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Gender stratification refers to the level of inequality in society based on gender, the social characteristics associated with sex. Specifically, gender stratification refers to the differential ability of men and women to access society’s resources and to receive its privileges. As gender stratification increases, so does the level of gender inequality, reflecting greater differences between men’s and women’s access to power. Because historically men have garnered greater social power, gender inequality has systematically disadvantaged women. Gender inequality is complicated, moreover, by the intersection of gender with race/ethnicity, social class, age, and sexuality.
Original applications of the terms sex and gender tended to confuse the two, which were often used interchangeably. More recently, most sociologists have begun to distinguish between them, agreeing that the terms should apply to different, but related, concepts. While sex is defined in terms of biology and the reproductive organs one is born with, gender is typically seen in more social terms, as society’s idea of how people should be, based on their biological sex. Gender, that is, is socially constructed to reflect society’s expectations about how men and women should act, dress, move, and comport themselves in the context of everyday social interaction.
Under what conditions did gender inequality originate and under what conditions has it been maintained? Early answers to this question drew on biological differences between men and women and their associated reproductive functions to posit a ”natural” division of labor between the two. Accordingly, men were seen as having evolved from hunters to family breadwinners and providers, with women as childbearing, childrearing, and domestic experts. More sophisticated study of pre-modern societies, however, has discredited many of these assumptions, pointing to more diversity and fluidity in men’s and women’s roles than a natural division of labor could explain.
The women’s movement has been instrumental in reducing gender inequality. In the USA, the first wave of the movement emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a reaction to women’s lack of power in both the public and private spheres. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are well-known as initiators of the movement, which ultimately turned its sights toward women’s suffrage. After gaining the vote in 1920, the women’s movement in the US became relatively inactive for the next 50 years, only to reemerge in the 1970s. This second wave of feminism reinvigorated the quest for women’s empowerment in marriage and family and sought to equalize women’s involvement and opportunity in institutions such as the labor force, education, law, and politics. While the struggle for women’s equality is far from over, second wave feminism was able to mobilize many women (and men) on behalf of women’s rights, overturning a number of institutionalized inequities embedded in law and promoting women’s involvement in professional occupations and politics at the highest levels.
Nevertheless, both in the USA and globally, women continue to be negatively affected by gender stratification. Although inroads have been made, gender persists as a core organizing structure around which inequality is arranged. In the workplace, occupations remain gender segregated overall, with ”women’s work” providing lower pay, fewer benefits, and less security than ”men’s work,” even if comparable in form or content. At home, women continue to shoulder the lion’s share of household labor, child care, and domestic responsibility, even when employed in the paid labor force. These trends, moreover, extend globally, such that while women now constitute over a third of the world’s labor force, they also, according to the Population Crisis Committee (1988), constitute 70 percent of the world’s poor.
In some arenas, gender stratification appears to be declining; in others, it does not. Evidence of the former comes in the form of men’s increasing participation in household labor and child care, once thought to be exclusively women’s work. Evidence of the latter can be seen in the intractability of the gender wage gap and the glass ceiling that women bump up against in the paid labor force. Moreover, while men are, in fact, sharing more labor in the home, most of the increase can be explained by women who do less rather than by men who do substantially more. Nevertheless, as women continue to press for equality and men recognize the benefits that shared parenting and involved partnering have for them, gender equality is more likely than not to become the norm rather than the exception.
- Chafetz, J. S. (1990) Gender Equity: An Integrated Theory of Stability and Change. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.
- Coltrane, S. & Collins, R. (2001) Sociology of Marriage and the Family: Gender, Love, and Property. Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.