Introduction to Sociology/Gender
|The speech today arose in a manner most Americans would find innocent enough, Jordin remarked as he began to speak to the assembled parents, kids and teachers. In his school class the previous month, his son, Junior, challenged inaccurate teachings common in American classrooms over the past 100 years. The teacher had said that boys have a penis and girls do not. Although Junior was only 7 years old, he grew up in a progressive, nonreligious household where his parents (both Native American biologists and activists by trade) encouraged him to ask questions, taught him all people were equal, and celebrated (rather than hiding) the human body by discussing it openly and embracing nudity at home. As a result, Junior tried to explain to his teacher that both Mommy and Daddy had penises – Mommy had an innie, Junior had an outie, and Daddy had an innie and an outie because he grew his own penis naturally when he was a teenager. The teacher was noticeably uncomfortable by what Junior said. (Junior described it to his father like this, “It looked like she wanted to yell at me, like when the Chicago Bears lose and Mommy gets loud.”) The teacher told Junior he was wrong and when he protested, the teacher sent him to the administration for discipline.
After relaying this story to the crowd, Jordin explained that as a child he had been born with a tiny “penis” that white American society – scientific or otherwise since the 1920’s though beginning in the late 1800's – would call a “clitoris.” He then explained that whether we call the same organ a “clitoris or a penis” is generally decided based on measurements created by biologists based on religious teachings common in the Western world. He further explained that this was similar to the ways many religious people will call a book “scriptures” instead of a “book” because they believe it is important to distinguish between the two even though there is no empirical difference between the two – each one contains written words created by people the same way that both a “clitoris” and a “penis” contain roughly the same genetic components. Then, he explained how as a child he, like many other people in the world, turned his “clitoris” into a “penis” by ingesting specific chemical compounds, in much the same way people have for centuries. Similarly, he explained how other people consumed other chemical compounds to shrink their “penises” into “clitori.” He further explained that this was similar other parts of the human body, like legs; the difference, of course, is that we don’t call “longer legs” by a new name, and we don’t call the legs of some people “legs” and the legs of other people “clegs.”
While Jordin offered many more examples of the ways we have created a mythology or religion called “sex” by naming or emphasizing this or that body part in certain ways, he further asked parents to imagine that their son or daughter suddenly became not a son or a daughter because a small group of people decided that only brown-eyed people could be sons and daughters, and their child did not have brown eyes. Using another example, he asked the audience to imagine if instead of ovaries or vaginas, we decided people were essentially different (e.g., “sexed”) based on whether or not they could roll their tongues, digest vegetables or meats, or any other of a million tiny biological variations throughout human existence that do not have to create social differences in our world. Finally, he asked the audience what "sex" males who lose or have no use of their penises would be, and asked the same for females who are born without vaginal canals, ovaries, or other materials we decided matter. As Jordin illustrated, we still consider them members of the same "sex" categories even if they are missing what we say create the categories in the first place.
Why do some people continue to teach children and adults beliefs about human anatomy that do not align with empirical reality? Why did we create two names for the same genital organ, and why does it matter to people which name we use for which person? Why do we promote an inaccurate version of human biological variation in our classrooms and research centers? By the same token, why do people – even many trained in critical inquiry and scientific traditions – believe in these social constructs and use them to explain so much of our world? Why did we choose genital variations instead of eye colors, hair colors or other biological variations to segregate people into different religious and scientific categories? And finally, what consequences do our beliefs in sex – and by extension gender – have for individuals and the larger social world?
While social scientists have tackled these questions in many ways, the sex/gender system remains one of the most powerful belief systems in our world today among both religious and scientific populations. In this section, we introduce the components of sex/gender categorization systems, and explore some ways people make sense of these beliefs in their ongoing lives as well as the consequences of these social constructs have for the larger social world.
Gender vs. Sex
Sociologists make a distinction between gender and sex. "Gender" refers to a person's perceived or projected social location within culturally established designations between masculine and feminine behaviors (e.g., gender refers to a person's attempt to signify a masculine or feminine self as well as a person's attempt to categorize someone else in terms of their presentation (intentional or otherwise) of masculine or feminine selfhood). Sex, however, refers to a person's assignment, usually by medical, religious, familial, and / or governmental authorities, into categories socially constructed on the basis of perceived genetic and biological factors (e.g., social elites place people into sex categories by interpreting genetic and biological components of said people).
