survive, rather than forming their own financial independence by obtaining jobs. Both gender norms coincided to reinforce the ideal that women were responsible for the entirety of the housework, again reinforcing gender inequality.

However, the social- conflict theory is not without its own critics. Critics assert that families, despite being patriarchal, are still a necessity as they provide a means of both having and raising children (Macionis, 2018). Additionally, the theory fails to account for the fact that not all differences between men and women are seen as unjust (Macionis, 2018). For example, even in today’s society there are many people of both genders who are happy to take on the role of caregiver to their children while their partner provides economically. Finally, critics point out that Engels assertion of capitalism as the route of gender stratification does not hold true in the world today, as many socialist nations still have patriarchal societies (Macionis, 2018).

As previously asserted, gender does in fact impact society and furthermore the lives that make up such a society. Gender typically is connected to varying levels of power, with men often enjoying more freedom to behave in different ways (Macionis, 2018). For example, men in Hollywood often still portray sexier roles on screen as they age and society accepts this, even if their counterpart in the illustrious relationship is far younger. However, as women age in Hollywood we do not see the same hold true for them. Furthermore, women are judged more harshly for traits like assertiveness, and more often take on softer traits that rely on politeness (Smith-Lovin & Brody, 1989). The symbolic-interaction theory investigates gender roles in a smaller lens than that of the structural function approach, focusing on these daily interactions in everyday life (Macionis, 2018).

The symbolic-interaction theory asserts that gender norms are engrained into our society by the means that we use it every day, and thus is a vital part of our society. For example, gender influences the relative freedom one may feel to make certain decisions, facial expressions, or clothing choices. Women are judged more heavily on their facial expressions, and the desire to be polite has led them to smile more (Macionis, 2018). Additionally, women typically are judged more harshly for taking up more space, as daintiness is seen as a feminine trait, while men are more likely to be seen as masculine for taking up more space (Macionis, 2018). It is also generally expected in society that a woman will take a mans last name when married (Macionis, 2018). While the symbolic-interaction theory allows insight into the daily ways in which gender influences society, it fails to account for a broader stance on how gender actually shapes society as a whole (Macionis, 2018).

It is unlikely that the source of gender inequality will ever be agreed upon. However, it is abundantly clear the gender does perform a role in society. As society continues to advance, it is likely the world will continue to see gender roles redefined. With the emergence of new genders, and sexual orientations, gender roles will continue to change. In fact, there are already notable differences in gender traits (masculinity, femininity) in those of straight white women versus their counterparts of other sexual orientations (Kachel, Steffens, & Niedlich, 2016).

What is not apparent, is whether or not gender equality will be reached. Today, women are still viewed as being primarily responsible for routine housework, while men are expected to do non-routine chores (Geist, 2018). This is in part due to the fact that women can produce children, and the role of becoming a mother often leads to women falling behind men in their careers, contributing to the gender wage gap (Slaughter, 2012).

What remains unclear is whether or not gender equality will be achieved, and if it is, will everyone agree on it? The social-conflict theory claims gender equality was close to being achieved at the time of hunter-gatherers, however, whether men and women felt that way at the time is debatable. The structural functional approach claims that gender roles are necessary for unification between men and women, and while this may hold some merit, in a broader sense this ideal is flawed for not recognizing the inequality in value held for both necessary roles (male and female). For society to unlearn the societal norms that have led to the clear division between men and women gender roles will take a notable effort from society as a whole, as well as vast amounts of time.

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