Unit 9 – Gender and Sexuality « The Socjournal


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

  • Identify gender inequalities in their work and life.
  • Discuss the basic theoretical positions that attempt to explain gender (e.g., various forms of feminism).
  • Consider the “why?” questions. Why are women valued less? Why are they systematically oppressed? Why goes gender segregation exist?

Core Readings

Steckley, J., & Letts, G. K. (2007). Chapter Thirteen: Gender.


In this chapter we are going to talk about gender. Now this can be a pretty touchy subject. As noted earlier, beginning with the obligatory pink and blue blanket, gender is implicated in everything we do. From the cloths we wear to the food we eat to the types of work we do, sex role differentiation, and pressure to confirm to the box of gender (i.e., gender socialization) starts at childhood and pretty much goes on until death. As a result of the pervasive attention that we give to gender, gender is pretty much implicated in everything we do.

Beyond the basic fact that gender is something we focus a lot of attention on, there are a lot of strong opinions, theories, and emotions surrounding it. Over the centuries there has been a lot of social, religious, and political commentary about gender with opinions ranging from the ultra sexist views that women are naturally and/or god given over to child birth, home life, and nurturing and therefore should be confined to that role, to the recent (i.e., this century) emergence of various forms of feminism which argue after, and fight for, the right of women to be treated equal as men regardless of any real and/or socially constructed differences between them. The truth is, over the years there has been a lot of fuss about gender and although I’d like to say that I don’t know what all the fuss is about, I do. Gender is an important topic, and not just for sociologists, and the reason is simple. Gender is and important topic because, over and above all the argument and rhetoric and research and opinion, is the basic fact that all over the world, in pretty much every culture that exists, women are treated differently than men. And it’s not differently in a good way. As clearly demonstrated in the text, and by decades of research, women all over the world are considered less skilled, less capable, less worthy, and less valuable than their testosterone fed counterparts. Now you can pooh pooh all you want, but the text has the statistics to prove it, and the world confirms it everyday. Women make a fraction of what men do in the workplace, women’s jobs are considered less important, and when women are moved into an occupation (e.g., the feminization of clerical work), it immediately becomes seen as less valuable. In fact, the devaluation and oppression of women is so bad that some individuals feel it is acceptable beat down, suppress, oppress, and even murder the female half of the human species[1] just for not following the rules of gender.


Well, that’s the billion-collar question isn’t it? Why? Why would we devalue and suppress one half of the species? In all of this grand and glorious creation, what possible reason could there be for that?

Well, let us review some of the possibilities.

First of all there is the idea that gender inequality is God given. God made Eve out of the rib of Adam and then said “Adam, you’re the boss.” Personally, I’m not big on that particular theory but even it were true, the question of why this should justify the global suppression of women still remains. And beside, to me it seems rather more likely that, since it was the men who wrote the bible, they just kinda projected their own unquestioned gender biases onto the text that they were writing.

So, if that’s not it, then maybe it is because women aren’t as smart or as capable as men? Well, some people might believe this, but it’s not true. Women have proved themselves capable time and again, often going on to outperform men in the same occupations just to prove themselves worthy. Experts agree[2] (http://www.newsweek.com/id/101079), there’s no significant and real different in intelligence and aptitude between men and women.

Is it because men are stronger? Well it’s true men are stronger, on average, than women, but that’s just one trait among many and it’s hardly an essential requirement in this modern day and age where heavy machinery does all the heavy lifting. And besides, it’ just one trait. Doing well in life requires a wide set of talents and skills, from emotional caring to flexibility in relationships to the ability to think rationally and understand metaphors to you name it. Despite what the social Darwinists might want to tell you, social life is not necessarily (as we shall see below) a contest. Despite the religious ideations we build up competition and struggle and domination, this is a choice that we make and, given the sorry political, economic, and social state of the world, arguably not a very good choice.

Then again, maybe it’s not just the single trait of strength, but all the other differences between when and women that account for the devaluing. When you look at the genders, there’s obvious differences right? Maybe it is the accumulation of difference that leads to hierarchical sorting of the genders. Ah but that’s equally problematic. First of all, the differences aren’t that significant. Yes the sexual organs are different, and there are some hormonal differences, but when you stand a female and a male next to each other, it is the similarity that is most striking. Two hands, two arms, two legs, the same internal organs, the same blood system, the same brain plasticity, the same ability to learn language, the same ability to have emotions, the same central nervous system, and so on. There are a few differences between genders, of course, but when compared against the similarities (which as a society we seem to like to ignore) that seems hardly enough to build up a global system of gender suppression.

So why is it?

Why are women valued less?