Cis vs. Trans
Sociologists further distinguish between cis sex/gender people and trans sex/ gender people. Cis sex/gender people are those who conform to the existing notions of sex and gender within a given social, historical, cultural, political, and scientific context. A cissex male, for example, will be assigned male at birth (based on the interpretation of biological material), and will seek to remain male throughout the course of his life. Similarly, a cisgender male will be assigned male at birth (based on the interpretation of biological material), and then seek to learn and display the symbols, codes, and cues (based upon existing gender norms in his society) to be interpreted (by himself and others) as first a boy and later a man; he will thus follow the script set forth for males in his social world.
Trans sex/gender people are those who do not conform to the existing notions of sex and gender within a given social, historical, cultural, political, and scientific context. A transsex male (often referred to as a female-to-male transsexual), for example, will be assigned female at birth (based on the interpretation of biological material), but will seek to become male - via the use of hormones, bodily training, herbal mixtures, and/or surgeries - during the course of zir life. Similarly, a transgender male (sometimes this person will also be a transsexual and other times this person will have no desire to transition sex categories) will be assigned female at birth (based on the interpretation of biological material), but then seek to learn and display the symbols, codes, and cues (based upon existing gender norms in his society) to be interpreted (by himself and others) as first a boy and later a man or as a boy/man sometimes and a girl/woman at other times. In some societies and historical periods, trans sex/gender people are accepted, celebrated, and affirmed, but in other societies and historical periods, they are faced with constant scrutiny, harassment, and discrimination that has even been supported by scientific and religious institutions.
To understand the dynamics of sex and gender as well as the distinctions between cis and trans experience, we will take a closer look at these elements within contemporary society throughout this chapter.
Scientific communities (especially since the late 1800's) have divided many species of living things into two mutually reinforcing categories based upon dominant interpretations (political, religious, and scientifically established) of genetic materials, reproductive capabilities, and genital composition. Typically, these classification schemes have promoted the idea of two sexes: "male" and "female". Within these schemes, females are defined as the sex that produces larger gametes (i.e., reproductive cell) and which bears the offspring. These schemes have therefore been built to match reproductive functions that an individual may perform during life cycles. To establish these schemes, scientists simplified the empirical realities of human biology by formulating a typology of sex chromosomes labeled X and Y. Within this typology, they assigned females two X chromosomes, and males an XY chromosome. In fact, this socially constructed typology has become so well established that most people interpret and perceive "sex" as a dichotomous state.
As noted previously, however, human biology is far more complex than this typology allows, and as a result, there are many genetic variations that are left out of these classification schemes (see the article on Intersex here as well as the citation outlining intersex experience earlier in this text). Further, most people are not genetically examined at birth, and standards for assigning people to male and female sexes are not uniform across social, situational, or historical contexts - generally, a doctor makes the decision as to what sex the child is, and the child is listed as such regardless of what genetic testing or other biological criteria might reveal. Most clinical research and debates on the subject, for example, suggest that males are people born with a urethra at the tip of the phallus whereas females have it in the perineum, but in reality, people are born with urethral openings in a wide variety of locations between the phallus and perineum despite the fact that only a fraction of these births are labeled intersex (similar observations have been made concerning distinctions based on genital size, gamete size, chromosomal makeup, and other biological markers). While the socially constructed dichotomy (e.g., male v. female) mirrors capitalistic hierarchies embedded within many post-industrial societies, it does not in fact match the biological reality of people, and thus sociologists examine what role the "myth of distinct, dichotomous sexes" plays in social patterning and structure.
Alongside such complexity, human biology is incredibly susceptible to influence, mutation, and adjustment, and not surprisingly, "sex" is rather mutable. As a result, historians have documented "sex" transition or change throughout human history, and noted the ability for one to transform and change "sex" in many different ways. Until the 1950's, for example, transitioning or changing "sex" categories was typically seen as a natural variation in human biology and experience in most of the world. In search of greater market share in the 1950's, however, American and European medical authorities defined transsexuality as a disorder that required intervention and treatment by licensed professionals, and facilitated the classification of transsexuality as a psychological disorder that necessitated a specific narrative and therapeutic protocol prior to transition. As a result, support groups and community centers sprung up in the 1980's (forming a national Transgender movement in the 1990's) to (a) teach people the story they would need to tell to acquire transexual services and identities, and (b) lobby medical and psychological communities to remove these newly added (or newly socially constructed) "disorders" from the record books (this process has been somewhat successful as transsexuality has been reinterpreted repeatedly throughout the last two decades and in some countries gained legal recognition and protection).
At present, both intersex and transexuality are hotly debated topics within and between scientific communities. While many (especially in the biological, psychological and medical sciences) still promote the "two sexes" or "XX/XY" model, these perspectives are increasingly demonstrated to be ideological rather than scientifically based forms of knowledge (see Michel Foucault for discussion of the socially constructed and political nature of all human knowledge). As a result, debates continue wherein biological, medical, and psychological sciences attempt to maintain their hold on rather lucrative models of sex while many scholars in these and others fields attempt to return scientific understandings of "sex" to an empirical rather than ideological basis.
