Each of sociology's major theoretical paradigms addresses the significance of gender in social organization. Functionalist, conflict, inter-actionist, and feminist theories offer alternative explanations for gender inequalities.
Functionalists view inequality as a product of the traditional division in human societies. Men tend to attend to more instrumental (objectively rewarded) tasks such as wage earning and women attend to more expressive (subjectively rewarded) tasks such as those involved in child rearing. While both types of labor are functional (indeed vital) for society's survival, the instrumental tasks, looked after by men, always have been more highly rewarded than the expressive tasks looked after by women. Men and women are taught these traditional roles and have tended to conform to their requirements. Functionalists point out that, while gender roles and their accompanying inequalities have changed somewhat in industrialized societies, traditional arrangement remains in force in most societies. The persistence of the traditional division of labor, according to functionalist view, testifies to the usefulness for human societies.
Conflict theories deny the historically inevitability and necessity of the traditional division of labor between men and women. The arrangement may have been more functional in nonindustrialized societies, where physical strength was required by many tasks. However, industrialization has changed the situation. The continuance of the traditional gendered division of labor and the social inequality that it produces merely contributes to unnecessary social conflict and therefore is dysfunctional.
Capitalism intensifies male domination because:
- Capitalism creates more wealth, which confers greater power on men as owners of property and as primary wage earners.
- An expanding capitalist economy depends on turning people - especially women - into consumers and encouraging them to seek personal fulfillment through buying and using products.
- To support men in the factories, society assigns women the task of maintaining the home.
- The double exploitation of capitalism lies in paying low wages to male labor and no wages at all for female work.
Inter-actionist theories of gender inequality focus on how inequality is perpetuated by the transmission of traditional cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity from generation to generation. For example, learning these definitions influences people's expectations about the types of statuses that women and men are capable of occupying and the types of roles they are capable of performing. Compared with functionalist and conflict theories, inter-actionist theories are optimistic as to the prospects of reducing if not eliminating such inequalities. Since gender roles and division of labor that they support are the products of what each generation teaches the next generation, we can change them by teaching different gender roles and different ideas about division of labor. Greater gender equality can be achieved; therefore, without having to wait for the massive restructuring of society implied by functionalist theories, which process might take several generations. Neither is it necessary to resort to revolutionary strategy to achieve gender equality as proposed by such conflict theorists as Marx and Engels.
Feminism is the advocacy of social equality for men and women, in opposition to patriarchy and sexism. In this perspective there is a general emphasis on the crucial contribution of patriarchy (male domination) to gendered inequalities. For example they challenge the functionalist idea that men are rewarded more than women simply because men have traditionally performed the more highly rewarded instrumental tasks while women have performed less highly rewarded expressive tasks. But why are women paid less than men for performing the same instrumental tasks? The proposed answer is patriarchy.
Feminism views the personal experiences of women and men through the lens of gender. How we think of ourselves (gender identity), how we act (gender roles), and how our sex's social standing (gender stratification) are all rooted in the operation of our society.
Basic feminist ideas
Although people who consider themselves feminist disagree about many things, most support five general principles:
- The importance of change. Feminist thinking is decidedly political, linking ideas to action. Feminism is critical of the status quo, advocating change toward social equality for women and men.
- Expanding human choice. Feminists maintain that cultural conceptions of gender divide the full range of human qualities into two opposing and limited spheres: the female world of emotions and cooperation and the male world of rationality and competition. As an alternative, feminists propose a “reintegration of humanity” by which each human can develop all human traits.
- Eliminating gender stratification. Feminism opposes laws and cultural norms that limit the education, income, and job opportunities of women. For this reason feminists advocate passage of the Equal Rights Laws.
- Existing sexual violence. Today's women's movement seeks to eliminate sexual violence. Feminists argue that patriarchy distorts the relationships between women and men, encouraging violence against women in the form of rape, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and pornography.
- Promoting sexual autonomy. Feminists advocate women's control of their sexuality and reproduction. Feminists support the free availability of birth control information. Most feminists also support a women's right to choose whether to bear children or terminate pregnancy, rather than allowing men - as husbands, physicians, and legislators - to control women's sexuality. Many feminists support the gay people's efforts to overcome the many barriers they face in a predominantly heterosexual culture.
Opposition to Feminism
Feminism provokes criticism and resistance from both men and women who hold conventional ideas about gender. Some men oppose feminism for the same reasons that may white people have historically opposed social equality for the people of color. They want to preserve their women privileges. Other men and women, including those who are neither rich nor powerful, distrust social movement (especially its radical expressions) that attacks the family and rejects time-honored patterns that have guided male-female relationship for centuries.
For some men, feminism threatens the basis of their status and self respect: their masculinity. Men who have been socialized to value strength and dominance feel uneasy about feminist ideas of men as gentle and warm. Similarly women whose lives center on their husbands and children may see feminism as trying to deprive them their cherished roles that give meaning to their lives.
Resistance to feminism also comes from academic circles. Some Sociologists charge that feminism willfully ignores a growing body of evidence that men and women do think and act in somewhat different ways (which may make gender equality impossible). Also feminism downgrades the crucial and unique contribution women make to the development of children - especially during the first years of life.
Finally, there is the question of how women should go about improving their social standing. The idea is that women should have equal rights, but women should advance individually, according to their abilities. Women should expect to get ahead on the basis of their own training and qualifications.
Observations about the likely state of gender
Movement toward gender equality has progressed ahead. Industrialization has both broadened the range of human activity and shifted the nature of work from physically demanding tasks that favored male strength to jobs that require human thought and imagination, putting the talents of women and men on equal footing. Additionally, medical technology has given control over reproduction, so women's lives are less constrained by unwanted pregnancies.
Many women and men have also deliberately pursued social equality. Sexual harassment complaints now are taken much more seriously in the workplace. And as more women assume positions of power in the corporate and political worlds, social changes in the 21st century may be as great as those we have already witnessed.
Gender is an important part of personal identity and family life, and it is deeply woven into the moral fabric of the society. Therefore, efforts at change will continue to provoke opposition. On balance, however, while changes may be incremental, the movement toward a society in which men and women enjoy equal rights and opportunities seems certain to gain strength.