15 August 2014
(rev 1) 

Seminar: What Causes Gender Inequality?

- A Working Syllabus -
SOC-UA 937 – Fall 2014

Robert Max Jackson

http://www.nyu.edu/classes/jackson/causes.of.gender.inequality

      In this course we will investigate what causes inequality between women and menHow does it arise, why does it take different forms, why does it vary in degree across societies, what are the components that add up to gender inequality, how do various institutions and practices contribute to it, and how does it change?  The course will emphasize the history of gender inequality in the United States.

      While we focus on gender inequality, we will also seek to understand social causation more generally.  We will explore the diverse ways social causation works and how we can identify the causes behind important social phenomena. 

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

Overview  ·······  Scope, Organization, and Access  Read this first!
Topic I  ·······  Introduction.  What do we mean by gender inequality?
Topic II  ·······  Causality - What are causes, mechanisms, and the like?
Topic III  ·······  How is gender inequality symbolized and reproduced in everyday life?
Topic IV  ·······  Why have women apparently occupied a subordinate position in all societies?
Topic V  ·······  What determines men's and women's roles and positions within families?
Topic VI  ·······  What is the role of sexuality?
Topic VII  ·······  What is the role of sex differences in the functioning and perpetuation of gender inequality?
Topic VIII  ·······  What is the role of violence and intimidation in the relationships between men and women?
Topic IX  ·······  How has the economy influenced men and women's positions in society?
Topic X  ·······  What role does ideology play in determining the relations between men and women?
Topic XI  ·······  How can we make sense of feminism's fate and role in contemporary U.S.?
Topic XII  ·······  How have political processes and structures sustained men's and women's relative status? 
Topic XIII  ·······  What does the future hold? 

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Description – Scope, Organization, and Access :

The Scope of the Topics and Materials. We know a lot about gender inequality – its history, how people experience it in their lives, the ways it varies in intensity and form across time and place, the beliefs that make it seem natural, and much more.  The outpouring of research and commentary on gender inequality over the past half century has been extraordinary.  Unfortunately, despite all this, our understanding of what causes gender inequality remains troubled. Both ordinary people and experts (such as scholars) commonly fluctuate between simplistic explanations that founder under close scrutiny and throwing up their hands in frustration over what can seem an enigma beyond human comprehension.  Here we will seek to surmount this dilemma.  We will explore diverse facets of gender inequality and varied ideas about what causes might be decisive.  We will also look carefully at the ways we can identify and verify the causes of social phenomena.  Through these efforts we will aim both to enhance our understanding of what produces gender inequality and to improve our general ability to do causal social analyses effectively.

The class organization and goals. In this class, each week's work will be organized around an analytical task, as well as a set of readings.  Rather than focusing on discussion of the readings, the analytical tasks involve attempting a causal analysis of some aspect of gender inequality related to the week's issue, building on the materials we read (in brief papers of a couple pages).  The approach in this class seeks to develop analytical skills as well as understandings of the relevant literature by stressing doing actual analyses of gender inequality. (Note: this class does not have an exam nor a final paper.)

All class meetings are organized as discussions.  Part of our class discussions will be on the common readings and part on students' efforts to explore the analytical tasks  each week.  We will adjust the time devoted to these two goals according to our experiences over the class.  Every week, students will initiate discussions on readings and papers. To make this work, each week's papers will be exchanged (electronically) with enough lead time that we can all read all the papers prior to the class meetings.

Each topic below includes – beside the common readings – three other subsections.  These are: an analytical task, recommended readings, and related readings.  The analytical task is the writing assignment for the week.  Everyone should read the common readings while doing the analytical task (and be prepared to discuss them).  In each of these papers – always  brief papers – students will try out causal ideas related to the week's topic.  Recommended and related readings are optional materials useful for those who want to dig deeper into a topic.  To simplify navigating through the syllabus, these subsections are hidden until the viewer clicks on the subsection heading, then they will appear.

Most of our readings will be articles available for downloading.  The links will appear in the  online version of the course syllabus.  Excerpts from Down So Long . . .: The Puzzling Persistence of Gender Inequality (book manuscript by RMJ not yet published) will similarly be available for downloading from the class web site.  (As we will read selections from Jackson's book Destined for Equality [Harvard U Press] throughout the course, you might want to buy it or borrow it.) 

Any student unfamiliar with the study of gender, can (and probably should) pick up the basics from a standard textbook in the area – I recommend Michael Kimmel's Gendered Society (which I use in my basic general undergraduate class on gender, so used copies should be easy to find).

For further relevant sources, my reading lists/syllabi for two graduate courses might be valuable.  The one most directly related is What Causes Gender Inequality: Analytical Foundations; a more general class, What Causes Inequality: Analytical Foundations, may provide materials for broader questions about different kinds of inequalities and how to think about gender inequality in relationship to them.

A note on the "hidden" material below:  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 through the course guide, only the headings for these subsections are initially visible.  The contents of all these 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 become an obstacle if we want to search the page (for example, for a particular article) as searches will ignore the hidden material (that is, if you search a page you are viewing in an internet browser, the search will only examine what is shown on the page at that time).  To overcome this limitation, you can "open" all the hidden sections to show everything on the page by clicking the § symbol at the top of the page.  (To restore the page to the normal condensed view, simply reload the page which will collapse all the "hidden" sections to their usual look).  The table of contents at the top of this page will aid speedy navigation to any topic, which is particularly helpful if you reveal all the "hidden" material.

The Topics

I. 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?

II. 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.

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

To start our investigation of the causes of gender inequality, we will 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?

IV. Why have women apparently occupied a subordinate position in all societies?  And how does explaining the "origins" of gender inequality relate to explaining the "persistence" of gender inequality?