Similar to "Sex," Gender is a socially constructed interpretation of human behavior patterns. Specifically, gender refers to the ascription (by self or others) of differential social statuses based upon shared understandings of what constitutes masculine and/or feminine behavior. As such, gender typically involves two interrelated components built upon the acceptance or rejection of societal norms concerning masculinities and femininities. First, gender may refer to an internal feeling that one is a male, female, both, neither, and/or somewhere in between or beyond these categories. Because gender is dependent upon behavioral expectations and norms, once individuals know those expectations and norms, the individual can adopt behaviors that project the gender he/she wishes to portray. One can think of this side of gender like a role in a theatrical play - there are specific behaviors and norms associated with genders just like there are lines and movements associated with each character in a play. Adopting the behaviors and norms of a gender leads to the perception that someone belongs in that gender category.
Similar to a play, however, there is another component of gender - the audience. In a play, performances are determined to be believable or not based upon audience reaction, and audiences typically arrive at performances with a pre-established set of expectations and ideas about what they will be witnessing. Gender is thus also the external perception others develop of us (e.g., Do other people think and believe we are men and/or women?). Since gender - like a play - is ultimately a human created fiction (e.g., a performance of shared understandings), it can only exist as long as others believe and approve of the performance. As a result, people "do gender" throughout their lives by (a) aligning their actions to the preconceived gender beliefs of others, and (b) developing an awareness (consciously or otherwise) that everything they do may be interpreted as evidence (or lack thereof) of their position within a specific gender category. Gender is thus an ongoing production dependent upon the reactions of others.
Some examples may help illustrate the ways people learn to accomplish gender. Parents may socialize children into what is perceived as a traditionally masculine role, which includes characteristics like independence, courage, and aggressiveness while constantly reminding the child ze is supposed to be masculine by, for example, calling the child by gendered labels like "boy" or "son" and/or stopping the child when ze acts in non-masculine ways (e.g., boys don't do that). Likewise, parents may socialize children into what is perceived as a traditionally feminine role that includes characteristics like submissiveness, emotionality, and empathy while constantly reminding the child that it is supposed to be feminine through the same means noted above. Further, others in the child's environment (like siblings, strangers, and peers) will often reinforce these beliefs and social control mechanisms throughout the child's interactions. Assuming both of the aforementioned children never question their placement into these gender categories, the masculine child will learn to be a boy and a man and the feminine child will learn to be a girl and a woman by aligning their own behaviors to fit conventional gender norms over time. Such individuals will develop cisgender identities. For instance, the masculine child may play with toy soldiers, join athletic teams, and learn to prize appearing tough while the feminine child may play with dolls, bond with other feminine-behaving people, and learn that ze is rewarded for appearing to care.
|feminine characteristics||masculine characteristics|
However, gender - like sex - is fluid and can change. This can be seen by continuing the above example. It is possible for the masculine-raised child to decide later in life - or without the parents knowledge earlier in life - to engage in feminine behaviors, and the same could happen with the feminine-raised child (in fact, many parents raise children in gender neutral ways that allow the children to make these decisions from the start). In so doing, the aforementioned children could adopt relatively varied behaviors that create an androgynous or gender neutral self, or they could simply adopt the opposite (raised masculine, but decide to live feminine sometimes or all the time and vice versa) gender performances (see the image of drag queens for male people that adopt feminine expressions and behaviors sometimes). Either change, however, would require (a) adopting different gender performances than those promoted and enforced by dominant social structures, and (b) risking ridicule, harassment, and discrimination at the hands of cisgender people (often referred to as cissexism or transphobia).
While much of this chapter focuses on the socially constructed differences between men and women, it is also important to note there are some clear physiological differences between the two sexes. While it is as yet unknown how or why these differences develop, scholars typically attempt to explain the differences in one of two ways. Scientific disciplines tied more firmly to existing gender norms within a society, for example, typically argue that biological distinctions create these differences, and use these differences to argue that there are inherent differences between women and men (non cis-gender people are generally ignored completely by these fields and within their arguments). On the other hand, more progressive and diverse scientific communities generally argue that these differences reflect existing gender inequalities within a given society, and thus merely demonstrate that the social construction of sex and gender has biological (as well as social) consequences. While the emergence of bio-social mathematical models and critical examinations of scientific texts may shed light on this debate in the decades to come, at present the answers remain beyond empirical reach. As a result, the following paragraphs outline these differences while also noting the ways that social factors may cause or influence such differences. Keep in mind, however, that since these studies ignore trans sex/gender experience, we must limit our commentary to cisgender results only.
