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In the 1968 International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, there is no entry for gender inequality. In 2006, thirtyeight years later, Carolyn Hannon, director of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for the Advancement of Women, stated: “It is difficult to say with certainty what a world truly based on gender equality would look like, since we are still so far from achieving it” (2006, p.1). This statement shows how awareness of gender as an analytical category and gender inequality as a lived phenomenon has grown since the late 1960s. The world is deeply divided and organized by gender, defined as a set of socially constructed practices linked to biological sex that shape how individuals understand the categories of woman and man. Gender as a process is historically and culturally specific; manifestations of women’s subordination are highly varied yet intricately connected. Not only does the form and extent of women’s oppression vary from country to country, but it is also always shaped by relations of power based on race, class, ability and sexual orientation. Gender inequality is recognized as a persistent and detrimental aspect of all human societies.
While there is debate about the origins of gender inequality, the material effects of it are easily identifiable. According to the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, “Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours. They also produce half of the world’s food. However, women earn only ten percent of the world’s income, and own less than one percent of the world’s property” (2005, p.1). Poverty itself has been feminized: approximately 70 percent of the people living on less than one dollar a day are women or girls. The differential treatment of men and women is evident in material conditions and supported by ideological practices. Men are numerically dominant in key global and national decision-making positions such as international organizations, governments, and boards of directors of private enterprise. Men, therefore, greatly control access to resources and are the key architects of social, economic, and political policies. Gender inequality requires the daily exercise of power to be maintained. Further, the work of men is more highly paid and is accorded greater status than the work of women, which is often unpaid and not recognized as work. Joni Seager and Ann Olson in Women in the World: An International Atlas note, “Everywhere women are worse off than men: women have less power, less autonomy, more work, less money, and more responsibility. Women everywhere have a smaller share of the pie; if the pie is very small (as in poor countries), women’s share is smaller still. Women in rich countries have a higher standard of living than do women in poor countries, but nowhere are women equal to men” (1986, p. 7).
In most regions of the world, gender relations were transformed in the twentieth century by the globalization of economies, technological developments, changes in how work is organized, warfare, and organized resistance movements (feminist, anticolonial, and civil rights). In the year 1900, the vast majority of women in the world had no formal legal rights, had extremely limited employment options, and were starting to gain access to higher education. Although the specificity of gender inequality in the global North (the world’s wealthier nations, located predominantly in the northern hemisphere) and the South (the world’s poorer nations largely of the southern hemisphere) may differ, women across the globe have worked together to effect systemic, lasting changes to improve the material conditions of women’s lives. To be able to build an effective feminist movement, Chandra Mohanty has argued that women must work from a framework that highlights “mutuality, accountability and the recognition of common interests as the basis for relationships among diverse communities” (2003, p. 7). The notion of common interests between women of the South and North is important because it disrupts the construction of women of the North as liberated and women of the South as victims in need of rescue.
Issues of Gender Inequality in Work
To understand gender issues and work, it is important to note that work has been largely conceptualized in the social sciences as activities performed for wages outside of the home, in the productive or public sphere. This is the work that men predominantly perform. Work done in the home by women—unwaged reproductive work that provides essential services for the functioning of the public sphere such as producing food for the family and childcare—is not considered to be part of the economy and has been rendered invisible in global accounting systems. According to Marilyn Waring in Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth (1999), economic indicators such as the gross domestic product (GDP) and gross national product (GNP) do not include “activities that lie outside the production boundary—that is, in every notion, the great bulk of labour performed by women in an unpaid capacity” (p. 58). Since GDP and GNP are used to set policy priorities and measure the economic performance of a nation, the omission of women’s work has far-reaching consequences. Women’s contributions are not included in the calculation of major economic indicators thus rendering women’s work invisible and naturalizing the belief that women do not contribute to the economy. Waring argued that the recognition of the unpaid work of women would necessarily lead to changes in social policy.
Women and girls perform the vast majority of work done in the home. This work is unpaid, devalued, and unrecognized as legitimate work and the sharp gendered division of labor is often justified by the argument that the activities of housework are a natural extension of women’s biology. In Japan, for example, women reported that they spent twenty-nine hours per week doing housework; the average for men was only four hours. A survey conducted in India in 1999 found that women cooked for fifteen hours a week, had five minutes per day for leisure, slept two hours less per night than men, and spent ten times longer on household work than men. Men indicated that they cooked for less than one hour per week and had, on average, two hours per day of leisure time (Seager, 2003, p. 70). In households where both partners work outside the home for wages, the division of labor within the home is disproportionately performed by women.
