Why Gender Inequality Persists

By Mary Evans

Gender inequality persists throughout the world. Even if the forms of that inequality differ from those of the past, there are still important ways in which women are marginalised, excluded and discriminated against in many contexts. The reasons are complex, but not least – and perhaps most surprising – is the way in which the assumption of the “emancipation” of women masks the continuity of inequalities between men and women.

There has seldom been a moment in the past three hundred years when the “woman question” has not been on the intellectual and political agenda of much of the global north. It is therefore all the more remarkable that there is still manifest gender inequality throughout, not just this part of the world, but many other parts of the planet. We have been thinking about this issue for generations but clearly have some way to go before we reach any kind of resolution of this form of inequality.

The question therefore is not so much what gender inequality is (that is made clear in any number of contexts from Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism to the many governmental and NGO reports published throughout the world) but why – and how – this persists. The responsibility of women for much of the personal care necessary to keep the world functioning, the lower pay than men that women receive globally, the various forms of violence against women and the very limited presence that women have in many forms of social and political power all make up the case for inequality. Indeed, in some parts of the world, women are formally regarded as second class citizens, every aspect of their social existence mediated through male power and privilege. This – and these – are forms of inequality, undeniable and stark.

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Yet, as already suggested, the question is why this continues. In answer to this inquiry there are some usual suspects: women bear children, do a great deal of unpaid caring that very effectively keeps them out of paid work and forms of power, there are all kinds of ancient religious myths that suggest some kind of natural gender order in which women are “naturally” subordinate to men. All these answers are important, particularly perhaps, and paradoxically so, in those many societies that are deemed “secular” in the 21th century. In these very places there are many who persist in supposing that women are that inferior form of humanity known as “Adam’s Rib”. It is not so much that millions of people actually believe as fact the creationist fantasies of the Book of Genesis but that what remains is an extraordinarily lasting and very powerful sense that somehow, biologically, female people do not have the same “natural” rights and place in the social world as men. What is important here is that we often refuse to countenance the ways in which we are not secular, and the ways in which some kinds of assumptions about gender, drawn from sources with which few people have any direct contact or loyalty, still inform our behaviour to each other.

If religious mythology still continues to play a part in our society at least as important is our belief in ideas about progress and the “emancipation” of women.

If religious mythology still continues to play a part in our society at least as important is our belief in ideas about progress and the “emancipation” of women. This I would argue is similarly important in explaining the persistence of gender inequality. It is undeniably true that many aspects of everyday, material life in the twenty first century is a great deal better for millions of people than it was in previous centuries. Many of us have access to clean water, once fatal forms of disease have been brought under human control, the vast majority of people in the global north are literate, and communicate and travel in ways that were only dreamt of a hundred years ago. Those are generally changed and improved conditions of life for millions of men and women. More particularly for women, contraception has made possible the control of fertility and many of the once punitive codes about “fallen” women have considerably diminished. All these appear as, and indeed is many respects, a very powerful argument for supposing that “progress” has been made and that women have been “emancipated”. Again, yes, it is important to recognise that women have control over their own lives in ways once legally impossible: rights to property, to paid work, to vote and to be educated. All these factors have made possible the view, made since the early 19th century, that the condition of life for “modern” women is very different from that of previous centuries. That view in itself also constitutes the basis for assuming that somehow the “emancipation” of women has gone too far; a position which so comprehensively demonstrates that somehow the determining situation of humanity is male and that men should own and decide access to it .

“Modern” women have, however, always been threatening. In Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (published in 1814) the heroine, a penniless young woman named Fanny Price is upbraided by her rich uncle for refusing a marriage to a wealthy young man. In fury at Fanny’s refusal of this match, her uncle remarks that he had always thought her free from that “modern” spirit which can so infect young women. Autonomy and agency for women were as problematic in the early nineteenth century as they are for women in the twenty first. It is not that the form of agency and autonomy are the same – not many women in the UK in 2016 are actually forced into marriage – but what continues are two things: a refusal of the recognition of the forms of power through which gender inequality is maintained and a constant sensationalism around the achievements and behaviour of women.

In the first of those cases – the forms of power through which gender inequality is maintained – we have to look at our present, globally significant, investment in continuing our commitment to those human forms of masculinity and femininity. Both these forms of human subjectivity have important, indeed in some contexts essential, material importance. It matters to individuals, to families and to the state that femininity is associated with caring and that biologically female people are assumed to have this characteristic. This unpaid work of women is always thought to have achieved recognition only in the feminism of the late 20th century but well known women in the 19th century such as Harriet Taylor were as fully aware of it as those other millions of women whose daily lives were made up of this form of work. But the associative link between women and care persists; a link which is often interpreted in terms not of this association becoming extended to men but in terms of the “loss” from expectations of the feminine. Yet these associations of gender and behaviour are further complicated by those studies of the work pace which suggest that although a greater emotional awareness, a degree of the feminine, is welcomed in men, the reverse is not true. Thus women who exhibit what is seen as “masculine” behaviour are not seen as positive. We confront in these issues a general human need for different forms of emotional capacity whilst at the same time we remain deeply conflicted about the gender of that characteristic. The consequence of our confusion and incoherence is that existing, and rigid, patterns of the emotional differentiation between genders persist.

We confront in these issues a general human need for different forms of emotional capacity whilst at the same time we remain deeply conflicted about the gender of that characteristic.

A second area which merits attention when we discuss the persistence of gender inequality is that gender itself is an issue around which there is a constant narrative of the sensational. “Sensation” as a form of news and public debate is ancient but the changes in communication in the twentieth century have made this into a formative part of our public media. The consequences of this for perceptions of gender and gender difference cannot be underestimated. From the very explicit instances of the ways in which women’s bodies are subject to scrutiny and comment to the more implicit cases where women in public life are presented and discussed one refrain in all narratives continues: it is acceptable to police the ways in which women appear and behave. This form of attention sells newspapers and magazines, creates needs and anxieties about appearance and puts into a global context models of desirability to a gaze which may once have been male but is now gender neutral. As Michel Foucault observed we increasingly police ourselves.

But what Foucault did not do was to point out the way in which that policing was different for women from that of men. If we add here that concept of “moral panic” so vividly voiced in the work of the sociologist Stan Cohen, it is possible to see how a constant social anxiety is created and maintained about what women are and what they should be. That is a pressure that other aspects of “emancipation” has not changed or challenged. Norms about sexuality have shifted – even if they still need a great deal more shifting in many contexts – but what endures is the way in which women and womanhood constitutes the “other” position of humanity. Even as women and men have come to occupy increasingly similar positions within the laws of the global north so new forms of gender inequality emerge; political power shifts between institutional contexts and to places which are in some ways often inaccessible to women. Social changes in the twenty first century are generally of a much greater benefit to the privileged than to others; those outside that privilege include many women whose structural position has changed little for centuries. The crinoline and explicit forms of male control have disappeared, other subtle but equally discriminatory forms of gender difference remain.



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Mary Evans is currently a Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics where she teaches an undergraduate course , Gender, Politics and the State. Her many publications include studies of Jane Austen, Simone de Beauvoir and detective fiction as well as wide ranging work on aspects of feminist theory.

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