Real Equality Between Men and Women in Society

In 1848, slavery was legal in much of the United States and the social standing of all women, regardless of color, was far below that of men. Back then, in much of the country, women could not own property, keep their wages if they were married, file lawsuits in a court (including lawsuits seeking custody of their children), or attend college, and husbands were widely viewed as having unquestioned authority over their wives and children. Some 300 women gathered at Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls to challenge this second-class citizenship, call for expanding women’s right and opportunities, including the right to vote.

At that time, most people considered such a proposal absurd and outrageous. Even many attending the conference were shocked by the idea (Gurnett, 1998, as cited in Macionis, 2010). Much has changed since the Seneca Falls convention, and many proposals are now widely accepted as matters of basic justice. However, despite declarations of equality, women and men still lead different lives, either in the United States or elsewhere in the world; in most respects, men are still in charge. Half the world’s population still suffers discrimination.

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Many cultures favor sons, reinforcing a mind-set that women are less than equal. Therefore, in this paper we will examine the economic, political, social, and cultural devaluation of women. Why does gender inequality appear? Is gender discrimination inevitable? What are the barriers to gender equality and how can we achieve it? After a long history of fighting for women’s right, the question remains as to what extent are men and women able to achieve real equality in our society. Sex and Gender

Before we proceed, it is better to make clear of the terms sex and gender, because people generally mix them up. Sex refers to the biological distinction between females and males. It is the way the human species reproduces. A child’s sex in this manner is determined biologically at the moment of conception. The sex of an embryo guides its development. If the embryo is male, the growth of testicular tissue starts to produce large amounts of testosterone, a hormone that triggers the development of male genitals (sex organs).

If little testosterone is present, the embryo develops female genitals. Some differences in the body set males and females apart. Right from birth, the two sexes have different primary sex characteristics—the genitals (organs used for reproduction). Later they develop secondary sex characteristics—bodily development. Mature females have wider hips for giving birth, milk-producing breasts for nurturing infants, and deposits of soft, fatty tissue that provide a reserve supply of nutrition during pregnancy and breast feeding. Mature males typically develop more muscle in the upper body.

Gender is an element of culture and refers to the personal traits, patterns of behavior (including responsibilities, opportunities, and privileges), and social positions that members of a society assign to being female or male. It is a dimension of social organization, shaping how we interact with others and how we think about ourselves. More importantly, gender involves hierarchy, ranking men and women differently in terms of power, wealth, and other resources. This is why gender stratification occurs, the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privilege between men and women.

In short, gender affects the opportunities and challenges we face throughout our lives. Differences between Male and Female Many people think there is something “natural” about gender distinctions because biology does make one sex different from the other. But we must be careful not to think of social differences in biological terms. Some differences in physical ability between the sexes, on average, males are 10 percent taller, 20 percent heavier, and 30 percent stronger, especially in the upper body. On the other hand, women have a higher life expectancy than men in the United States, 80. to 75. 4 years (Ehrenreich, 1999, as cited in Macionis, 2010). However, there is no clear cut in differences between male and female. Biology does not guarantee that any born male would be stronger than female. Some females do outperform males in terms of strength. An example would be a decreasing performance gap between males and females in marathon competition. Biologically, then, men and women differ in limited ways; neither one is naturally superior. But culture can define the two sexes very differently, as the study of division of labor described in the next section shows.

Division of Labor by Gender in Pre-Industrial Societies According to the cross-cultural study by Murdock and Provost (1973, as cited in Kottak, 2011), data from 185 selected societies on the division of labor by gender illustrates generalities rather than universals. Swing activities are assigned to either or both women and men. Among the tasks almost always assigned to men, some (e. g. , hunting large animals, plowing) seem clearly related to the greater average size and strength of men while women generally do domestic activities such as child care and cooking. Women tend to be the main caregivers in most societies.

