Fall 2021
(rev 11/20/21) 

What Causes Gender Inequality?
     ... Analytical Strategies

What Causes Gender Inequality? ... Analytical Strategies

Offered as the graduate sociology course: Sex & Gender
SOC-GA 2227

Robert Max Jackson

This guide stresses the systematic causal analysis of gender inequality.  The analytical questions raised and the readings listed consider why and how gender inequality arises, varies across and within societies, persists over generations, produces conformity by individuals and institutions, resists change, and sometimes changes dramatically. 

Table of Contents ...
click on a topic to go to that section

Overview  ·······  Scope, Organization, and Access  Read this first!
Topic 1  ·······  Introduction.  What do we mean by gender inequality?
Topic 2  ·······  How is gender inequality symbolized and reproduced in everyday life?
Topic 3  ·······  How can gender inequality be nearly universal but biological differences not decisive?
Topic 4  ·······  What determines men's and women's roles and positions within families?
Topic 5  ·······  What is the role of sex differences in the functioning and perpetuation of gender inequality?
Topic 6  ·······  What is the role of sexuality?
Topic 7  ·······  What is the role of violence and intimidation in the relationships between men and women?
Topic 8  ·······  How has the economy influenced men and women's positions in society?
Topic 9  ·······  How have men resisted and furthered change?  How have women furthered and resisted change?
Topic 10  ·······  How have political processes and structures sustained men's and women's relative status?
Topic 11  ·······  How we to assess and interpret evolutionary influences?
Topic 12  ·······  What role does ideology play in determining the relations between men and women?
Topic 13  ·······  What does the future hold? 

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Table of Contents ...
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      Overview  Read first!
1  ····   Introduction.
2  ····   Everyday life?
3  ····   Origins and biology?
4  ····   Families?
5  ····   Sex differences?
6  ····   Sexuality?
7  ····   Violence & intimidation?
8  ····   Economic processes?
9  ····   Men's & women's actions?
10  ····   Political processes?
11  ····   Evolution?
12  ····   Ideology?
13  ····   The future? 

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Table of Contents

Note: – This "page" serves to provide both an extended reading list on gender inequality and the syllabus for a graduate course based on the core of this extended reading list (well over 200 articles are included below).  The readings are almost all articles (with important books represented by the related scholarly articles), and almost all readings are available on the internet. The list includes direct links to the online versions;  these links are aimed at NYU's access and will not be successful for anyone not affiliated with NYU.  However, most of the links have the DOI number or the JStor number listed at the end of the citation (or a generic, non-NYU link is embedded in them which can be extracted for use elsewhere).  Anyone having access to online scholarly publications through their institutions should be able to locate the articles through these.

Description – Scope, Organization, and Access:

The scope of the topics and materials.  The advance of our knowledge about gender inequality over the past half century has been remarkable. Research on every conceivable aspect of gender relationships and gender status has been unending, across many academic fields, pursued from the widest possible range of theoretical frameworks and methodological strategies. Still, we face many as yet unanswered questions and find it difficult to reach consensus about the meaning and implications of much that we have discovered. The accumulation of contentious knowledge has made mastery of this field challenging, with the unfortunate result that many people today rely on arguments and explanations as flawed and simplistic as they were a half century ago.

The topics below address key analytical questions facing any serious effort to understand and explain gender inequality. What do we mean by gender inequality, why did it arise across the globe, what roles do sexuality and violence play, how is gender inequality related to economic and political organization, how is gender inequality experienced and sustained in ordinary interactions, and so on. The core materials focus on the most important works and ideas offering analytical insight into these questions. They have been selected because they have been highly influential or provide critical insight.

The class organization and goals.  In this class, each week's activities will be organized around a set of readings and an analytical task.  Part of our class discussions will be on the common readings and part on explore the analytical tasks each week.  We will adjust the time devoted to these two goals according to our experiences over the class.  One or more students will have principal responsibility for each reading and lead the discussion of that reading.  We will then collectively try to assess the analytical task through discussion.  While mastering the existing research and theory is obviously a prerequisite to doing good work, the approach in this class stresses doing and discussing actual analyses of how and why gender inequality works. Even as we discuss the works in which authors present their ideas, we will stress learning the worth and weight of ideas as analytic tools.  All class meetings are organized as discussions.  

