Gender discrimination is unfair or unequal treatment directed at a person because of his or her sex or gender. It results most typically from the stereotypical association of certain character traits with women and men, the identification of feminine character traits as less desirable, and the disadvantages that result from this for women. Although gender discrimination also can, at least in principle, be directed at men, its victims are overwhelmingly women.
Cross-culturally and throughout history societies have imputed social significance to gender, assigned different roles to women and men, and used genderbiased language and symbols to suggest a categorical difference between women and men. Categorical distinctions become unfair discrimination when women are identified persistently as subordinate and weaker. All over the world governments, organizations, firms, and households have used gender distinction to allocate burdens and rewards to women and men differentially. Frequently societies have considered gender inequalities part of a natural or divine order and justified discrimination by referring to religion and biology.
the feminist movement
Since the mid-nineteenth century feminists have attacked gender discrimination. They have argued that gender differences are not natural but instead are products of society. They have contended that people are made feminine or masculine through socialization and social institutions and practices and that the world is conceived of as masculine and feminine as a result of the symbols and language that are employed.
Feminist movements have challenged legislation that discriminates against women in politics, economics, and the private sphere. They have gained equal voting rights for women almost universally. They have challenged the exclusion of women from certain jobs, discriminatory pay, and unequal treatment in the workplace. In many places they still are fighting the restriction of women's property rights and rights to contract, their unequal access to education, their unequal rights in families, and their lack of rights to inherit or serve as guardians for their children. The United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is the most authoritative international document condemning gender discrimination at the international level.
de facto discrimination
Although women's equal rights have become an international norm and governments have adjusted their laws, in practice gender discrimination is widespread in all parts of the world. Women are severely underrepresented in the political arena. For example, women made up an average of only 15.2 percent of the members of parliaments worldwide in 2003, and of the 192 countries in
the world only 12 had a female head of state. Women are still much less likely than men to be active in the paid labor market (63 women for every 100 men). However, they work more hours per day than men do. Almost half of women's workday involves nonmarket activities compared to 20 to 30 percent for men.
Women make up 70 percent of the world's 1.3 billion poor (i.e., those living on the equivalent of less than one dollar a day). Women around the world still earn less than men for the same work, their skills tend to be undervalued, and they tend to be concentrated in low-paying and insecure jobs in the informal sector. In Europe the farther women move up the career ladder, the larger the wage differential becomes, with those in the top 10 percent of the salary scale earning on average 35 percent less than do their male counterparts. Clearly, aggregate statistics speak of pervasive discrimination.
causes and issues
Why is there such a discrepancy between international commitments to nondiscrimination and political and economic realities? Feminist theorists have provided different answers to this question. Some have argued that correcting discrimination against women is a matter or time, of educating biased people, and of strengthening and enforcing laws of nondiscrimination. Others have insisted that a purely legal strategy is insufficient. Because ideas about gender difference are deeply embedded in societies, it is necessary to change informal rules and practices in all spheres of society. This entails a vast change of culture, the language and symbols that suggest women's inferiority, and the practices of public and private organizations, governments, and firms. A commitment to nondiscrimination, in this perspective, needs to be incorporated into all aspects of policy planning and implementation in all issues areas.
Other feminists take a sharply different perspective. They argue that the problem lies with a society that has built its economic and political structures on the presumption that all individuals are the same. This presumption suppresses difference and persuades people to approximate the masculine standard of autonomous, rational individuals. The liberal economic idea that people are competing freely in the labor market implicitly suggests that people have no attachments to families and no care obligations. The liberal idea of citizenship also ignores the differential rights and duties assigned to women and men in the family to create a fiction of a public sphere in which all voices are equal. Equality in these constructions becomes sameness, and gender, racial, ethnic, age, and other differences are denied.
Gender equality tends to be associated with a country's wealth. Typically the countries ranked highest in the United Nations's Development Program's (UNDP) gender-related development index (which measures gender differences in life expectancy, literacy, school enrollment, and earned income) are industrialized countries. However, the UNDP's gender empowerment measure (which weighs women's participation in politics, their proportion among professional and technical workers, and the wage gap) places relatively poorer countries, such as the Bahamas, Costa Rica, and Barbados, in the ranks of the top twenty whereas Japan moves down to forty-fourth place. Wealth thus is an important but not a sufficient predictor of discrimination. Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, the top three countries on both UNDP measures, like the Bahamas, Costa Rica, and Barbados, have strong welfare states and a strong presence of women in legislatures. Social policy and government intervention clearly matter.
In addition, culture has a significant impact. In countries where women's and men's roles are considered to be fundamentally different and complementary, women's status tends to be lower. This is the case in conservative and often strongly religious countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Ecuador, and Ireland, all of which show extreme income differentials between women and men. Furthermore, since the 1980s neo-liberal economic policies have had a definite, if highly complex, impact on women's status. Women have entered low-wage labor markets, increasing their representation in the global labor force, but doing so disproportionately in insecure jobs.
In sum, gender discrimination persists because of a combination of cultural commitments and policy preferences. The neo-liberal perspective that sees the welfare state as an obstacle to economic growth has been problematic for the fight against gender discrimination.
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International Labour Organization. Global Employment Trends for Women 2004. Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2004. <http://kilm.ilo.org/GET2004/DOWNLOAD/trendsw.pdf>.
Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women Elected in 2003: The Year in Perspective. Geneva: Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2004. <http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/March04.pdf>.
Tong, Rosemarie Putnam. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.
United Nations Women's Fund. Progress of the World's Women: Vol. 2. Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals. New York: United Nations Women's Fund, 2002. <http://www.unifem.org/index.php?f_page_pid=10>.