In addition to different sex organs and sex chromosomes, the average male is 10 percent taller, 20 percent heavier, and 35 percent stronger in the upper body than the average female Some researchers believe that these physiological differences may have been influenced by social/cultural decisions in our evolutionary past. Even so, when measured against their own body size, rather than on an absolute scale (e.g., how much females can carry relative to their body size versus how much males can carry relative to their body size), actual strength differences are minimal.
Females, for reasons still somewhat undetermined, tend to outlive males. Female life expectancy in the U.S. is 79.8 years; for males it is 74.4. Some believe this difference is due to the riskier lifestyles of males that identify as men (e.g., pursue masculine behaviors), especially earlier in life, combined with their typically more physically stressing occupations. Others have noted the negative effects that stress and lack of emotional expression (a hallmark trait associated with masculinities) place on the body, and the tendency for females to seek help and treatment (traditionally feminine behaviors) as factors in this pattern.
Behaviorally, age of sitting, teething, and walking all occur at about the same time in females and males. However, males enter puberty on average two years later than females (it is important to note, however, that females have a clear sign (e.g., menarche) of puberty onset whereas males (and their parents) are generally uncertain of the exact onset of puberty, which could skew these interpretations). There are no significant differences in intelligence, happiness, or self-esteem between males and females. However, females are, statistically, twice as vulnerable to anxiety disorders and depression (possibly due to their experience as a subordinate or minority group within many societies), but only one-third as vulnerable to suicide and one-fifth as vulnerable to alcoholism (potentially due to traditional definitions of masculinities that link violence and substance abuse to masculinities). Females attempt suicide more often than males (mirroring patterns between other dominant and subordinate groups) but have lower rates of "success", because their preferred methods do not involve firearms, unlike males (potentially due to the association of violence with masculinities). Females are also less likely to suffer hyperactivity or speech disorders as children or to display antisocial personalities as adults (potentially due to gender socialization wherein femininities are associated with social behaviors and communication skills). Finally, females have slightly more olfactory receptors on average and are more easily re-aroused immediately after orgasm (potentially due to traditional associations of femininities to the pursuit of sexual pleasure and intimacy in relation to masculine associations with sexual conquest and performance).
Much evidence has shown that there are differences in male and female brains. In fact, the temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain associated with language and emotion, develops up to 4 years earlier in females in comparison to boys (which mirrors patterns of gender socialization for femininities) On the other hand, the left parietal lobe, which is associated with mathematical and spatial reasoning, is thought to develop up to 4 years earlier in males (which corresponds to masculine socialization in terms of rationality and noted encouragement favoring male students in the physical sciences). This difference could account for the fact that females are sometimes thought to be better when it comes to language and are more emotional (following their gender socialization requirements), while males are thought to be better in math (following their gender socialization requirements). As well, some say that females are better at hearing than males. A typical teenaged female in a society with high levels of gender inequality hears up to 7 times better than a typical teenaged male in the same society. This (along with masculine socialization emphasizing acting out, being loud, and avoiding being controlled) could possibly explain why males are diagnosed with ADHD more often (and may be the result of feminine socialization emphasizing the care-taking of others).. Lastly there is a difference between sight for young females and males. Females are able to see facial expressions / emotions better while males are able to see motion better (mirroring gender socialization emphasis on feminine care-taking and communication and masculine attention to action). Females use the p-cells in the retina, which are associated with texture and color, while males use m-cells, which are associated with motion.
Social and Psychological Differences
Gender differences (whether reflected in later physiology or not) typically vary by society, environment, historical context, and/or culture, indicating they are social constructions. For example, in work group situations in the U.S., men tend to focus on the task at hand whereas women tend to focus more on personal relationships, but studies of trans people have demonstrated that these differences are often the result of differential treatment women and men receive in the workplace (e.g., transmen report being encouraged to focus more on the task at hand after transition). When eating, women eating with men tend to eat fewer calories than when they are eating with women. Both of these differences in behavior vary by culture and are therefore believed to be socially constructed. Two detailed examples of socially constructed gender differences are presented below: workforce differences and education.
Work and Occupations
An often discussed and debated difference between men and women involves work and occupations. Women's participation in the workforce has varied significantly over time. Prior to the development of capitalism and factory-type work, women played a significant role in food production and household maintenance. With the advent of capitalism and labor outside of the home, women continued to play a significant role, though their participation in paid labor outside the home initially diminished. Also, women's participation in the labor force varied (and varies) depending on marital status and social class.