Given the critical role of breast-feeding in ensuring infant survival, it makes sense, for infants especially, for the mother to be the primary caregivers. This strong differentiation between the home and the outside world—called the domestic public dichotomy or the private-public contrast—promote gender stratification, that is, unequal distribution of rewards (socially valued resources, power, prestige, human rights, and personal freedom) between men and women, reflecting their different positions in a social hierarchy. The outside world can include politics, trade, warfare, or work.

Often when domestic and public spheres are clearly separated, public activities has greater prestige than domestic ones do. Certain gender roles are more sex-linked than others. Men are the usual hunters and warriors because they are bigger and stronger on the average than are women in the same population. This reflects a tendency toward greater male mobility, while women are either pregnant or lactating during most of their childbearing period. Late in pregnancy and after childbirth, carrying a baby limits a woman’s movements. Thus they were cut off from production, and belief systems started view them as inferior.

Gender stratification increases when men contribute much more to the diet than women do. Although a gendered division of labor existed, there was much variation and flexibility. In some places women were very active in trade and shopkeeping, which could give them independence and lead to their playing important public roles. The gendering of the pre-industrial division of labor was quite flexible. The greater uncertainties of life in pre-industrial societies made it necessary for the various members of a household to cooperate in a flexible way. Industrial Societies

After a long history from foraging, horticulturalists, and agriculturalists societies, now moving on to industrial societies, the household became increasingly separated from production, and the nuclear family with one breadwinner became the dominant form. This development of the nuclear family—generally patriarchal—involved changes in power relationships. The domestic division of labor was central to the patriarchal nuclear family of the nineteenth century. Men went out to work and controlled the family income while women were confined within the home doing the housework and bringing up children.

This, according to Marxist, was industrial capitalism that brought about domestic division of labor. With industrialization there was a much sharper separation of paid work from the household. This resulted in a more systematic separation of male and female spheres. In the middle class there was a clear separation of the male sphere of work and, more generally, public life from the female domestic sphere. Women were excluded from public activities and more than ever confined within the home. Industrialism and Contemporary Women’s Movement Under industrialism, attitudes about gendered work came to vary with class and region.

After abolition, southern African American women continued working as field hands and domestics. Poor white women labored in the South’s early cotton mills. In the 1890s, more than one million American women held menial, repetitious, and unskilled factory positions (Margolis, 1984, as cited in Kottak, 2011). Poor, immigrant, and African American women continued to work throughout the 20th century. After 1900, European immigration produced a male labor force willing to work for wages lower than those of American-born men. Those immigrant men moved into factory jobs that previously had gone to women.

As machine tools and mass production further reduced the need for female labor, the notion that women were biologically unfit for factory work began to gain ground. All these show how gendered work, attitudes, and beliefs have varied in response to culture or environment. For example, wartime shortages of men have promoted the idea that work outside the home is women’s patriotic duty. During the world wars, the notion that women are biologically unfit for hard physical labor faded. Inflation and the culture of consumption have also spurred female employment.

When prices and demand rises, multiple paychecks help maintain family living standards. The steady increase in female paid employment since World War II also reflects the industrial expansion. American culture has traditionally defined clerical work, teaching, and nursing as female occupations. With rapid population growth and business expansion after World War II, the demand for women to fill such jobs grew steadily. Employers also found that they could increase their profit by paying women lower wages than they would have to pay returning male war veterans.

These changes in the economy lead to changes in attitudes toward and about women. Economic changes paved the way for the contemporary women’s movement, which also was spurred by the founding of NOW, the National Organization for Women, in 1966. The movement in turn promoted expanded work opportunities for women, including the goal of equal pay for equal work. Back in 1900, just 20 percent of U. S. women were in the labor force. Today, the figure has tripled to 60 percent, and 72 percent of these working women work full time (U. S. Department of Labor, 2008, as cited in Macionis, 2010).

Women now also fill more than half (57 percent) of all professional jobs (Statistical Abstract of the U. S. 2009, as cited in Kottak, 2011). The once common view that earning income is man’s role no longer holds true. Inequality in Workplace Nowadays, jobs aren’t especially demanding in terms of physical labor. With machines to do the heavy work, the smaller average body size and lesser average strength of women are no longer impediments to blue-collar employment. Yet, although women are closing the gap with men as far as working for income is concerned, the work done by the two sexes remains very different.