Well I don’t know how it started. How it all started is lost in the historical myths of ancient antiquity and even the best historical attempts at explanation are, in my opinion, ultimately theoretical. However, though we may not know for sure how it started, we certainly know how it is recreated. And it’s not rocket science either. If you ask me, the recreation of the gender hierarchy starts at birth with the instant, culturally sanctioned, and heavily enforced separation of the genders. That is, the recreation of the gender hierarchy begins as soon as the nurse or orderly assigns the infant child to one of two categories.

It’s that simple.

In that first act of separation and exclusion, gender hierarchy recreated.

Of course, that’s not the only thing that’s needed in order to create a workable gender hierarchy. There is a lot more going on. Other “structures” have to be created. Others have to participate. The parents, the school, even the kids themselves. However, the long journey to gender inequality begins with the pink and blue blanket, and the exclusion of one gender from another. In my theoretical opinion, if you didn’t take that first step, if you didn’t separate genders into two camps in the beginning, nothing else would be justifiable. If we viewed infants as human beings first and ignored gender and gender differences as insignificant and unimportant, there would be no way we could justify the sorts of gender segregations, exclusions, and oppressions that occur now.

Of course, like I said, the separation of genders into two groups is just the first step. It is a necessary, even foundational, but ultimately an insufficient condition. The next step in the creation of a gender hierarchy, is the heavy duty socialization that goes on to convince us that one group (and it’s always the male group) is superior and hence more valuable than the other. And frankly, that’s easy to do. All you have to do is pick one or two abilities and skills that males are generally better at, and then elevate those skills to the point where they are worshiped as exemplars. By doing this you erase all women’s talents as irrelevant, and make the one gender (i.e., the male gender) the standard by which all things are compared.

You see this quite clearly in the area of physical strength, for example. In our society we value physical strength and the domination that this brings. In fact, we worship it. We elevate strength in sports to the status of fetish. We begin the brainwashing, umm training, early when we put our children into competitive sports even before they enter kindergarten. The schools themselves then continue the training both in the classroom and on the field. As part of the multi-tiered level of sport selection, we carefully sort out the strong from the weak and put the strong into “professional” career paths. Then, when sportsmen are at their peak, we create elaborate and ritualised contests with all the pomp and ceremony of a Christmas Mass. We hold elaborate winner’s ceremonies, shower lavish rewards and millions of dollars on those who dominate (at any level), and generally bow down at an alter of strength and power.

Think about it.

Our culture makes strength a religion and because men are, on average stronger, the male gender automatically rises to the top in terms of value and worth. It’s like magic. Of course, that’s not all that’s necessary. Other things are involved, but you get the idea. Gender segregation and the worship of male abilities is not “natural.” It arises because of our choice to create two groups at birth, and then our “choice” to value one or two characteristics over others. In this rather elaborate process of gender separation and the worship of strength, which is ubiquitous, it might seem natural and normal. But it’s not the only option. There other ways to organize societies. We could, for example, value service to others above strength, but we don’t. We could choose to reward self-sacrifice with rewards and trophies and cash, but we don’t (or at least not to the same extent as others). We could also choose to ignore gender altogether and just treat everybody like human beings, but we don’t and even if we want to try a different way, it is hard.  So hard in fact that even trained professional can’t break out of the patterns. Consider the case of psychology, for example. Following heavy criticism from feminists in the ’60, ‘70s, and ‘80s for being male biased in its teaching, research, and publication, and following efforts by the discipline itself to remove male bias from publication and research, gender bias is still a problem! In fact, it’s like nothing had changed. Psychologists, both male and female, continue to use men as the norm and to view women’s differences as a problem. Have a look at the article Male Gender Bias in Psychology Research Continues.[3] It is remarkable how after decades of attempts to bring gender equality into the discipline, psychologists are still largely unaware of the profound bias they bring to their research.


So why don’t we change it. Well for a few reasons. As I’ve already said, it is deeply ingrained, it’s a part of our life, and every day it is reinforced. Beyond that though it might have something to do with politics. When you think about, gender inequality is beneficial. Of course, it’s not beneficial for the women who suffer under it, but for men, corporations, and government, there is definitely a benefit.  As a society, we benefit from women’s devalued, subordinate position. It’s them that usually have to stay home and look after the child. It’s them that have to put in the double day. It’s them that, when push comes to shove, are expected to raise the children in conditions of poverty. It’s them that bear the cost of raising the next generation of worker. Why change a good thing right?

