In this essay this writer will look at the sociological perspectives on gender inequality in society. The theories of gender include: Functionalist, Feminist and Conflict Theories. One will look at these individually later. Following on from that one will examine what sociology has revealed about gender relations in Irish society. One will look at this in relation to education in detail and will also take a short look at employment and politics. Firstly one will look at what gender is.
Gender is the word used to describe social and personality differences between women and men. It refers to that which society defines as masculine and feminine. While sex refers to the biological differences between male and female, gender refers to the socially constructed and variable categories of masculine and feminine. Smith (1979) has argued that the notions of what femininity is and what masculinity is are used as the basis for interacting with girls/women and boys/men both in terms of expectations and the behaviour that is encouraged or discouraged and punished.
Boys/men are expected to be domineering, aggressive, noisy and active, whereas girls/women are expected to be caring, quiet and less assertive. These very characteristics are then those that are seen to differentiate men and women in terms of employment. ( Payne 2006:66) R Connell reveals the gender order of contemporary society: Men are the world leaders, policemen, private security and military, women are the housekeepers and child caregivers. They are lower paid and work as repairers of the consequences of violence as nurses, psychologists and social workers.
He challenges us to overturn our assumptions that gender distinction is natural, unchanging and fixed. He also points to the prevalence of gender ambiguity in society; masculine women, feminine men, homosexuality, women who are heads of households, men who bring up children, women soldiers, male nurses. He argues that sustaining the gender categories also sustains the inequalities e. g. income inequalities, wealth and power in the hands of men and unequal respect. The following are the sociological perspectives on gender inequality in society: Functionalist Theory
Functionalists believe that society is held together by social consensus or cohesion, in which members of the society agree upon and work together to achieve what is best for society as a whole. Each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society’s functioning as a whole e. g. The government or state provides education for the children of the family, who in turn pay taxes on which the state depends to keep itself functioning. This approach concentrates on the roles within the family.
Women by their very nature play a central role in the rearing of children. The male would be viewed as the breadwinner and the female viewed as the carer/nurturer. Talcott Parsons, a leading functionalist thinker held the view that the family operates most efficiently with a clear-cut sexual division of labour in which females act in expressive roles, providing care and security to children and offering them emotional support. Men should perform instrumental roles – namely being the breadwinner in the family.
Parsons referred to the roles of men and women as instrumental roles and expressive roles respectively. Functionalists like Durkheim believed that for a society to survive, its various social processes, must net smoothly together to meet the system’s needs. (McDonald 2006:20) Functionalists have been criticised for interpreting gender as a fixed role in society, however, this theory presumed that the arrangement where men filled instrumental roles in society and women filled expressive roles worked to the benefit of society.
Feminist Theory Feminism can be defined as being a critique of society based on the inequalities that exist through gender roles and assumptions. (McDonald 2006:24) Feminism has many meanings, but essentially it refers to beliefs and actions that support justice, fairness and equality for all women, regardless of their race, age or class. In contrast to the functionalist theory, feminists view limiting women’s role to expressive functions and men’s to instrumental functions as dysfunctional for both men and women.
According to Ahmed et al. (cited in Marsh 2002:257), ‘Feminism is not one set of struggles: it has mobilised different women in different times and places, who are all seeking transformations, but who are not necessarily seeking the same thing, nor even responding to the same situation. ’ (McDonald 2006:24) The five feminist theories are: Radical feminism – Patriarchy is the basis for women’s powerlessness Marxist/Socialist feminism – gender inequality stems from class relations
Liberal feminism – inequality is the result of formal barriers to equal opportunity Black feminism – oppression is due to gender, race and class Psychoanalytic – gender inequality comes from early childhood experiences I will now look at two of these theories in more detail. I have chosen Radical feminism and Liberal feminism. Radical feminism Radical feminist theory contends that men physically, sexually and psychologically victimise women mainly because they desire to control them.
Radical feminists see male control of all women through patriarchy as the main problem. They argue that women must struggle to free themselves from the control of male institutions. (Share, Tovey , Corcoran 2007:248) “ For Walby, patriarchy is ‘a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women”. (Giddens 2009:618) She identified two distinct forms of patriarchy: Private and public patriarchy. Private patriarchy is the domination of the woman in the home while excluding her from society.
Public patriarchy, on the other hand (4) is allowing women to become involved in public life, such as employment and politics but not letting them reach the same standards as their male counterparts by keeping them segregated from wealth power and status. Radical feminism argues that patriarchy is very difficult to eradicate because its root (the belief that women are different and inferior) is deeply embedded in most men’s consciousness. The theory contends that men physically, sexually and psychologically victimise women mainly because they desire to control them.
