Individual vs. Structural Gender Inequality

About our project

Optimistic voices in the debate about the future of the gender revolution rely on comprehensively detailed trends documenting the erosion of barriers to women’s advancement over recent decades – trends evident in almost all areas of life in post-industrial societies. The second wave of feminism and the struggle for civil rights, followed by changes in the occupational structure – first and foremost the growth of white collar occupations and professionalism – triggered the upward mobility of women within the labor market, and in society at large. For example, women’s involvement in paid work has dramatically increased; the male-breadwinner model lost it prominence, and the amount of time devoted by women to paid work (relative to unpaid word) increased. Women have also surpassed men in overall rates of college graduation, an important change triggering the integration of women into politics, and into prestigious jobs in previously male-dominated occupations, particularly managerial and high-status professional occupations. These changes have been accompanied by shifts in legislation and public opinion, towards a greater support for gender equality – which together have contributed to a convergence in gender pay gaps. Based on these solid outcomes, the optimistic conclusion is almost self-evident: when gender inequality is assessed by the educational, occupational, or economic attainments of individual men and women, the significance of gender as a stratifying force has consistently declined over the last half-century.

Less optimistic perspectives, however, are sounded by gender scholars, who point to the slowdown and even stagnation of major aspects of this ‘gender revolution’ from the mid-1990s onwards, especially in the United States. This shift – which has taken on increasing significance in recent studies – is surprising, given the consistent increase in the numbers of women entering hitherto male fields of study, and the increase in the amount of time women devote to paid work. In explaining this situation, feminists point to structural mechanisms of gender inequality. They argue that despite the economic advancement of individual women, the ‘gender revolution’ did not succeed in eliminating deeply embedded gender beliefs about the fundamental differences between men and women in skill competence and abilities. These beliefs, they argue, not only restrict women’s entry to certain fields of study and occupations, but also contribute to devaluing women’s skills and activities relative to men; legitimize lower economic reward for jobs and activities dominated by women; and preserve the disproportionate amounts time spent by women on housework. All these factors create serious ‘bottlenecks’ hindering the further advancement of gender equality.

The aim of the project is to identify these ‘bottlenecks’, which we argue served as ‘structural barriers' preventing individual women from competing successfully against men for resources and rewards. We argue that as women become more integrated into positions of power, the more influential the role of these structural barriers is likely to become. However, because these are less visible and amenable to empirical assessment, they are under-researched compared to individual aspects, and are commonly assumed to be gender-neutral. The implication is that the importance of gender as a determinant of economic inequality in the labor market is insufficiently acknowledged, and consequently is difficult to track and eradicate. Thus, the distinction between individual and structural aspects of gender inequality in this context is not merely of analytical importance, but carries significant implications for empirical study, and for our ability to assess the changing role of gender inequality in our society. Amidst the abundance of empirical research on long-term trends in gender inequality, gender is usually perceived and empirically examined at the individual level (i.e., by trends in gender pay gaps, by the upward occupational mobility of women, etc.). Within this extensive research, the structural processes of gender inequality are not often acknowledged or taken into account. This deficiency obscures our understanding of gender inequality, and thus our ability, as a society, to alleviate it and its negative ramifications.

All our works in the project aim to track the relationship between structural vs. individual processes of gender in equality, mostly within a long-term perspective. So far we have addressed several countervailing processes at play; some relate to women’s individual upward mobility on the occupational structure versus women’s collective negative effect on occupational pay; others relate to women’s upward position in the labor market verses the stagnation in the distribution of housework between the spouses. Our works on the topic of educational premiums have also revealed countervailing processes; whilst it is well documented that women have greater incentives to invest in education (given their low earning potential otherwise), women’s lower absolute education premiums are not acknowledged, nor is the rise in the gender gap in absolute education premiums over time. These countervailing processes are caused by and are reflected in a complex dynamic between economic and cultural processes; economic relations between men and women at the workplace and between spouses within the family have changed relatively rapidly over recent decades, but gender relations – founded on norms and ideology – have been much more resistant to change. In addressing the distinction between individual and structural forms of gender inequality, their theoretical sources and their empirical manifestations, we aim to make the structural forms of gender inequality more evident and accessible to empirical comparative studies.