The U. S. Department of Labor (2008, as cited in Macionis, 2010) reports a high concentration of women in two job types, namely administrative support and service work. The reports showed ten occupations with the highest concentrations of women tend to be at the low end of the pay scale, with limited opportunities for advancement and with men as supervisors. Men on the other hand dominate most other job categories, including the building trades, police officers, engineers, physicians and surgeons, lawyers, and corporate managers.

A recent survey shows that only twelve of the Fortune 400 companies in the Unites States have a woman chief executive officer, and only 15 percent of the seats of corporate boards of directors are held by women. The 25 highest-paid executives in the United States do not include any women at all. How are women kept out of certain jobs? By defining some kinds of work as “men’s work”, companies define women as less competent than men. Most men considered it “unnatural” for women to work in the mines. Women who did so were defined as deviant and subject to labeling as “sexually loose” or as lesbians.

Such labeling made these women outcasts, presented a challenge to their holding the job, and made advancement all but impossible. This barrier, described as a glass ceiling, although is not easy to see, but blocks women’s careers all the same. The two main reasons women earn less are the type of work they do and family responsibility. People still perceive jobs with less clout as “women’s work”, just as people devalue certain work simply because it is performed by women. And although both men and women have children, our culture gives more responsibility for parenting to women.

Pregnancy and raising small children keep many young women out of the labor force at a time when their male peers are making significant career advancement. A third factor—discrimination against women—accounts for most of the remainder. It is practiced in subtle ways and effectively prevents many women who on their way up the corporate ladder from rising above middle management. Barriers to Gender Equality Despite all the attempts done by women, still, the movement to gender equality seems to be an unattainable idea.

First, the root for this stem from the process called enculturation (or termed by sociologists as socialization), in which the human self and social identity develop. Because culture is learned, all societies must somehow ensure that the transmission of culture from one generation to the next is adequate. As soon as a child is born, it is brought up differently according to its sex. Different futures were imagined and projected on to the child. It is through such processes that boys and girls learn that they are different and acquire gendered identities.

By the age of three, they see these differences as biological and permanent. They then begin to inhabit different worlds and thereby reinforcing gender divergence. Behaviorist approaches add to it as occurs through reward and punishment. These gender-roles are learned beginning in the family and continues through education and indeed throughout life. The agents for this enculturation which includes family, peer group, school, workplace and mass media continue to shape people’s behavior long after they have become adults.

Because society is too powerful whereas human is powerless, they are bound to fit in the society through this process of enculturation. Two ways in doing it are through conforming to social rules and internalizing the value or behavior. Thus boys are encouraged to achieve their distinct ‘masculinity’ while girls are to retain a strong identification with their mothers and copy their behavior. Secondly, although not universal, patriarchy served as an important feature in today’s society. It is a social structure headed or dominated by males.

This is interconnected with capitalism, which gives rise to power differences. Through domestic division of labor within the family, women are subordinated and became unpaid workers. Within this household, which referred to as ‘the domestic mode of production’, men held a superior position and controlled the distribution of money and goods within the family. By this, men gain their power and thus exploit women. This form of exploiting women’s labor in the household is called the private patriarchy.

Although women were no longer excluded from work in this 20th century, still they were segregated by public form of patriarchy in lower-grade and lower-paid work. Equality After looking at the barriers to gender equality, the question remains as to what extent can men and women achieve real equality in this society. Before that, the definition of real equality is to be clarified. Real equality simply means that there is no different treatment between men and women. Everything should be completely equal and there should never be any distinction or dissimilarity.

However, this so called real equality is utterly impossible, because men and women are different in some ways anyhow. To talk about equality between men and women, we should look at it in terms of equal human right. This simply means that they must be equally given their basic right, such as equal right to vote, equal economic opportunities, equal chances for education, equal division of labor, etc. All these are essential for gender equality; however, there has always been a lot of obstacle throughout the process of eliminating gender stratification.

