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Interaction Between Gender And Power

Differences in male and female gender roles are related to the power differential between men and women. Structural and institutional power reside in the forms of access to educational, economic, and political resources and opportunities. In most societies, access to these structural forms of power are aspects of male privilege.

Education, for example, provides people with the power to gather and process information, thus understanding the world in which they live. Although women in North America receive educations comparable to those of men, women in other nations often lack access to education and the power it affords. The United Nations (2000) reported that females comprise two-thirds of the world's 876 million illiterates. For example, under Taliban religious rule, women in Afganistan were not allowed to attend school, and those who attempted to teach them were harshly punished. One of the first responses when Taliban rule ended was the reinstitution of education for women.

Economies provide people with the power to financially support themselves and their families. The United Nations (2000) stated that women's participation in the workforce, although increasing, tends to be limited to a few occupations. In addition, women continue to occupy lower-status and lower-paying jobs. Women also experience greater unemployment than men (United Nations 2000). Fewer opportunities in the job market may partially explain the recent increases in the proportion of poor women in the United States. The United States 2000 Census data show that, compared to men at 9.9 percent, a higher percentage of women (12.5%) reside below the poverty line in all age categories. The differences are even more dramatic when race is included in the calculations. Whereas 8.3 percent of Caucasian American men fall beneath the poverty line, 24.1 percent of African American women fall beneath the poverty line (US Census Bureau 2001). Whether in the United States, or in other countries, women have less economic power than men.

Similar patterns are apparent in the arena of political power. Governments provide people with the power to voice their needs and wants through voting and holding elected positions. However, women did not have the right to vote in ten of the world's eleven oldest democracies until the twentieth century (Lips 2001). In addition, women are significantly underrepresented in legislative positions. Specifically, in 1998, women filled only 9 percent of the United States Senate seats and 12.9 percent of the House of Representative (Lips 2001).

Some theorists believe that men's greater power and status in societies underlie the differences in gender roles. Social structure theory (Eagly and Wood 1999) postulates that the powerful roles that men hold lead to the development of related traits, such as aggressiveness and assertiveness. Likewise, women who have less access to powerful roles develop traits consistent with their subordinate roles, such as submissiveness and cooperativeness. In sum, the power differential in favor of men may explain why stereotypical male traits are more valued than stereotypical feminine traits.

The existing power differential between men and women can also be manifested within marriages and families. For example, men may actively use their power to avoid sharing the household labor. Women may be relegated to providing more unpaid domestic labor because the gendered structure of their society inhibits their access to economic power.

Findings indicate that men who lack other types of power may compensate by exerting power through violence toward their partners. Women, who often lack economic power and interpersonal power and resources, all too frequently become trapped in increasingly violent relationships. Marital or intimate violence is a worldwide problem. For example, research suggests that one out of four Chilean women are beaten by their partners (McWhirter 1999). Similarly, findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey suggest that almost 25 percent of American women have been sexually and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner. (Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes 2000) Unfortunately, social institutions (legal, religious, medical) have historically supported male perpetrators of domestic violence rather than their female victims, effectively maintaining and reinforcing the power differential.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsGender - Conceptualization Of Gender, Gender Roles And Stereotypes, Interaction Between Gender And Power, Interaction Between Gender And Other Social Categories