The course readings stress the foundational sociological literature on gender inequality.  Each week we will all look at some common readings.  The course guide will also point toward a range of other recommended and related readings for further study for each topic - students are not expected to read these optional materials as part of the course.  The recommended and related readings represent what someone seeking to specialize in this area would read. Students in the class are encouraged to scan these optional lists each week and to look at any pieces that seem particularly valuable or interesting. 

Term paper:  Each student will develop a paper over the course of the semester that examines a basic analytical question related to one or more of the course topics.  {Click here for general information.} {Click here for help on topic selection.}

Readings & Books for the Class:  The readings below (the recommended and related readings as well as the common readings that are the core of the course) are almost all available online – simply click the links to get to the articles.  Any student lacking a background in gender studies, particularly sociological, is likely to benefit from reading through a standard textbook in the area--I recommend Michael Kimmel's Gendered Society (which I use in undergraduate classes).  Note the there are no books required for purchase for this class.

A note on the "hidden" materials below:  As mentioned, each section of this guide includes – beside the common readings – three subsections, one for an analytical task, one for recommended readings, and one for related readings.  To simplify navigating, only the headings for these subsections are initially visible when you scroll through this page.  The content of the subsections are hidden (so that the beginning appearance of the page is similar to a standard syllabus) until the viewer clicks on a subsection heading, then its contents will appear.  While this organization is helpful for negotiating the page most of the time, it can be an obstacle to searching the page (for example, for a particular article) as searches on a web page will ignore any hidden material.  To overcome this. it is possible to reveal all the hidden sections at once by clicking the § symbol at the top, right corner of this page.  (Simply reload the page to collapse all the "hidden" sections to their usual look).  The table of contents near the top of the page will work to aid speedy navigation to any section.  Clicking the Table of Contents button always available in the lower right corner will jump to the table of contents from anyplace.

The Topics

1. Introduction.  What do we mean by gender inequality?

To analyze the causes of gender inequality, we need to know what we mean by gender inequality. How can we conceive of and talk about gender inequality in ways that are general enough to apply across the range of relevant phenomena, consistent enough to minimize conceptual ambiguities, and precise enough to be analytically effective?  Gender inequality has been extraordinarily diverse and wide spread.  Women and men are unequal in every conceivable way in endless circumstances, both immediate and enduring, by both objective criteria and subjective experience.  So, what counts as gender inequality? Can we characterize it in ways that let us confidently and impartially assess when there is more or less of it?  Can we systematically and consistently capture the ways that systems or instances of gender inequality differ in content or character?  We need tools, both theoretical and empirical, to qualify and quantify gender inequality if we hope to understand and explain it.

2. How is gender inequality symbolized and reproduced in everyday life?

Gender inequality is expressed and reinforced (or challenged) in every interaction between women and men (and in many interactions among those of the same sex).  This pattern is true for all forms of social inequality and social distinction, but is more striking to gender theorists because kinship and sexuality make male-female interactions so frequent.  We want to consider how people experience and act out gender in their day-to-day lives.  We want to think about the most basic questions.  Why and when do women and men act differently?  Why and when do people respond differently to women than men?  How do all these private individual actions when taken together over time influence the understanding of gender in a culture and gender inequality?

3. How can gender inequality be nearly universal but biological differences not decisive?

Although scholars disagree if women have ever been fully equal or had higher status in any society, all agree that men have been dominant in most societies, although the degree of dominance varies greatly.  This strong pattern raises difficult questions concerning how we explain the prevalence of male dominance, questions for which no answers have yet gained a consensus.  The "origins" problem asks how we can explain the apparently independent rise of gender inequality in societies all over the world.  The universality problem asks why have women apparently occupied a subordinate position in all societies.  Together, these inescapably lead to asking how biological differences influence gender inequality, particularly how they have an influence under some conditions and not under others.  They also force us to ask how explaining the "origins" of gender inequality relates to explaining the "persistence" of gender inequality.  How theories handle these issues is decisive for their form and effectiveness.  Theories sometimes try to sidestep these questions, but avoidance is an unrealistic strategy because sooner or later efforts to apply the theories or contend with challenges bring these issues to the surface.

