Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Introduction to gender inequality

Jemma and Lauren discuss gender inequality.
Gender equality denotes equal respect, rights, and opportunities for everyone, regardless of their gender identity. It is also underpinned by legislation that protects these rights. In essence, gender equality means that everyone, regardless of their gender, should have the same access to opportunities, resources, the ability to participate in decision-making, and to be able to be employed, for example. This applies across all sectors of our social, economic and political world. This would include, for example, ensuring that fathers have the same rights as mothers to take time off to care for their children, and that women should have the same access to grants and loans to start their own business.
On the surface this may appear fairly obvious and straightforward, but as we’ll see there are many historical, cultural, traditional, and policy-based reasons why gender equality may not always be achieved. Some of the causes are so deeply embedded in our societies that they might not be immediately apparent or are unintentional consequences of policy. Gender equality has been a political, social and ethical concern for many decades. Indeed, the attention that is given to matters of gender inequality goes back over a century as the next article will explore. More recent attention has been given to it through the feminist movement.
The feminist movement is comprised of a number of different feminisms that – while sharing the ambition to tackle gender inequality – understand the nature of this problem in different ways. There are many competing feminist perspectives today, although they are also associated with different periods of time, and when their ideas were dominant. The first so-called ‘wave of feminism’ comprised the suffrage movement. The suffrage movement sought to tackle the inequality in basic rights for women, recognising them as independent from men and as subjects of equal status in society, specifically giving them the right to vote. An international movement that spanned the late 19th and early 20th century, led to successive countries giving women the right to vote.
The second wave of feminism is captured by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s that focused on legal and social equality but was also known as the ‘sex wars’ because it prioritised issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence and debated issues around sexuality and pornography. There was a resurgence of feminist activity in the 1990s, referred to as the third wave. This prospered from the civil rights advances from the second wave and concentrated on the diversity of identity and in particular, ‘intersectionality’. Intersectionality is a term that recognises that people have many different identifiers such as gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and ability, and that these overlap and interweave.
This wave of feminism recognises that someone’s experience of oppression and marginalisation may then depend on the context and the aspect of their identity that has come under scrutiny. To fully grasp the realities of inequality between individuals we need to see the whole picture – all the various ways in which they may experience inequality. But in this module, we’re just going to focus on the role that gender inequality plays in creating and sustaining this, but we’ll explore intersectionality more towards the end of this session. Finally, the fourth wave is also associated with intersectionality, but also focuses on the social media driven movements such as the #MeToo campaign, which we will discuss in week 4.
Underpinning these movements are many different ways of conceptualizing inequality but here
we’ll focus on two: liberal feminism and radical feminism. More broadly, the various waves of feminism take ‘patriarchy’ to be a fundamental issue that underpins gender inequality. According to Allan Johnson, patriarchy may be defined as a system that is found in the unequal distribution of power that makes male privilege possible in patterns of male dominance. The liberal approach focuses on the equality of opportunity for the individual, relying on legal protection of this equality in which women have equal political and legal rights to take opportunities, for example the right to vote and work. This can involve removing barriers to participation, such as childcare support to enable women to work.
In contrast, the radical approach perceives there to be an oppressive structural male advantage, and argues that patriarchy needs to be challenged. In which case social norms and institutions need to change for equality to be achieved, and just giving equal rights won’t change gendered practices. Although legislation is a contributing factor in achieving gender equality, the behaviours, mind-sets and socialisation that occurs on a daily basis still has significant power over individuals. The harmful gender roles associated with systematic patriarchy generally give men a sense of entitlement, control, and privilege, while women are marginalised and subsequently more oppressed than men.
Each week of this MOOC will explore and discuss, issues such as sexism, sexual harassment, discrimination, stereotyping, differing access to education, media treatment, welfare policies, and pay inequality mean that the lived experiences of men and women still remains unjustly unequal despite over a century of action. Gender equality, particularly as it pertains to legislation, is generally understood as equality between the sexes (male and female). We’ll look at the difference between sex and gender shortly, as you’ll have noticed that we’re treating them as if they are the same but they are not. It is good to be aware of the fact that many of the scales of inequality between the sexes are referred to as ‘gender’ rather than ‘sex’.
This inequality is measured at a global level, nationally, and at the organisation level. For example, the Human Development Report have a global gender equality index that measures things such as shares of seats in parliament and male and female enrolment in secondary education. In a global context, these aspects of gender inequality are experienced in different ways across multiple different cultures where certain problems are more persistent and pressing than others. There are gender inequalities in terms of health, such as poor maternal survival rates, violence against women such as sexual assault and rape, female genital mutilation, child marriage (primarily of young girls), human trafficking (which is mostly of women), poor political representation, and inequalities in receiving education.
These lead to women being more likely to have less favourable opportunities. For example, 27% of girls in India are married before the age of 18. This is most common in poorer households because girls and young women are ‘married off’ to no longer be an economic burden to the family and are then expected to be hardworking, dedicated wives and their ‘productive’ purpose is commonly viewed to be taking care of children and conducting housework. It is not just an inequality effecting lower income countries. In Japan women spend 4 times the average number of hours spent in domestic chores than men.
This suggests an imbalance in opportunities for women outside the home, and also suggests that men in Japan are more likely to have economic power and engage in work outside the home – something that is generally more socially valued. This imbalance is not just true in Japan but in most countries worldwide.

Lauren Castle and Jemma Rimmer, from the University of Exeter, discuss gender inequality in broad terms, explaining what is meant by inequality, linking it to feminism and placing it in its global context.

Content written by Dr Emma Jeanes (University of Exeter)

This article is from the free online

Understanding Gender Inequality

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now