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 do men. Women tend to be concentrated in less prestigious and lower paying occupations that are traditionally considered women's jobs (also referred to as pink collar jobs). Finally, women are not paid the same wages as men for similar work. This difference is often illustrated as a ratio, as shown in the graph below. Women tend to make between 75% and 91% of what men make for comparable work, though it depends on how the comparison is made. For instance, college educated women between 26 and 45 earned 74.7 cents in hourly pay for every dollar men in the same group made in 2005. However, if you compare women and men with similar profiles and qualifications, the gap is smaller: women make about 91% of what men make, at least they have since the 1980s. In the 1970s, similarly qualified women made only 82% as much as their male counterparts.
However, at all educational and skill levels, women still make less than men, as illustrated in the figure below. That women earn less than men with equal qualifications helps explain why women are enrolling in college at higher rates than are men - they require a college education to make the same amount as men with a high school diploma.
The gap between men's and women's wages narrowed during the 1980s and mid 1990s, but that momentum has fallen off and the distance now appears to have stagnated. The gap in income between genders used to be similar between middle-class and affluent workers, but it is now widest among the most highly paid. A woman making 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 (and that's not including the highest earners, who are predominantly men). The narrowing of the gap in pay has also been called into question. While it appears there has been a narrowing of the gap in pay between men and women, Mulligan and Rubinstein show that much of the narrowing is actually the result of the most able women entering the workforce and not decreases in the pay gap between men and women. Thus, even the apparent narrowing of pay between the sexes likely overestimates the actual differences in pay.
It is quite difficult for women to climb to the top in the business world. For instance, only 3% of tech firms and just 1% of high-tech firms were founded by women and very few are headed by women. But the women who do climb to the top of the organizational ladder in business also experience both overt and covert discrimination. For instance, companies with women on the board of directors have lower stock evaluations than do companies with exclusively male boards. This is likely a reflection of the lack of shareholder trust in women. Women are also often put into leadership positions in corporations when companies are in a crisis and have little hope for recovery, resulting in poorer evaluations of women in leadership positions. The phenomenon of putting women into leadership positions when companies are in trouble is referred to as "the glass cliff" and is also observed in politics, as women are disproportionately chosen to run in elections when it is almost guaranteed that the incumbent male candidate will win.
The most common explanation for the wage gap between men and women is the finding that women pay a motherhood wage penalty, regardless of whether or not they are actually mothers. You can think about this from the perspective of a potential employer: If 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. And, of course, to the potential employer accommodating a pregnant woman and mother is more cumbersome than a male turned father (despite the obvious need for children to continue our species). Thus, women pay a penalty for their ability to give birth. Additionally, when women do have children, this often requires a period of time outside the workforce, whether it's six weeks or several months. Employers take the time off into account when considering raises. The "Mommy track" often results in women making less money than equally qualified men who have been in the same job for the same amount of time because women take time off to have children and are often responsible for taking care of children while men rarely do so. Thus, women are often paid less despite having the same qualifications because they are (1) at risk of having children or (2) do have children and are penalized for doing so.
Another possible explanation for the wage gap between men and women has recently been proposed - customer bias towards white males. Hekman et al. (2009) found that customers who viewed videos featuring a black male, a white female, or a white male actor playing the role of an employee helping a customer were 19% more satisfied with the white male employee's performance and also were more satisfied with the store's cleanliness and appearance, despite the fact that all three actors performed identical, read the same script, and were in the exact same location with identical camera angles and lighting. They provide further evidence to support this claim by noting that white male doctors are rated as more approachable and competent than other doctors. They interpret their findings to suggest that employers are willing to pay more for white male employees because employers are customer driven and customers are happier with white male employees. They also suggest that what is required to solve the problem of wage inequality isn't necessarily paying women more but changing customer biases. Additional reasons for disparity in pay are discussed below.
Another factor that may contribute to the higher wages of white men is the number of job leads they receive. White men, particularly those in management positions, receive more job leads from friends and colleagues than do white women and Hispanic men and women. Black men and women receive about as many job leads and tips, but only for non-management jobs. As many jobs result from social networking, white males are advantaged by their higher number of job leads, potentially contributing to their higher salaries and more prestigious jobs.
Another often studied difference between men and women is educational attainment. For a long time, higher education (undergraduate and graduate education) was an exclusively male bastion. Women did eventually gain access to institutions of higher learning, but parity or equality on a number of levels has still not been achieved. One measure of educational attainment where women have made great inroads is in college attendance. In 1960, 37.9% of female high school graduates enrolled in college, compared with 54.0% of male high school graduates. In 2002, more female high school graduates were enrolling in college than males, 68.4% of females vs. 62.1% males. Women have, in fact, made significant progress in this respect. Women now earn more Bachelors and Masters degrees than do men, and for the first time in 2009, they earned more PhDs. Women have made significant inroads into some of the traditionally most prestigious professions as well: 40% of medical school graduates are women and women make up large percentages of law school students as well.
