Chapter Study Outline

Gender Differences: Nature versus Nurture

  • Sex in the sense of physical difference is distinct from gender (masculine and feminine), which concerns cultural and psychological differences. It is not easy to determine which observable differences are due to biology (sex) and which are socially constructed (gender). Arguments from animal behavior are usually ambiguous. Some researchers claim, for instance, that hormones explain such differences as greater male aggressiveness, but it may be that aggressive behavior causes changes in hormone levels. Studies of gender differences from a variety of human societies have shown no conclusive evidence that gender is biologically determined; rather, biological differences seem to provide a means of differentiating social roles.
  • Studies of parent-infant interactions reveal that boys and girls are treated differently from birth; the same features and behaviors are interpreted as either masculine or feminine, depending on the parents' expectations.

Forms of Gender Inequality

  • Patriarchy refers to male dominance over women. There are few known societies that are not patriarchal, although the degree and character of inequalities between the sexes varies across cultures. In the United States, women have made considerable progress yet are still unequal in many ways.
  • Women's participation in the paid labor force has risen steadily, especially that of married women and especially in expanding areas of the economy. Many women, however, are poorly paid and have dim career prospects. Even women who are successful in the corporate world face discrimination in the form of cultural expectations about the proper role of women in society.
  • The increasing number of women in the labor force has affected family responsibilities such as child care and housework. Though men contribute more to these responsibilities now than in the past, women still shoulder the bulk of the work. For working women, these household obligations constitute a "second shift."
  • The ways schools are organized and classes are taught sustain gender inequalities. Rules specifying appropriate dress for girls and boys encourage sex typing, as do texts containing established gender images. There is evidence that teachers treat girls and boys differently, and there is a long history of specialized subjects for separate sexes.
  • Violence by men against women occurs in many societies-in the form of spousal abuse, rape, and sexual harassment, for example. Most common is rape, the forcing of nonconsensual intercourse. Some scholars argue that women are often the targets of sexual violence because men are socialized to see women as sex objects and to feel a sense of sexual entitlement to women.

Gender Inequality in Global Perspective

  • Women worldwide work in the lowest-wage jobs and make less than men doing similar work—although there is some evidence that the wage gap is decreasing slowly, at least in industrialized countries. In developing countries, women experience exploitative job conditions. Yet their enhanced economic role has sometimes brought increased economic independence and greater social status.
  • Women do not share the same political power as men, although thirty-eight countries have been headed by a woman since World War II. The United States is about average among countries in terms of women's representation in the national legislature but has never had a woman president.
  • Gender is one of the most important dimensions of inequality, although it was neglected in the study of stratification for a long time. Although there are few societies in which women have more wealth and status than men, there are significant variations in how women's and men's roles are valued. Sociologists have argued that gender inequalities are not fixed. They have also drawn attention to the links among gender inequality, race, and class.

Analyzing Gender Inequality

  • Functionalists emphasize that gender differences and the sexual division of labor contribute to social stability and integration. Feminist approaches reject the idea that gender inequality is natural. Liberal feminists explain gender inequality in terms of social and cultural attitudes, such as sexism and discrimination. Radical feminists argue that men are responsible for the exploitation of women through patriarchy—the systematic domination of females by males. Black feminists identify factors such as class and ethnicity, in addition to gender, as essential for understanding the oppression experienced by nonwhite women.

Why Gender Inequality Matters

  • The main message emerging from the Beijing Women's Conference was that when cultural traditions conflict with women's rights, women's rights should take precedence. The United Nations General Assembly reaffirmed these principles.
  • Globalization is expected to enhance women's roles in economics and politics, resulting in greater shift toward gender equality worldwide.