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All about gender

March 7, 2018
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By Nevena Kulic*

Some decades ago, the movement for gender equality faced a challenging goal: calling for greater gender equality, the feminists pushed for women’s education and paid work. Women were looking for equal opportunities, the right to economic independence and a career, sexual freedom, and an appreciation of their potential in the workplace and in the family. Since the ‘female revolution’ began in the early 1960s, the changing role of women has become one of the greatest achievements of economically developed modern society. Yet, these changes are neither complete nor fully successful, inspiring the title of a rather well-known book published by Gosta Esping-Andersen in 2009, The Incomplete Revolution.

Last year and this, the Max Weber Programme and the European University Institute hosted a number of lectures and seminars with gender scholars in sociology, political theory, and economics who talked about the persistent ‘problem’ of gender in our society. Barbara Petrongolo, Claudia Goldin, Hadas Mandel, Gosta Esping-Anderson, Nancy Fraser and Cecilia Ridgeway, gave us their views on gender inequalities, their persistence and the mechanisms that reproduce them, and their future development. Here, I summarize their positions, aiming to show how we stand at a moment when women in different parts of world are returning to the streets, calling for more rights and protesting against political regimes that withhold the achievements of the gender revolution.

Barbara Petrongolo examined long-term trends and the historical development of women’s participation in the labour market. She showed that women achieved enormous progress in entering employment, but failed to converge fully with their male counterparts in pay and working hours. She listed several potential explanations for these trends, ranging from women’s preferences and intrinsic characteristics, to the role of social norms and gender identity. Yet, the major reason why women have not matched men is, in her opinion, the burden of care work: ‘Women remain the major providers of care; this feeds into the investment of women in the labour market, it feeds into gender norms and the formation of stereotypes, and it feeds into employers’ beliefs’. Finding the right form of political intervention to support care work is an uneasy job, as the policies ideally need to lead to reconciliation without fostering existing gender norms.

Esping-Andersen relied on statistics in some European countries (e.g. Denmark) to show that the most egalitarian households are to be found when women work full-time. He argues that de facto equality is only possible when women fully converge with the ‘male’ model, and this is the equilibrium that can also bring more ‘family’ and fertility. Again, the question is: what happens to the care work? Is it possible to change the equilibrium of employment if we do not resolve who handles the care work? As Nancy Fraser pointed out in her talk at the EUI, economic production could not exist without social reproduction as ‘unwaged activities that produce and socialize human beings’, which are, however, considered secondary to production and as such undervalued. However, the equilibrium between the two is crucial. There are many pressures on this delicate balance, because women went to work in very large numbers, and because current cuts in public spending in many countries made it more difficult for families to find a substitute for a mother’s care.  Gender inequality persists because capitalist society has not been able to solve the contradiction between economic production and social reproduction.

It is also Claudia’s Goldin view that the collision between work and family remains the major problem withholding women’s convergence in the labour market: employment, pay and prestige. One way to reorganize economic production would be to decrease the costs of so-called ‘temporal flexibility’, which enables workers to choose days and hours of work. If the costs of temporal flexibility are high for employers, those who work flexible hours are more penalized and face a higher pay gap. Sectors that managed to decrease the cost of flexibility, such as science and technology, show less of a gender pay gap in contrast to highly penalizing sectors such as business and consultancy. If overtime and  9-to-5 jobs are valued and rewarded most, these jobs will be of a higher value, creating and perpetuating a constant gap between those who are not able to fulfill these criteria (e.g. women) and those who are (e.g. men). In other words, the problem of ‘gender’ is related to costs but also to the dominant values about what matters in economic production.

Hadas Mandel, instead, points out that we need to differentiate between individual and structural inequalities in work and occupations. On the one hand, it is important to study the average achievement of individual men and women, and observe the current gaps; on the other hand, it is also necessary to analyze whether and how structural inequality has changed over time. Have the economic rewards of certain professions changed with their feminization or masculinization? Does the gender gap remain because women continue to be over-represented in lower paying ‘female’ industries, or is this also due to depreciation in pay in industries that become female over time? The problem may lie in system inequality, rules and regulations that are set beyond individual powers, which as such might be responsible for persisting inequality, particularly when it comes to pay gaps.

This final point brings us to gender seen as a status characteristic. According to Cecilia Ridgeway, gender inequality is still an issue because men continue to be more esteemed than women in most situations. This leads to an underestimation of women in everyday situations and is responsible for an underestimation of care work and female friendly professions at the aggregate level. The current political and economic structure supports these beliefs, and is shaped by them. Should we then change the beliefs first or do we need to act on the structure? To cite Cecilia Ridgeway, ‘It’s hard to change a belief with a belief, you often need to create experiences that make people think differently, and these come through technological change, economic and political changes, also resistance, feminist and social movements’.  Beliefs will slowly adapt to such change.

The views of these scholars about what gender inequality is and how it should be approached are articulated at a time when women are marching for their rights in the USA and many other countries, massively for the second year.

The prevailing sentiment for many women is that the time has come to campaign again for social change. Have we reached a point when it is no longer realistic to expect that women continue to adjust to the economic and political system that is reinforcing individual inequalities?

The gender revolution has stalled because institutions that regulate our behaviour have not changed enough, but also because men have failed to converge in accompanying women on their journey. We need the increasing political engagement and political representation of women, and why not, a new gender movement. Time will show whether current political setbacks followed by the new wave of protests and resurgence of feminist movements will contribute to a ‘complete revolution’.

*Nevena Kulic is a Max Weber Fellow at SPS. She is a sociologist interested in social and gender inequalities, particularly in a comparative perspective. Her research focuses on a range of topics such as intra-household dynamics, educational inequality in childhood, and women in the labour market and education.


The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows and former Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme

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