Everything is gendered so what's the point?
by Gemma Hudson on February 2, 2015 - 6:26am
Behind this punchy headline lies a common frustration that feminists face. The expansion of the field of gender studies and its increasing recognition has led to more detailed, scientific and in depth research and knowledge about how gender permeates various aspects of our lives. But with these explanations of how gender is not just a fixed notion but a process that is constantly working to reproduce itself through our interactions and institutions, comes the feeling that gender equality will never be obtained. Fervent feminists are not ready to give up yet, so how can we conciliate this research with the ongoing effort to change what appears to be ““the way things are””. (Wharton 2012 Chapter 3 Gender in Interaction and Institutions p.86)
We are going to focus on what is referred to as “gendered institutions”. Following Wharton’s analysis, gender also permeates our interactions and affects us on an individual level and these three elements interact and affect each other. Institutions are organizations, rules and norms that implicitly or explicitly regulate the functioning of society. They regulate interpersonal interactions and also individual socialization. They are mostly very long lasting and can even appear permanent. Studying the relationship between gender and social institutions is therefore an important part of understanding the impact of gender in our society and in explaining why gender inequality exists.
Joan Acker claims that “many of the institutions that constitute the “rules of the game” in American society – and, indeed, most societies – embody aspects of gender.” She defines a gendered institution as one where “gender is present in the processes, practices, images and ideologies, and distributions of power in the various sectors of social like.” According to her, this applies to almost all American institutions, mainly because of their origins. This can be applied to European countries as well. Although our societies and social norms may differ in many ways, this is a common point between them. Social institutions and much of what we have inherited in our society today comes from a time when men were dominant and women were often completely excluded from entire parts of society. As Acker puts it, these institutions “have been historically developed by men, currently dominated by men, and symbolically interpreted from the standpoint of men in leading positions both in the present and historically”. This is undeniable and when we look more closely at even the most seemingly benign, neutral institutions, we can see how gender is expressed and reproduced. Even if we don’t fully agree with Acker’s evaluation of the amount of institutions in our society that are gendered, it is hard to deny that many are.
In particular when one looks into politics and its norms, we can see a clear male domination, a system that was built in a time where women were completely excluded from the process. The laws that govern our welfare system, the portrayal of women in power, gender roles that go beyond just the familial institution into the work place the expectations put on people based on their gender, the list goes on. We are surrounded by gender stereotypes being constantly emitted by the institutions that determine the rules of our society. How can we hope to change a society and reduce inequality when its institutions themselves are reproducing gender? Institutions tend to reproduce themselves and reinforce themselves in order to ensure that they endure.
This can lead to a rather defeatist attitude, and understandably. Which leads us to the question: What’s the point of even trying to combat gender inequality? In this case I think it’s important to look back on how things have changed in the past and the extent to which women’s position in society has been revolutionized. One important example of this is the issue of women having the right to vote and to be elected. When most European countries had a Parliament of men exclusively elected by men, it is hard to see how women could have ever gained the right to vote and yet they did. There has also been important social change in how women are perceived. Even though traditional gender roles still play an important role, there are many women in the workforce and this is widely accepted. Women wear trousers and this is questioned only by a few outliers. Whilst many relics of former societal pressures and norms that have created gender inequality still remain, there are also many things that have changed. One can only hope we can learn from what has worked in the past to bring about more change for the future, whether that involves an informal change in society or going through the legal system.
- Acker, Joan, 1992, “Gendered institutions”, comtemporary Sociology 21, p. 565-569
- Wharton, 2012, “Chapter 3, Gender in Interaction and Institutions”, p.59-94