Despite the progress, there are still problems. While women are entering college at higher rates and even earning more degrees, the degrees are in less prestigious areas (e.g., social sciences and humanities compared to physical sciences) and women with degrees still earn less than do men with comparable degrees. For instance, in medicine, women tend to concentrate in lower paying specialties (e.g., dermatology and family medicine). The highest paid specialties are dominated by men and will be for decades to come, based on the pipeline of residents: 28% of radiology residents in 2004-5 were women, and only 10% of orthopedic surgery residents were.
At the primary and secondary levels, girls don't often do as well as boys, particularly in math and the sciences. One recent study offers a partial explanation for why this might be the case: highly math-anxious female teachers in elementary school pass their math-anxiety on to the girls in the classroom, but not to the boys. At the beginning of the class, there were no differences in math anxiety between the boys and girls, but in classes taught by female math-anxious teachers, girls developed math anxiety and boys did not. This anxiety led girls to believe boys were better at math than girls, though there is no evidence to suggest that is actually the case.
Sexism is discrimination against people based on their perceived sex or gender. Sexism can refer to four subtly different beliefs or attitudes:
- The belief that there are only two sexes.
- The belief that one sex is superior to the others.
- The belief that men and women (as well as other genders) are very different and that this should be strongly reflected in society, language, the right to have sex, and the law.
- It can also refer to simple hatred of men (misandry) or women (misogyny) or trans people (transphobia).
Many peoples' beliefs on this topic range along a continuum. Some people believe that women should have equal access to all jobs. Others believe that while women are superior to men in a few aspects, in most aspects men are superior to women. Some believe that cisgender people are normal and better than transgender people while others do not even factor transgender people into their reasoning.
Sexist beliefs are an example of essentialist thought, which holds that individuals can be understood (and often judged) based on the characteristics of the group to which they belong; in this case, their sex group (male, female, or intersex). Essentialism assumes that all individuals clearly fit into the category of male or female, which is not the case. It also assumes characteristics are immutable, which is also not the case.
A good example of sexism against women is a question that has been asked in numerous surveys over the years in the US, "Would you vote for a female candidate for president?" A 2005 Gallup poll found that 92% of Americans would vote for a female candidate, but follow-up research found that this percentage was the result of response bias. When you use research techniques that allow people to express how they really feel toward women, the actual percentage who would not vote for a female candidate because she is female is closer to 26%. Intriguingly, it is not just men who feel that way, but some women, too. In short, nearly 1/4 of cisgender Americans maintain sexist attitudes against women (trans people are not counted in the surveys).
Sexism against women is often called chauvinism, though chauvinism is actually a wider term for any extreme and unreasonable partisanship toward a group to which one belongs, especially when the partisanship includes malice and hatred towards a rival group. Many forms of radical feminism and cissexism can legitimately be referred to as chauvinism. This is not common usage, however, and the term is most often used to refer to male chauvinism.
While the view that women are superior to men is also sexism, only in recent years has an awareness of this reverse sexism begun to develop in public discourse. Certain forms of sexual discrimination are illegal in many countries, but nearly all countries have laws that give special rights, privileges, or responsibilities to one sex.
Recent research illustrates the pervasiveness of sexism in the media. Messner et al. found that sports coverage on major television networks focuses predominantly on men, despite the increase in female participation in sports since the passage of Title IX in 1972. In 1971, 294,000 high school girls played interscholastic sports, compared to 3.7 million boys. By 1989 that ratio changed substantially - 1.8 million girls played sports compared to 3.4 million boys. By 2004 the ratio had changed even more - 2.9 million girls compared to 4.0 million boys. At the collegiate level, the change was also substantial. In 1972, the average college in the U.S. had two women's sports teams. In just the four years between 2000 and 2004, universities in the U.S. added 631 new women's teams.
Despite the increase in participation in sports, major network news coverage of women's sports has changed very little over the last 15 years. In 1989 women garnered only 5% of air time; in 1999 that increased to 9%, but it fell back to 6% by 2005. Sports highlights shows (e.g., ESPNS's SportsCenter) are even less accommodating, giving only 2% to 3% of air time to women. What's more, the little amount of air time given to women often portrays women's sports as "novelties" or pseudo-sports and often includes gags, like the women's nude bungee jump in 1999. Additionally, much of the coverage of women in sports is sexualized, as attention is often only given to women deemed "attractive" by the news anchors (e.g., Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova). Whether this treatment of women in sport is intentional or not, it is a clear example of sexism in the media.