Entry into the waged labor market has been seen as a route to greater autonomy for women and since the 1970s the participation of women in the labor market has increased dramatically. In most countries, women now form at least 40 percent of waged workers. In 1999, 83 percent of women in Burundi, Mozambique, and Rwanda worked for wages. However, it is critical to examine the working conditions, wages, and occupational segregation faced by women. Women form approximately 75 percent of the world’s part-time workforce and are often employed on short temporary contracts without health benefits, job security, or protection against job-related health problems. Women tend to be clustered in occupations in the service sector, in nurturing roles such as teaching and nursing as well as industrial assembly work on the global assembly line. These occupations receive lower levels of pay and social status. Even for identical work performed by women and men, work is valued differently depending on who performs the work. For example, in the United States in 1998, compared to the earnings of white men for the same work, white women earned seventy-three cents on the dollar, African American women earned sixty-three cents, and Hispanic American women earned fifty-three cents. The gender gap in earnings also varies by race. Even when women have the education and experience, they are often not able to break into the highest levels of management. According to Seager, in Canada and the United States in 1999, only thirteen of the largest one thousand corporations had women chief executive officers and only 4 percent of the senior management positions were filled by women.
Formal Rights and Political Power
Women have made significant progress with respect to formal legal rights since the mid-nineteenth century. There has been a growing awareness of gender inequality in formal power and legal systems. Across the globe, women have fought for rights to make their status equal to that of men in areas of universal suffrage, property rights, and access to education. As of 2006, there is only one country, Kuwait, in which women do not have the same voting rights as men. Although the struggle for universal suffrage began in the mid-nineteenth century in many countries, the extension of voting rights was unevenly applied over a period of years to different groups of women. For example, in Canada, white women were first granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1918 yet it was not until 1960 that everyone in Canada regardless of gender or race was allowed to vote.
The extension of voting rights to women has not significantly changed the face of political representation and the exercise of political power. As of 2006 there is no country where women comprise 50 percent of elected representatives in government. In 1990 when women held, on average, 12 percent of all seats in national houses of parliament, the United Nations Economic and Social Council recommended that nations should aim to achieve a level of 30 percent representation by women by 1995. As of 2005 women’s political participation as a global average increased to 16 percent; only 19 countries met or exceeded the 30 percent target, according to the United Nations Statistical Division. The votes that women fought so hard for do not seem to have translated into direct political power for women as a group. Gender inequality is also prevalent in religious institutions. In all mainstream religious traditions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism) women are either forbidden from participating in leadership roles or sharply limited in what roles they can assume.
Feminists have argued that women and men are born with equal human capacity to learn, develop, and contribute to shaping the world. It is through the social organization of gender and gender roles that limit the potential of women to contribute to their full ability. Since 1960 there have been many positive developments, such as increased participation of women in political leadership roles and increased access for women and girls to education. One significant indicator of the success of feminist organizing is how an awareness of gender inequality as manifested in violence against women and reproductive health issues has been moved to the center of national and global discussions. Gender inequality has become a key focus of the United Nations. In 1975, the first World Conference on Women was held in Mexico with 133 governments participating in the discussions. Since 1975 there have been four additional conferences (Copenhagen, 1980; Nairobi, 1985; Beijing, 1995; New York, 2005) with participation increasing with each meeting. In 1995 more than 47,000 women and men participated in the creation of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action. The Platform clearly stated that the empowerment of women and gender equality were critical to international development, peace, and human rights. One hundred eighty-nine countries endorsed the Platform, giving gender inequality a new profile in the formation of national policies and legislation.
Equality between women and men will not be achieved only by the implementation of legal reforms that position men and women as the same; there remains much work to be done beyond the achievement of formal legal rights. The elimination of global gender inequality will require a fundamental transformation of social relations between women and men.
- Enloe, Cynthia. 1989. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.
- Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory Practicing Solidarity. London: Duke University Press.
- Seager, Joni. 2003. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World. New York: Penguin Books.
- Seager, Joni, and Ann Olson. 1986. Women in the World: An International Atlas. London: Pan Books.
- Waring, Marilyn. 1999. Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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