4.   What determines men's and women's roles and positions within families?

Family and kinship institutions are everywhere crucial to the status of women and men and to their cultural identities. Women and men have strong and lasting relationships as spouses, as parents and children, and as brothers and sisters.  Kinship rules define relationships at birth while marriage creates bonds between adults (and often kinship groups).  Family structures vary considerably, but commonly involve living together, pooling of resources, and interests bonded through a shared fate.  That such links between women and men can coexist with severe gender inequality is analytically challenging.  Not surprisingly, a lot of theoretical and empirical work has sought to disentangle and explain these relationships.  Probably the two general issues in the modern world that have received the most attention concern the ways that women and men are unequal within families and the interdependence between inequality within families and the gender inequality that exists outside families, particularly within economic and political processes. 

5. What is the role of sex differences in the functioning and perpetuation of gender inequality?

Attempts to explain gender inequality at all levels are haunted by essentialism.  Even as they expressly reject the possibility of consequential inherent differences between women and men, theoretical analyses of gender inequality habitually build on gender differences.  For some, essentialism always means a difference based in biology or genetics; for others it includes cultural differences that are embodied in women and men.

6.  What is the role of sexuality?

Sexuality has been evoked in multiple ways in the study of gender inequality.  It may be considered as a possible motivating cause for inequality, examined for the ways it reflects or is affected by gender inequality, or incorporated as a peculiar tension between women and men that mediates both the causes and effects of gender inequality.  Essentially everyone recognizes sexuality as critically important to gender inequality, but it eludes comprehensive analysis.

7. What is the role of violence and intimidation in the relationships between men and women? 

Most theoretical approaches to gender inequality suggest that violence between women and men plays a role in sustaining inequality; some also point toward violence as an initial cause.  A recurring issue concerns the degree to which violence is an expression or result of gender inequality or, alternatively, is a cause of inequality.  The separate roles of rape, harassment, and domestic violence, and their relationships to each other are another critical question.  Much research and argument has also been focused on the question of women's aggressive impulses and actions. 

8. How has the economy influenced men and women's positions in society?

Essentially all analyses of gender inequality give great importance to the economy.  Gender inequality appears everywhere embedded in economic inequality, in the sense that a critical aspect of gender inequality involves unequal access to economic resources and positions.  Sometimes this is understood as an expression of gender inequality, sometimes a cause of gender inequality, sometimes a result. Many analyses consider it all three.

9.  How have men resisted and furthered change?  How have women furthered and resisted change?  {Jump to Topic 10 -- the two topics are now merged there}

Both women and men have acted in every possible way towards gender inequality.  What we want to understand are the circumstances in which they predictably act in ways that either reinforce or erode inequality.  People's actions complex results of interests, ideology, circumstance, opportunity, and constraint. 

10.  How have political processes and structures sustained men's and women's relative status? {Previous topic 9 on male and female actions now merged here}

As structure and as actor, the state has been unavoidably central to ongoing practice of gender inequality, to its persistence, and to changes in the form and amount of gender inequality.

States or governments have power. Through the military and police, a state can enforce conformity to its rules, repel and punish challenges from the scale of individual acts to collective rebellions, and by threat, implicit or explicit, deter rebellions from appearing. Through the law, regulations, and bureaucratic policies, a state can define what constitutes acceptable or legitimate behavior at all levels of social organization. Through economic policies of taxation, expenditures, and redistributions (such as welfare policies or agricultural supports), a state influences the relative economic status of different groups.

By acting differently toward groups with regard to any of these aspects of government power, a state can create, reinforce, or exacerbate social inequalities. Analogously, a state can, in theory, obstruct, destabilize, or diminish social inequality by using its power in ways that are inconsistent with social inequalities. States determine, influence, legitimize, and sanction rights and opportunities; they may do so in more or less egalitarian ways.

When significant, enduring, social inequality exists, those privileged by that form of inequality will normally have more influence over the state than do those disadvantaged by the inequality, and the overall effect of state policies will reinforce the exercise and persistence of the inequality. A fundamental problem for all state theories is who or what decides state policies and actions. To some degree, those "in" the state (elected, appointed, hired, or appropriated) make decisions based on their interests and outlooks as members of the state apparatus. To some degree, state actors respond to the influence of power brokers outside the state, such as the economically powerful. In either case, when making policy or strategic planning decisions, those influencing state actions are in part responding to what they perceive will be the responses of all actors in the nation affected by those decisions.  States, or the political actors who comprise the government, also have their own interests, most notably preserving their power, and these interests are not automatically consistent with the interests of dominant social groups.

