Social Stratification and Gender

Throughout most of recorded history and around the globe, women have taken a “back seat” to men. Generally speaking, men have had, and continue to have, more physical and social power and status than women, especially in the public arena. Men tend to be more aggressive and violent then women, so they fight wars. Likewise, boys are often required to attain proof of masculinity through strenuous effort. This leads to males holding public office, creating laws and rules, defining society, and—some feminists might add—controlling women. For instance, not until this century were women in the United States allowed to own property, vote, testify in court, or serve on a jury. Male dominance in a society is termed patriarchy.

Whereas in recent decades major strides toward gender equality have been made, sociologists are quick to point out that much remains to be done if inequalities in the United States are ever to be eliminated. Behind much of the inequalities seen in education, the workplace, and politics is sexism, or prejudice and discrimination because of gender. Fundamental to sexism is the assumption that men are superior to women.

Sexism has always had negative consequences for women. It has caused some women to avoid pursuing successful careers typically described as “masculine”—perhaps to avoid the social impression that they are less desirable as spouses or mothers, or even less “feminine.”

Sexism has also caused women to feel inferior to men, or to rate themselves negatively. In Philip Goldberg's classic 1968 study, the researcher asked female college students to rate scholarly articles that were allegedly written by either “John T. McKay” or “Joan T. McKay.” Although all the women read the same articles, those who thought the author was male rated the articles higher than the women who thought the author was female. Other researchers have found that men's resumes tend to be rated higher than women's. More recently, though, researchers have found the gap in these sorts of ratings to be closing. This may be due to social commentary in the media regarding sexism; growing numbers of successful women in the workforce, or discussion of Goldberg's findings in classrooms.

In short, sexism produces inequality between the genders—particularly in the form of discrimination. In comparable positions in the workplace, for example, women generally receive lower wages than men. But sexism can also encourage inequality in more subtle ways. By making women feel inferior to men, society comes to accept this as the truth. When that happens, women enter “the race” with lower self‐esteem and fewer expectations, often resulting in lower achievements.

Sexism has brought gender inequalities to women in many arenas of life. But inequality has been a special problem in the areas of higher education, work, and politics.