Another example of gender discrimination is the disparity in wealth between men and women. Using biographical data published in magazines and books as well as IRS income reports, Tickamyer found:
- there are fewer wealthy women than there are wealthy men
- it is not entirely clear as to whether sources of wealth differ, but it does appear that women are more likely than men to inherit their wealth (especially from husbands)
- the forms of women's holdings differ from men's; many women have their money in trusts, which is a safer form of investment than those used by men (e.g., stocks and bonds)
- women are less likely to have control over their wealth than men and are less likely to be actively engaged in increasing their wealth through investments as, say, the head of a company is engaged in growing his wealth
The author attributed the differences in wealth distribution to historical instances of gender discrimination. 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.
The differences in income between men and women mentioned above are partially due to discrimination, but also due, in part, to some women (including highly educated women) choosing to leave the labor force and stay home with their young children. Leaving the labor force doubly impacts income: (1) It takes away immediate income, and (2) reduces experience and tenure, lowering future earning potential. Additionally, while women have made significant inroads into many highly paid fields (e.g., medicine, law), the influx of women into those fields has slowed since 2000. Reflecting sexism in US culture is a recent finding that when women are successful their male partners feel threatened, whereas women feel better about their relationships when their male partners succeed.
Women in some organizations are suing their employers claiming gender discrimination. For instance, Wal-Mart has faced lawsuits by female employees who alleged gender discrimination. Part of the plaintiffs' argument rests on the fact that, while roughly 75% of intra-store department heads are women, only 20% of store managers (who make close to $100,000 per year) are women. It is difficult to prove discrimination in such cases. In fact, many researchers point out that there may and probably are other root causes, including: differences in gender socialization (men believe they need to support their families as the primary breadwinners, leading to greater job commitment) and emphasis by the government on equality in pay and opportunity between genders.
Sexism can take many forms, including preventing women from attending college and paying women less than men for comparable work. Another common form of sexism is violence, especially violence toward women and trans people. In 2002, women were the victims of over 900,000 violent crimes and over 200,000 rapes or sexual assaults. Men are more likely to be the victims of violent crime, but far less likely to be the victims of rapes or sexual assaults. Similarly, recent reports show steady patterns wherein trans people suffer more gender related violence than any other social group.
Theories of Gender Differences
Sociologists and other social scientists generally attribute many of the differences between genders to socialization (note that even physiological differences mirror existing gender socialization processes). As discussed in the chapter on socialization, socialization is the process of transferring norms, values, beliefs, and behaviors to future group members. In gender socialization, the groups people join are the gender categories, "cisgender women and men" and "transgender people". Thus, gender socialization is the process of educating and instructing potential males, females, and intersex children as to the norms, behaviors, values, and beliefs of group membership.
Preparations for gender socialization begin even before the birth of the child. One of the first questions people ask of expectant parents is the sex of the child. This is the beginning of a social categorization process that continues throughout life. Preparations for the birth often take the infant's perceived sex into consideration (e.g., painting the room blue if the child is a boy, pink for a girl). Many of the gender differences just described are attributed to differences in socialization, though it is possible that as yet undemonstrated genetic and biological factors play some role. It is important to keep in mind that gender differences are a combination of social and biological forces; sometimes one or the other has a larger influence, but both play a role in dictating behavior.
One illustration of early life gender socialization can be seen in preschool classrooms. Children in preschool classrooms where teachers were told to emphasize gender differences saw an increase in stereotyped views of what activities are appropriate for boys and girls, while children with teachers who did not emphasize gender showed no increase. This study supports the idea that subtle cues that surround us in our everyday lives strongly influence gender socialization.
Research finds that gender differences in work and occupations begin with adolescents' first jobs:
- first jobs are significantly segregated by sex
- girls work fewer hours per week than boys
- girls earn less per hour than boys
- hourly wages are higher in job types dominated by males
- girls are assigned more housework than are boys
Researchers attribute these differences to gender socialization and differential opportunities for boys and girls.
Another example of research finding differences in behavior between genders can be seen in the differences in self-ratings of attractiveness. Using fifty-five Johns Hopkins University undergraduates (24 females), the authors had the students fill out questionnaires they designed as self-appraisals of attractiveness. The authors then used a panel to rate the attractiveness of the participants (an objective measure). The researchers found that females are fairly accurate in their assessments of their attractiveness but males are not. They explained their findings by discussing the salience of attractiveness for females, a characteristic learned through socialization: Attractiveness is a more important component of femininities. This is seen in the disparity between females and males in the number of cosmetic surgeries they undergo. Of the 11.5 million cosmetic surgeries performed in 2005, women accounted for 85% to 90% of them. Because attractiveness is so important for females, they are more attuned to their actual attractiveness than are males.