Any political policy, agenda, body, or process may support and enforce gender inequality, passively permit it, or oppose gender inequality (as is true with any form of social inequality).  A political process or policy may have different implications for different aspects of gender inequality (for example, labor protections laws for women that guard them from some possibilities of employer exploitation while simultaneously limiting their competitive access to some kinds of jobs).  In general, to protect and use their advantages, socially dominant groups seek to sustain influence over political processes.  Conforming with this expectation, the long monopoly of men over political power has consistently both demonstrated and sustained gender inequality.  Yet, over the past two centuries government actions have also contributed to the decline of gender inequality.  Thus, with respect to political power we face a series of critical questions: how did political power become and remain a male domain?, how has political power and governance reflected and contributed to gender inequality?, and how and why did some aspects of political power and government act in ways more consistent with improving women's status than preserving gender inequality?

11.  How we to assess and interpret evolutionary influences? 

Evolutionary psychology is an interdisciplinary field focused on evolutionary explanations of human behavior that has experienced explosive growth over the past three decades.  Its ruling assumption is that modern humans are born with behavioral predispositions that evolved among our human ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago.  The fundamental starting point of this field and what the participants consider their most established claims concern behavioral dispositions that purportedly distinguish women from men and explain a critical range of gender behavior. 

12. What role does ideology play in determining the relations between men and women?

Ideology is near the center of almost all efforts to explain gender inequalities.  Gender ideology includes people's understandings of masculinity and femininity, ideas about when it is fair to treat women and men differently, divergent expectations about women's and men's abilities, internalized schema that evoke different judgments of women's and men's actions, and rules about proper male and female behavior applied to children.  All these and more facets of gender ideology induce us to feel differently about women and men and to treat them differently.  Gender ideology is crucial to the organization and persistence of gender inequality.  Conversely, every belief that symbolizes, legitimates, invokes, guides, induces, or helps sustain gender inequality is itself in part a product of gender inequality.  However, while the form of gender inequality may shape gender ideology over time, we are generally more interested in gender ideology's role in shaping and preserving gender inequality.

13.  What does the future hold? 

Where do we go from here?  Will gender inquality continue to decline, and greater gender equality spread throughout the world?  Are some aspects of gender inquality particularly resistant to reduction, and if so why?  Could change stagnate?  Behind such concerns are two principal questions.  What has caused the long-term pattern of declining gender inequality?  And what has preserved aspects of gender inequality in the face of these accumulating changes?  Combining the answers to these two questions with an effort to project the relevant influences into the future, is the basis for trying to understand the possibilities for the future.  Behind this also lies another analytical question with moral overtones: what does gender equality really mean?

Additional Resources

A1.   How to Prepare a Good Literature Review.

Preparing a good literature review is a task easily overlooked.  Yet, a weak strategy for literature reviews in the early stages of a project can jeopardize one's chances of developing something good.  At later stages, a poor literature review can undermine all the efforts we make at research and reasoning.  A good literature review depends on two critical skills: (1) knowing how to find the existing research and theoretical work that is relevant to one's project and (2) knowing how to select and present the important ideas and findings in that literature.

A2. Notes on how to write a critical review. 

Criticizing the analyses in scholarly publications is an essential part of a scholar's work.  The role of scholarly critique in a paper ranges from a one sentence comment on some aspect of a publication to being the central theme pervading every paragraph.  The capacity to write effective critiques is not a natural trait but a learned skill.  As with most scholarly skills, learning the skills from others is more efficient and effective than trying to invent them anew.  

A3. Causality - What are causes, mechanisms, and the like?

We casually refer to causes and effects in normal interactions all the time. We all conduct our lives – choosing actions, making decisions, trying to influence others – based on theories about why and how things happen in the world. From the early stages of childhood we attribute causes, building a vision of the social (and physical) world that makes it understandable. Every action, every choice about what to do, is based on our anticipation of its effects, our understandings of consequences.  Analytical and scientific reasoning has a similar form, but requires that we approach causation more systematically and self-consciously. While stopping well short of becoming philosophers of science, as social scientists, we must have a reasonable grip on thinking about causality.  Even when empirical and theoretical social science tries to avoid questions about social causation, it usually relies on critical assumptions about causation.  Unfortunately, causal thinking is difficult and fads guide causal argument choices as much as (and often more than) rigorous logic.  To write about research and theory in the social sciences, we therefore need to achieve a practical grasp of causal thinking.   So, here we want to look at some of the basic causal ideas used by social scientists. 

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