Although some scholars may question if women have been subordinate in all societies, all agree that men have been dominant in most societies although the degree of dominance varies greatly.  This raises the very tricky question, how do we explain the prevalence of male dominance?  This exceedingly elusive question continues to elude any answer that will evoke a consensus. 

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

Family and kinship are potentially relevant to gender inequality in varied ways and a lot of work had pursued such issues.  Probably the two most important general issues involve the ways that women and men are unequal within families and the ways that family organization both contributes to and is influenced by gender inequality beyond the family institution.  We will just touch the surface of these issues this week.

VI.  What is the role of sexuality?

Sexuality has been evoked in multiple ways in the study of gender inequality.  Some have considered it as a possible motivating cause for inequality, others have explored how gender inequality can mold the experience and practice of sexuality, and others have tried to theoretically incorporate sexuality as a peculiar tension between women and men that mediates both the causes and effects of gender inequality.  Essentially, everyone recognizes sexuality is critically important to gender inequality, but we lack agreement or clarity on how it matters.

VII. 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.  Essentialist arguments impute distinctive attributes to women and men and attribute the social differences between women's and men's activities, opportunities, statuses, and roles to these distinct attributes.  Even theoretical analyses of gender inequality that expressly reject the possibility of consequential, inherent sex differences,  commonly build their explanations of inequality on gender differences.  To complicate matters, essentialist arguments proclaiming superior attributes for women exist alongside of the arguments proclaiming women inferior.  Moreover, while 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.

VIII. 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. 

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

Analyses of gender inequality attribute 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.  This relationship becomes clearer in more "advanced" societies where economic organization has become institutionally differentiated from kinship and political organization.  Sometimes this unequal economic access is understood as an expression of gender inequality, sometimes a cause of gender inequality, sometimes a result. Many analyses consider it all three.

X. 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.  People's conceptions of masculinity and femininity, ideas concerning the fairness of differential treatment  or expectations of women and men, internalized schema that evoke different judgments of women's and men's actions, rules about proper male and female behavior applied to children – all these and more concern the influence of ideology on gender identities, differential treatment of women and men, and the organization and persistence of gender inequality.  Conversely, each ideological belief that symbolizes, legitimates, invokes, guides, induces, or helps sustain gender inequality is itself a product of gender inequality.  To untangle these complex causal interdependencies, we must always attend carefully to two kinds of distinctions.  First, we must consistently recognize differences in levels of social organization, including, among others, societal structures and culture, organizations, social networks, social processes, and individual actors.  While it is tempting to treat ideological beliefs as diffuse entities unconnected to identifiable people, organizations, or structures, the analytical results are poor.  Second, we must consistently distinguish between contemporaneous causes (e.g., the ways that internalized schema can influence interactions) and asynchronous or historical causes (e.g., the ways that changes in domestic production  induce different ideas about women's place).  Causal arguments about ideology consider it as both an effect of gender inequality and a cause of gender inequality, although it is ideology's potential role as a contributing cause that stands out as more theoretically important.

XI.   How can we make sense of feminism's fate and role in contemporary U.S.?

Today, feminism is both extolled and condemned, often by people whose orientations toward feminism seem to defy their interests.  Both the popular press and scholarship have devoted a lot of effort seeking to make sense of people's beliefs about feminism and equality, but these efforts have done little to reduce the disagreements.

XII.   How have political processes and structures sustained men's and women's relative status?

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.

These political processes may support and enforce gender inequality, passively permit it, or oppose gender inequality (as is true with any form of social inequality). They may do any combination of these with respect to different aspects of gender inequality.  Sustaining influence over political processes is a fundamental feature and goal of socially dominant groups and the long monopoly of men over political power has both demonstrated and sustained gender inequality.  Yet, government actions have also contributed to the decline of gender inquality over the past two centuries.


XIII.   What does the future hold?

Where do we go from here? Predicting the future is the ultimate challenge for causal analyses.  To have any potential to see into the future, we need a sound and thorough causal theory, one that can encompass the range of possible influences simultaneously.  We also need to cope with the unpredictable potential effects of processes and events that are outside the boundaries of our theories.  These are extremely difficult conditions to meet.  But the need to make some sense of the future weighs on us.  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?





Topics in Waiting
(Click here to see Possible Sections for the Future)


Possible additional sections ...

XII.   How have women's and men's actions obstructed or furthered change, taking into account the changing institutional context?

      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 are complex results of their interests, ideologies, circumstances, opportunities, and constraints.  While theories of gender inequality invoke all kinds of abstract causal processes, in real life inequality is sustained and changed by the actions of women and men.  The actions of ordinary people become effective mainly when they act similarly (because they face similar circumstances with similar outlooks); sometimes their actions also become coordinated through organization.  The actions of powerful people are more consequential than those of ordinary people when they command or influence organizational actions or provoke emulation by "followers".  Even unique political actions may have great effect by altering laws, policies, or the balance of power, although even in these cases the institutionalization of changes generally depends on dispersed acceptance; in the economic realm, even organizational actions typically become effective only when multiple organizations pursue parallel policies (governmental controls over an economy would be an exception). 

XIII.   How do the media influence or reflect gender inequality?

Commentators often point toward media influence when they try to explain contemporary gender inequality. Theories of media alert us that we must always consider reciprocal causal processes. While any individual may appear only to be the object of media influence, the content and impact of media depend greatly on the existing culture and social structure. The relationship of the media to the collective market effect of consumers may be compared to the relationship between elected public officials and voters. Also, consumers have considerable freedom to choose which media outlets to give their attention and people selectively interpret and judge the media to which they are exposed. All of this makes the relationship between what is portrayed in the media and what occur in the "real" world rather complex.

XII.   How have political processes and structures sustained men's and women's relative status? [original version with alternate task & readings]

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.

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