In this perspective, which was developed in the 1940s and 1950s, genders are viewed as complementary - women take care of the home while men provide for the family. Much current research, especially after the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s, criticizes this approach for supporting the status quo and condoning the oppression of women. In fact, this approach - in combination with Evolutionary Psychological and Sociobiological perspectives on sex / gender has thus far only found empirical validation when gender inequalities are assumed to be natural and/or appropriate conditions, and only received legitimacy within anti-feminist social movements, religious organizations, and scientific communities promoting the "male/female" or "XX/XY" mythology.
In contrast to the status quo supporting structural functionalist approach, social conflict theory argues that gender is best understood in terms of power relationships. Men's dominance of women and cisgender dominance of transgender is seen as an attempt to maintain power and privilege to the detriment of women. This approach is normative in that it prescribes changes to the power structure, advocating a balance of power between genders.
Extending Conflict perspectives, Symbolic Interaction theories examine the varied meanings and constructions of gender over time and space. In so doing, Symbolic Interaction researchers have demonstrated the shifting "biological beliefs" about gender in relation to women's movement activities as well as the processes whereby gender socialization occurs. This approach seeks to excavate the origins of gender beliefs and patterns while paying specific attention to the ways these meanings change in relation to shifting power dynamics and social norms.
Blending aspects of Conflict and Symbolic Interaction theories, Feminist Theory critiques hierarchical power relations embedded within existing gender structures, cultures, beliefs, discourses, identities, and processes of self presentation. Drawing on Conflict Theories, for example, Feminist Theory examines how women and other gender minorities are disadvantaged in relation to men and cisgender norms within patriarchal structures, cultures, and processes of social organization. Similarly, Feminist Theory draws on Symbolic Interactionist conceptions of the self and groups to ascertain how people learn to present, signify, interpret, and believe in notions of womanhood and/or manhood as well as the ways these processes generate, challenge, maintain, and/or reproduce social inequalities. Central to these efforts, Feminist Theories typically examine past and present gender relations shaped by patriarchy and intersectionality.
Feminist Theory defines patriarchy as a social system that is (1) male dominated (e.g., the primary positions of power are occupied by and/or encouraged for males rather than others), (2) male identified (e.g., what is defined as valuable or normative in society is associated with men and masculinities), and (3) male centered (e.g., the cultural focus of attention, whether media, scientific, religious, or political based, is on men and the things men do). This does not mean that all men in a patriarchal society will be or feel powerful throughout their lives or necessarily possess power over women and trans people. Rather, it means that the primary social focus in a given social context favors males and those perceived to be men while granting all men - regardless of their intentions or their recognition of this fact - unearned privileges within and between existing social institutions.
Feminist Theory - drawing heavily on the historical and contemporary work of Black Feminist Thought - defines intersectionality as the interrelation and intersection of multiple, interlocking systems of oppression and privilege within and between societies. Central to this perspective is the recognition that systems of inequality, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and age, ultimately rely upon and reproduce one another at all levels of society. As a result, social justice requires an examination of the foundations and interconnections that make existing and past inequalities possible as well as the ways these system influence the contemporary and future developments of social, political, scientific, religious, and cultural systems of knowledge and power.
A powerful example of how gender affects every day life comes from the recently published research of Kristen Schilt on female-to-male (FTM) transexuals in the workplace. Schilt interviewed FTM transsexuals after they had undergone their sex changes and found that, following their change to a male identity, two-thirds of the FTM transsexuals saw increased benefits in the workplace, including receiving greater rewards for doing less work. They were also treated differently. They found that their opinions had greater authority and received more recognition for their work. The FTMs who did not experience these benefits tended to be smaller and minorities. In short, white males are privileged in the workplace, even when those "white males" were formerly white females. The lesson: Perceived gender has a powerful influence on every day social interaction.
Another interesting example of gender's influence on social organization comes from the recently published research of J. Edward Sumerau on gay Christian men's attempts to construct masculine selves within the context of a gay-friendly religious organization. Sumerau spent over 3 years observing the ways gay Christian males signified themselves as men, and sought to claim privileges typically associated with masculinity. Ze found that the gay Christian males drew upon existing notions of masculinity, such as beliefs that men are breadwinners and leaders, emotionally controlled and rational, and dominants within relationships. This was done to demonstrate their "masculine" selves to one another and convince themselves of their "rightful" place as church and community leaders. The lesson: Masculinities may be constructed via the use of everyday assumptions and beliefs built into the gender norms of a given society.
The End of Gender? - This is an article that discusses some recent attempts to illustrate how gender is at least partially socially constructed.
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