The purpose of this paper is to independently understand the theoretical paradigms, as well as in relation to the contemporary issue of gender inequality. More than half of Canadians state that they believe that gender equality in our country is progressing. Yet, women still see the effects of the wage gap every day and experience gender-based violence all too often, bringing up the concern that gender inequality is a highly prevalent issue in today’s society (Gender Inequality in Canada, 2017, para. 4). This paper will examine why some of these inequalities exist through the perspectives of functionalism, social interactionism, and conflict theory. As well as argue that conflict theory best suits the issues of gender inequality.
The functionalist perspective states that human behaviour is policed by the need to maintain social solidarity in the complex, interlocking system of social structures. Social structures can preserve or challenge the stability of society. These social structures are a network of values and beliefs that society holds, and often benefit the dominant group in society (Brym, Roberts, Strohschein, 2019, p. 16, 17). When relating functionalism to gender inequalities, we can look into the need for division of labour. This social system efficiently divides labour into two parts, men in the public sphere and women in the private sphere, however, this system is a great cause of gender inequality.
Talcott Parsons, a functionalist, focused on the need for each institution in society to perform an individual, yet important task, so society can meet all its needs. Parsons would argue that gender is one of these social intuitions, and that gender inequality is simply a product of its workings. The nuclear family model, where the woman is the homemaker, and the man is the breadwinner, is a necessary function of the family because it sets clear expectations for each gender’s respective acts of labour. The gender roles complementary to one another, and maximize efficiency and resources, ultimately maintain stability in society (Brym et al., 2019, p. 17).
Parsons’s work was criticized as it emphasised that the entire population held common values. This led Robert K. Merton to propose that institutions have different effects on varying groups in society. Manifest functions perform the task they are aimed at, whereas latent functions have unintended effects on social structures. Certain effects can become dysfunctional to society. For example, the division of labour’s manifest function is to clearly state the gender’s respective labour roles, however, a latent function may be that the woman develops depression when confined to the home. The nuclear family system is then jeopardized as the woman cannot fulfill her role, causing dysfunction in society (Brym et al., 2019, p. 17).
According to a functionalist, institutions must work together to achieve the goal of gender equality by undermining social stability in order to create the necessary social change. However, this paper argues that functionalism is the most ill-fitted framework for the topic of gender inequality as it places too great of an emphasis on the inherent need for gender roles in society.
Symbolic Interactionism looks specifically at how individuals communicate with one another in everyday situations. An emphasis is placed on how one attaches personal, subjective meanings to certain social settings. Our social circumstances can then change following our meaning placed on them, suggesting that individuals are not merely reactive, but rather shape their environment. By highlighting the personal associations’ individuals make with their social circumstances, the beliefs and values of minority groups can be brought to the forefront, allowing for understanding and tolerance of marginalized groups (Brym et al., 2019, p. 21).
. When looking at how gender inequalities exist with the symbolic interactionist framework, we see the everyday interactions between the dominant group, men, and subordinate group, women, such as the use of sexist language and/or actions. This leads people to attach meaning to these events, and eventually cause the belief that society itself holds these sexist values, perpetuating patriarchy.
In much of Max Weber’s work on conflict theory and capitalism, he underlined the importance of empathy when seeking to understand interactions between individuals. By using Verstehen, “the insightful and intuitive understanding of what another human being is experiencing” (Bruno, 2019, slide 29), society can progress and create meaningful change. Therefore, for change to be made in the way in which interactions between men and women take place, both groups must empathetically understand the other groups’ reasons for their behaviour and the meanings they attach to social circumstances (Brym et al., 2019, p. 20).
George Herbert Mead focused specifically on how an individual’s identity forms through socialization. According to Mead, a person will form their personality by taking on the role that they presume the other person they are interacting with sees them to have. For example, a woman interacting with a man may believe the man sees her as meek, emotional, or sensitive, and would then attribute these traits to her own identity. This can easily perpetuate our world of gender inequities (Brym et al., 2019, p. 20).
The idea of individuals changing their personality based on who they interact with strongly relates to Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgical Analysis, which looks at how we behave in different situations based on being on the backstage, in private, or the frontstage, in public. An individual puts on an act to appear in the best possible way to society. For instance, playing the role of the meek woman, or the strong confident man on the frontstage, but allowing ourselves to reject those roles on the backstage, a safer environment (Brym et al., 2019, p. 21).
In pursuance of achieving gender quality, a social interactionist would argue that behaviours and interactions between the dominant and subordinate groups in society must become equal. Nonetheless, the subject of gender inequality does not lend itself well to the symbolic interactionist paradigm because it focuses closely on the individual interactions, ignoring the need to assess inequalities in larger societal systems, such as the patriarchy.
From a conflict theorist’s point of view, the reason for social conflict comes from the power the dominant group in society holds over the subordinate group, and how the dominant group preserves their privilege through the oppression of the subordinate group. Thus, social change occurs when tension builds between the two groups, no longer allowing the subordinate group to withstand the pressure, and eventually causing an upheaval towards the dominant power in society (Brym et al., 2019, p. 17, 18). According to conflict theory, the patriarchal structure of society maintains the male privilege and power, and keeps women subordinate to men, furthering gender inequalities. It is for this reason that social conflict occurs between men and women.
Karl Marx, a pioneer of conflict theory, took the approach that social classes were the most important factor in creating and maintaining inequality and class conflict. Marxism argues that the working class is exploited by the capitalist owners of industry, who pay the working class the bare minimum in order to make the greatest profit themselves. When looking from this viewpoint at gender inequality, one would see that the capitalist drive for profits is responsible for women’s second-class status. Women workers are exploited at a higher level than males because women are a source of cheaper domestic labour, due to the gender pay gap, which is an arrangement that allows the world’s capitalists to profit more every year, furthering the struggle placed on women through class conflict (Gilbert, 2019, para. 2). Marx believed that the working class, or in this instance, women would eventually gain consciousness of belonging to an exploited group and seek to end this practice through a revolution (Brym et al., 2019, p. 18).
Max Weber altered the Marxist framework to account for the growing number of workers in the service sector. These individuals enjoyed a high social status without being an owner of industry, showing that social class was not the only factor in social change. This allowed Weber to look more deeply at how religion and culture affected social conflicts and change. The need for an evolution in religion and culture to meet the modern-day need for equality between men and women grew with Weber’s work (Brym et al., 2019, p. 18).
Conflict theory would emphasise eradicating patriarchy to allow more groups than just the privileged male group to benefit in society. Women would gain back their power through a revolution against the patriarchy in order to access equality. It is for these statements that this paper reasons that conflict theory is best suited to the theme of gender inequality. Conflict theory best examines inequalities and power relationships which is the core of how gender equalities originate.
Conflict theory provides the best framework to understand the issues of gender inequality from as it puts power relationships and the inequalities of classes at the forefront of its model, which are highly related to gender inequality. Although the functionalism and social interactionism paradigms provide sufficient perspectives to view gender inequality from, they neglect some of the roots in gender inequality.
- Brym, R., Roberts, L. W., & Strohschein, L. (2019). Sociology: compass for a new social world (6th ed.). Toronto, Ontario: Nelson
- Gender equality in Canada: where do we stand today? (2017, July 8). Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/3574060/gender-equality-in-canada-where-do-we-stand-today/.
- Gilbert, H. (2019, April 17). Intro to Marxist Feminism. Retrieved from http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/philosophy/Introduction-to-Marxist-Feminism.html.
- Bruno, T. (2019). SOCIOLOG 1020: Origins, major theorists & paradigms [PowerPoint Presentation]. Retrieved from CAMS.