While on the whole it may have shifted focus from the private to the public realm it is still a thorn in society. “As Walby has stated ‘Liberated from the home, women now have the whole of society in which to be exploited”. (Giddens 2009:618) Liberal feminism Liberal feminism claims that gender differences are not based in biology and therefore that women and men are not all that different. Their argument is if women and men are not all that different then they should not be treated differently under the law. Women should have the same rights as men and the same educational and work opportunities.
Liberal feminists are concerned to uncover the immediate forms of discrimination against women and to fight for legal and other reforms to overcome them. They tend to focus on mainstream methods of bringing about social change, such as political lobbying, use of the media and working through existing political business and bureaucratic structures. (Share, Tovey, Corcoran 2007:246) This movement is motivated by the fact that society, characterised by male domination in all spheres of life, undermines the value of equal rights by positioning women in the workplace according to traits associated with feminine personalities i. . nursing, teaching and clerical work. Women are often deemed as incapable of other jobs, which are linked with masculine personality. They are more often paid less even though they perform the same job. Liberal feminists contend that women are discriminated against on the basis of their sex, so they are denied access to the same political, financial and personal opportunities as men. The argument is that if women are given the same opportunity as men and freedom of choice, they can maintain equality with men. Conflict Theory
This theory concentrates on ‘the structure of society and explains individual actions in terms of the social structure in which they are located’. This approach is based on division or inequality in society. Marx’s work looked at conflict in society ( McDonald 2006:21) The conflict perspective, which originated primarily out of Karl Marx’s writings on class struggles focuses on the negative, conflicted and ever changing nature of society. Conflict theorists challenge the status quo, encourage social change and believe powerful people force social order on the poor and weak.
The dominance of the most advantaged group even extends to the point of shaping the beliefs of others, by controlling public information and influencing institutions such as education and religion, where beliefs and ideas are produced. (Anderson, Taylor 2006:21) They note that unequal groups usually have conflicting values and agendas, causing them to compete against one another. The constant competition between groups forms the basis for the ever changing nature of society. This theory focuses on why gender inequality persists even though men and women are not tied to traditional roles as they might have been the case in earlier times.
It suggests that men continue to dominate women because of their greater control over economic, political and social resources. Gender relations and education Gender is central to the experience of education. People’s experiences of ‘being a boy’ or ‘being a girl’ are shaped in many ways by the experience of schooling. (Share, Tovey, Corcoran 2007:221). Children’s experience in education is paramount to shaping their concepts of gender roles and their comprehension of the choices and roles available to them in a wider social context. This is why it is important to expose them to both female and male educators and peers.
Children spend a lot of time in school so they require the practical witnessing of gender roles. The school needs to reflect the social world in which men and women play their part. As is the case in Ireland, primary school teaching is primarily a female profession although there has been a move to entice more males into the profession also. ‘In January 2006, Minister Mary Hanafin launched the Men as teachers and educators campaign (MATE). She maintained that increasing the number of male primary teachers would be good for pupils, schools, the teaching profession and society generally’. Department of Education and Skills 2006) Increasing feminisation of the profession leads to the isolation of male teachers. “Other disincentives to Primary teaching for males were thought to be the sense of isolation in schools and the fact of working with mainly females”. (National Conference Report 2004:7) However even though males don’t hold many teaching posts in comparison to their female counterparts it is men who make up the majority of senior and higher paying posts at all levels of education. When we look at schooling itself, the question is which benefits students more.
Is it single sex school or coeducation? There has been considerable debate about the merits of coeducation in terms of its ‘overall’ benefits and whether it favours boys or girls or both. (Share, Tovey, Corcoran 2007:224). One would have to reason that students would benefit more from coeducation as the exposure to both males and females will help them learn more about gender relations. It enables them to get to know each other better earlier and hopefully help to avoid or eliminate any prejudices about the opposite sex.
In the interest of society coeducation makes more sense as it promotes the concept of equality between the two sexes and it leaves students better prepared for the real world. “In Ireland today about 70% of primary level and 62% of post primary students are educated in coeducational environments”. ( Share, Tovey, Corcoran, 2007:224) “When it comes to school leavers, the male rate for 2007, in the age group, 18-24 was 14. 2%, which was much higher than their female counterparts at 8. 7%”. Central Statistics Office 2010) It seems that boys from working class backgrounds are the most likely to leave school early. While in school boys are more inclined to opt for ‘masculine subjects’ such as mathematics, science and technology while girls opt for more care related or ‘feminine subjects’ like home economics. There had been the belief that girls weren’t capable of undertaking or achieving high grades in the so called masculine subjects but of course it is becoming increasingly obvious that they are more than capable of doing so.