Now I realize this is a bit cynical and I don’t mean to suggest that as a society we are all about the selfish oppression of one half of our number. We all participate in the struggle for equality more or less but we still have to admit, it’s an intractable problem. We come up against a lot of religious, ideological, even political resistance and this has to be acknowledged. Change is something we might want to see, but it’s definitely not something that’s easy. If a century of effort is any indication, breaking centuries of social patterning is no easy task. But you have to remember, sociology is the study of the world we create and despite evidence that gender bias is intractable and continues, nevertheless there has been change. The last century of feminist struggle has opened up new doorways and new opportunities for women. Yet even so, there is still a wage gap, there is still the double day, there is still occupational segregation, and violence against women continues to be a problem not only in our culture, but in others as well. Witness, for example, the 2008 first-degree “honor killing” of an innocent sixteen year old female by her angry father for not living up to the family’s religious expectations.[4] So given that change is possible, and if you are concerned about the disparity in gender, here are some suggestions for you would be sociologists on what you might to help out.

1)  Continue the research. There has been a lot of research on gender inequalities over the last several decades, how they come about, how they are reinforced, etc., but there is still room for more. So ask questions. If it’s an area that interests you, make it a focus of your studies And not just women but men to. It’s not enough to have segregated research areas, or just women looking at gender issues, men should research it to, but on ground acceptable to everyone. We have to break through gender barriers and exclusions at all levels.

2)  Stop glorifying strength, competition, and other male traits over and above softer “female” values. Find and honour the higher human, even spiritual values like caring and nurturing others.

3)  Related to two, but I think requiring its own point, we need to start truly valuing the reproductive contributions of women as equal to the productive sphere of existence. The later cannot exist without the former and as such, equal value needs to be proffered.

4)  Most of all I suppose if we are interested in ending the segregation and hierarchy we need to stop separating the genders. Stop a socialization process that excludes and ranks based on arbitrarily chosen traits. Forget about trivial differences and start playing together. If we could do that, if we could start seeing each other primarily as human beings and not as gendered entities, I think we could go a long way towards undermining the foundations for gender hierarchies. If we’re lucky, it could lead to the eventual collapse of the edifice.


There is this belief, most common amongst natural scientists, that the work they do is objective and free of bias. Presumably science is supposed to provide philosophies, methodologies, and techniques which keep inquiry inline and objective, free of bias, and representing “the truth and only the truth.” But that’s not true. An area of research called the social studies of science has done an awesome job of exposing the mythology of scientific objectivity and methodological purity. I won’t go into detail here, but I would like you to read this article on gender bias in psychology[5] and provide a 800-1200 word commentary. In particular, pay attention to the words of Hegarty in the article who says he is “optimistic” about the revelation of gender bias in psychology because it shows that the system of psychological research “works.”

“…an area where more critical thinking is needed about gender, but on the other hand psychological methods allowed us to bring this issue to light and to describe it. Our conclusion is not that psychologists should not study group differences, but that we serve the public better when we think deeply about the ways that we implicitly frame questions about whose behavior is the default standard norm and whose is made the subject of psychological scrutiny.”

For me, that’s a funny comment. When we look at psychology, we see that after decades of criticism and effort, psychologists apparently have been unable to eliminate gender bias from their research agendas!! Not that I’m criticising. Like I said, it’s hard to overcome gender bias and exclusionary practices. Point for me though is that “finding” gender bias in psychology isn’t an indication of success but of failure. Finding that nothing has changed in discipline despite decades of effort should raise fundamental questions about not only psychology’s disciplinary focus on gender difference (and not similarities), but also on the training itself that allows a spokesman for psychology to make a statement that suggests he is himself unaware of decades of scientific research.  But what do you think? What do you think of the fact that a profound gender bias continues to exist in psychological research? How do you feel about that? Does knowing that psychology has tried, but failed, to deal with gender bias make you more or less confident in the finding of psychology. Discuss.

Study Questions

  • What characteristics would demonstrate that an organized religion, either in its overall structure, or in its local practices, promoted equality or inequality of the genders?
  • Why is it appropriate to include a discussion of the work of early women sociologists in a chapter on gender?
  • Use the different statistics on the percentage of male nurses in different countries (and provinces) to argue that ethnicity has an effect on gender roles.
  • How do we discourage women from acting in ways thought more appropriate to men?  Is this different from the ways that we discourage men from acting in ways thought appropriate to women? Which of the two genders has more freedom concerning gender roles?
  • Write down five words that come to mind when you hear the word ‘geisha’?  How did you learn about this term

[1] See the recent murder of a Toronto youth for failing to wear “gender appropriate” dress (a hijab). The girl was murdered by her brother and father and this was seen, by Muslim leader, as justifiable and excusable given the moral prescriptions violently applied to women. http://www.newstrackindia.com/newsdetails/4162

[2] http://www.newsweek.com/id/101079

[3] See the article Male Gender Bias in Psychology Research Continues. http://psychcentral.com/news/2006/12/29/male-gender-bias-in-psychology-research-continues/

[4] http://www.mississauganews.com/article/15430

[5] http://psychcentral.com/news/2006/12/29/male-gender-bias-in-psychology-research-continues/

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