In recent decades, supporters of gender equality in working environment have proposed a policy of “comparable worth,” paying people not according to the historical double standard but according to the level of skill and responsibility involved in the work. Several nations, including Great Britain and Australia, have adopted comparable worth policies, but such policies have found limited acceptance in the United States. As a result, women in this country lose as much as $1 billion in income annually. Secondly, college doors have opened wider to women in recent decades, and the differences in men’s and women’s majors are becoming smaller.

Nevertheless, when men and women apply for scholarship, though both have same grades and qualification, yet men still have higher chance for getting the scholarship. This has actually violated women’s right. Thirdly, there should be an equal division of labor. The housework has always been considered “women’s work”. Although women do more housework than men, yet they get little reward for doing it. Men do support the idea of women entering the paid labor force, and most husbands count on the money their wives earn. But many men resist taking on a more equal share of household duties.

Generally, people always look at works in term of gender. They assume some works such as cleaning house, taking care of children, cooking, doing laundry as ‘women’s work’. Actually, works in itself is neutral. It is the society that assigned ‘gender’ to each kind of these works. It is the culture that shapes individual into doing some particular things and not other things. As stated throughout this paper, because of some biological differences between men and women, society began to disperse them into activities that are suitable for them.

This promotes division of labor, and all members of the society are required to play their roles, which then become patterned practice and institutionalized. These distinctive roles and responsibilities are important in helping society to operate smoothly. Because sex differences are inevitable, there could never be complete gender equality as long as we are bound to this body. The best way to equality is when we view men and women as cooperative partners who work together for the common good rather than competitors ruled by self-interest.

Women give birth and breast-feed, thus it makes sense for women to be the primary caregiver in ensuring infant survival. Men, who are usually stronger physically than women, are more suitable for heavy tasks. Each sex responsible for carrying out important task and establish a complementary set of roles. Besides, all decision making should be by consensus. So when both sexes create a communal relationship or complementary patterns of behavior, and see no one as inferior to the other, gender stratification is reduced and inequality is no longer a problem.

Overall, the phrase “separate but equal” accurately describes relations between the sexes with member of neither sex being dominant nor submissive to the other. Again, these differences should not be taken as universal. To say that differing gender roles are compatible with the biological differences between men and women is not to say that they are biologically determined. Exception is always there as some women might be stronger than men while some men might be better in doing housework than women. When this happened, a flexible division of labor is required.

Just as the Ju/’hoansi (Haviland, Prins, Walrath, & McBride, 2010) saw nothing wrong in doing the ‘assumed’ work of the other gender, thus when a man is good in cooking, he can cook despite of any gender bias. The same thing must go for women. When a woman is competent in working outside, she should not be forbidden from pursuing her own career. This exchangeability and interdependence of roles are adaptive. Equality in this case is the opportunity to advance individually, based on one’s ability or performance. To another extreme of achieving gender equality, radical feminism proposed to eliminate gender itself.

By this, real equality will definitely be achieved. Yet, the question remains as to how much we are willing to sacrifice. Because real equality can only be obtained when there are no differences between women and men, and that means women have to separate their bodies from the process of childbearing using new reproductive technology. With an end to motherhood, radical feminists reason, society could leave behind the entire family system, liberating women, men, and children from the oppression of family, gender, and sex itself.

They considered women to be different from men and superior from men, and that, to an extreme will only overturn the domination by men to women. Gender inequality will still arise and the battle will go on so long as no one is willing to value each other crucial and unique contribution. Lastly, no one is perfect; no one can live without the other. So long as we play our part and work together for greater good, that should be the best thing to achieve. Real equality is when everybody contributes his/her part, as one body, as one living organism. This is what holds society together…


Haviland, W.A., Prins, H.E.L., Walrath, D., & McBride, B. (2010). Anthropology: the human challenge (12th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Kottak, C.P. (2011) Anthropology: appreciating human diversity (14th ed). New York: McGraw-Hill. Macionis, J.J. (2010). Sociology (13th ed). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Real Equality Between Men and Women in Society. (2016, Nov 27). Retrieved from