There has been no extensive analysis of the relationship between masculinity and education. Perhaps ironically this has only now started to occur as girls have begun to significantly outperform boys in public examinations. ( Share, Tovey, Corcoran 2007:222) Girls scored more top grades in almost all subjects at higher level in the Leaving Cert, according to a gender breakdown of the 2010 results from the State Examinations Commission. The superior results from female exam students is an international phenomenon, but nonetheless one that raises concerns about boy’s performance.
As well as getting more top grades, girls are less likely than boys to fail to get an exam. (Irish Independent 2010) When it came to third level, men accounted for around 84% of graduates in Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction and 60% of graduates in Science. Women accounted for 79% of graduates in Health and Welfare, 76% in education and 65% in Arts and Humanities. Women are more likely to have a third level qualification, with 51% of women aged 25-34 having a third level qualification compared with 38. 7% of men in this age group. Central Statistics Office 2010) Education has the potential to play a key role in gender formation and change. Schools and higher education institutions should be required to have equality policies that are regularly monitored and publicly appraised. (Gender and Education 2009). Although it must be noted that on the whole across Irish schools and universities there is much greater awareness of gender inequality as an educational issue than there has been in the past. Gender relations and employment The changes in participation in the labour market, especially amongst arried women, has been one of the major social changes to take place in Ireland in the last three decades. (Perry, 2010:9-8) It is great to see the integration of more women to the workforce. In 2009 the education and health sectors employed the highest proportion of women. In the health sector, 80% of employees are women. In primary education, 84% are women while at second level this figure is 62%. (Central Statistics Office 2010) While gender equality in the workplace is guaranteed by law, inequalities exist between the genders in areas such as pay and access to professional achievement.
Unfortunately women are not well represented at senior level positions, only 33% of medical and dental consultants are women, while 52% of primary school managers and 39% of second-level school managers are women. Women’s income in 2007 was around two thirds of men’s income. After adjusting for the longer hours worked by men, women’s hourly earnings were around 87% of men’s. (Central Statistics Office 2010) In 2007 the Taoiseach launched the National Women’s Strategy.
Its mission statement is to have: “An Ireland where all women enjoy equality with men and can achieve their full potential while enjoying a safe and fulfilling life”. In relation to employment it aims to increase the number of women at work, to tackle the gender pay gap and to advance women’s careers. (Department of Justice and Law Reform 2007) Gender relations and public life Unfortunately Ireland still has a male dominated political arena. It is also the case that women are under – represented in decision making structures at both national and regional levels.
In 2009, only 14% if TD’s in Dail Eireann were women, while they accounted for 34% of members of State Boards, 17% of members of local authorities and just 12% of members of regional authorities. (Central Statistics Office 2010) Why do women have a comparative lack of success in the public sphere? There could be a number of reasons for this, such as direct political party discrimination against female candidates, male political power and women’s lack of power in other fields that ‘produce’ politicians such as business, law and the unions.
While women may not have been overly successful in Irish party politics they seem to have had more success within local and community based politics which has emerged as being an important part of the Irish political scene over the last decade. (Share, Tovey , Corcoran 2007:267) Of course it’s not all bad news on the female front. The election of Mary Robinson as president in 1990 was regarded as part of a wider liberalisation of Irish society. She wasn’t the only one as when she left office, she was replaced by another worthy female, Mary McAleese who still holds office today.
President McAleese has written that: it must be a matter of concern that women’s participation rates in Irish politics remain so low. She reasons that we need the insights and experiences of women to inform our policy-formation and decision making processes. We also need to understand and seek to change the factors which discourage women from entering and remaining in politics. (Perry, 2010:9-10) In conclusion, one has looked at the sociological perspectives on gender inequality in society including functionalism, liberal feminism, radical feminism and conflict theory..
One has learned what sociology has revealed about gender relations in Irish society, namely through one’s focus on education but also having a brief look at employment and public life. It has become apparent that women still have a way to go in this struggle for gender equality but things have certainly moved in the right direction since the time of Auguste Comte. Comte, being the founding father of sociology believed that women were physically and mentally inferior to men.
He also believed that women should not work outside the home, own property, or hold political power. Thankfully we seem to have moved on from this way of thinking but we are far from being on a level footing; it seems we have moved on from a time when women were seen to be naturally weak, emotionally unstable and believed to have smaller brains than men, but belief in a direct biological basis for gender difference and inequality persists. McDonald 2006:100) We need to work to eradicate this… men and women are equal and should be treated accordingly.