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Social Sci LibreTexts

8.1E: Gender

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  • Along with economic class and race, society is stratified by gender, with women often holding a lower social position than men.

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the effects of gender discrimination on women’s employment and wealth

    Key Points

    • In the labor force, women are often relegated to lower status jobs, lower wages, and fewer promotions and raises than their male counterparts.
    • Sexism is discrimination against a person on the basis of their sex, and tends to result in disadvantages for women who do not embrace their traditional gender role as mother and household overseer.
    • Women’s participation in the labor force also varies depending on marital status and social class.

    Key Terms

    • sexism: The belief that people of one sex or gender are inherently superior to people of the other sex or gender.
    • Motherhood Penalty: The loss of pay and promotions among women due to the perceived association between women and the demands of childrearing.
    • Informal Economies: Employment domains that are not regulated by governments and law enforcement.

    Economic class, race, and gender shape the opportunities, the privileges, and the inequalities experienced by individuals and groups. The United States continues to be greatly stratified along these three lines.

    Capitalism also takes advantage of gender inequality. Women workers are often used as a source of cheap labor in informal economies, or employment domains that are not regulated by governments and law enforcement. For example, women work for low wages without health benefits as nannies and maids in New York, in clothing sweatshops in Los Angeles, and on rose farms in Ethiopia. In formal economies, women often receive less pay and have less chances for promotion than men. This phenomenon is referred to as the gender gap in employment.

    Current U.S. labor force statistics illustrate women’s changing role in the labor force. For instance, since 1971, women’s participation in the labor force has grown from 32 million (43.4% of the female population 16 and over) to 68 million (59.2% of the female population 16 and over). Women also make, on average, $17,000 less than men do. Women tend to be concentrated in less prestigious and lower paying occupations than men, particularly those that are traditionally considered women’s jobs or pink-collar jobs. Women’s participation in the labor force also varies depending on marital status and social class.

    Sociological research shows that women are not paid the same wages as men for similar work. Women tend to make between 75% and 91% of what men make for comparable work, with the highest inequality between men and women found among those with college and graduate degrees. The fact that women earn less than men with equal qualifications helps explain why women are enrolling in college at higher rates than men — they require a college education to make the same amount as men with a high school diploma. The income gap between genders used to be similar between middle-class and affluent workers, but it is now widest among the most highly paid. A woman earning in the 95th percentile in 2006 would earn about $95,000 per year; a man in the 95th earning percentile would make about $115,000, a 28% difference.


    Average Earnings of Full-Time, Year-Round Workers by Educational Attainment in 2006, Constant Dollars: Wages based upon gender and education point to a distinctive glass ceiling as it pertains to women in the workplace.

    The most common explanation for the wage gap between men and women is the finding that women pay a motherhood penalty, regardless of whether or not they are actually mothers. This can be explained from the perspective of a potential employer: assuming you have two equally qualified candidates for a position, both are in their mid-twenties, married, and straight out of college, but one is a male and the other is female, which would you choose? Many employers choose men over women because women are “at risk” of having a child, even though they may not want to have children. The employer considers women who have children to be cumbersome, based on the expectation that women will take maternity leave and will be primarily responsible for childrearing. If women do actually take time off to bear and raise children, this further reduces the likelihood that they will be considered for raises or promotions.


    Sexism is discrimination against people based on their sex or gender, and can result in lower social status for women. Sexism can refer to three subtly different beliefs or attitudes: the belief that one sex is superior to the other; the belief that men and women are very different and that this should be strongly reflected in society, language, and the law; the simple hatred of men (misandry) or women (misogyny). Many peoples’ beliefs about sex equality range along a continuum. Some people believe that women should have equal access with men to all jobs, while others believe that while women are superior to men in a few aspects, in most aspects men are superior to women.

    Sexist beliefs are an example of essentialist thought, which holds that individuals can be understood (and often discriminated against) based on the characteristics of the group to which they belong–in this case, their gender.

    Sexism has been linked to widespread gender discrimination. One example is the disparity in wealth between men and women in the U.S. Sociological research has shown that there are fewer wealthy women than there are wealthy men and that they are less likely to control the management of their own wealth. Up until the 19th Century most women could not own property and women’s participation in the paid labor force outside the home was limited. It is possible that wealth among the elite may be redistributed toward a more equal balance between the sexes with increasing numbers of women entering the workforce and moving toward more financially lucrative positions in major corporations.



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