Structural Functionalist Theories of Gender Inequality Research Paper Starter

Structural Functionalist Theories of Gender Inequality

Structural functionalists posit that gender roles arise from the need to establish a division of labor that will help maintain the smooth running of the family and concomitantly contribute to the stability of society. In this view, girls and boys are taught different approaches to life. Boys are taught instrumentality—that is, to be goal oriented, to focus on tasks, and to be concerned for the relationship of the family to outside societal structures. Girls, on the other hand, are taught to be expressive—that is, to express their emotions and to look for and react to the emotions of others. In many ways, the functionalist perspective of gender equality is a product of its times, describing the realities of gender roles and inequalities of the 1950s but not explaining them. However, the functionalist perspective is less useful for describing the realities of gender in the postindustrial age, in which many women work outside the home, men can stay at home with the children, and everyone helps with the housework. More research is needed in order to gain a better understanding of the role of gender in twenty-first-century society and how the changing requirements of the postindustrial age affect these roles and the stability they enforce on society.

Keywords Expressiveness; Functionalism; Gender; Gender Inequality; Gender Role; Instrumentality; Postindustrial; Society

Sex, Gender


Gender inequality can be defined as the existence of disparities among individuals based solely on their gender rather than objective differences in skills, abilities, or other characteristics. Gender inequality may be obvious (e.g., not receiving the same pay for the same job) or subtle (e.g., not being given the same subjective opportunities for advancement). Although there are US federal laws in place that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and that require equal pay for equal work regardless of one's gender, on average, men continue to be paid more money than women in the United States. Women are also often victims of gender stratification, or the hierarchical organization of a society in such a way that members of one gender have more access to wealth, prestige, and power than do the members of the other gender. However, gender inequality is not an issue confined to the United States or other developed countries: It occurs in societies and cultures around the world. Gender inequality is a matter of social justice and human rights wherever it occurs. However, in many developing countries, it is even more so as women are marginalized and thought of as second-class citizens. In fact, gender inequality is so important that it is included in the Millennium Development Goals developed by the United Nations. While it is known that gender inequality exists, why it exists is not completely understood. As a complex issue with many underlying determinants, there are a number of different perspectives on why it occurs. It is important to investigate these differing perspectives as each provides different suggestions for solving the gender inequality problem. The structural functionalist perspective is one such view that highlights some theories as to why gender inequality occurs; these are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalists attempt to explain the nature of social order and the relationship between the various parts (structures) in society by examining the functionality of each to determine how it contributes to the stability of society as a whole. Although theorists using other perspectives argue that gender differentiation is bad for society in general and women in particular because it keeps women from reaching their potential and contributing fully to society, from the functionalist perspective, gender differentiation contributes to the stability of a society. Gender roles, in this view, arise from the need to establish a division of labor within the family. Because of their biological role in childbirth and breastfeeding, women in virtually every culture and society around the planet have the primary responsibility for child care. Similarly, men have traditionally had the responsibilities for hunting and waging war because of their relatively greater size and strength.


Through the socialization process, these roles are taught to succeeding generations. Although in modern times there are other options for feeding an infant and many jobs require brain power more than muscle power, this differentiation between gender roles has become ingrained to a great degree. Through socialization, individuals learn to differentiate between what the society regards as acceptable versus unacceptable behavior and act in a manner that is appropriate for the needs of the society. The family (and, later, the larger society) begins teaching gender roles almost immediately after birth. For example, most infant girls are held more gently and treated more tenderly than are infant boys. As the child grows older, both mothers and fathers usually play more roughly with little boys than with little girls. As children, little boys are typically also allowed to roam a wider territory without permission than are little girls, and boys are typically expected to run errands earlier than are girls.


In addition, through the socialization process, boys and girls are frequently taught different worldviews. For example, sons are typically told that "real boys don't cry" and encouraged to control their softer emotions, while girls are taught not to fight and not to show anger or aggression. Functionalists refer to these different worldviews as instrumentality and expressiveness.

  • Instrumentality is a worldview that includes an emphasis on tasks, a focus on long-term goals, and concern for the relationship between one's family and other social institutions. To teach this attitude, for example, boys may be taught to be goal-oriented by encouraging them to participate in team sports in which they compete and strive to win or to build models or other long-term projects where gratification is not immediate.
  • Expressiveness, on the other hand, is a worldview that includes a concern for maintaining harmony and emotional affairs internal to the family. Girls are typically taught to be more emotion-oriented (as opposed to emotional) than boys. For example, girls are often taught how to express their emotions and to look for and react to the emotions of others.

The socialization process of gender roles can be so subtle that when the disparity between the way they teach and treat their daughters and sons is pointed out to many parents, they often respond that the sexes are naturally different not only biologically but behaviorally as well. According to the functionalist perspective, these divergent ways of interacting with the world are mutually supportive. For example, by being expressive and maintaining a harmonious home and family life, women free men from such responsibilities, thereby enabling them to go out into the world and focus on long-term tasks and goals. Similarly, by men having an instrumental outlook and interacting with the larger society, women are freed to focus on creating a harmonious home and family life. Although functionalists do not suggest that such traditional gender roles are the only way in which to bring about a stable society, they posit that traditional roles do have this result.


The functionalist perspective of gender roles with its view of expressive females and instrumental males is based on the work of Parsons and Bales in traditional societies. Part of the concern of these theorists was that if both partners in a marriage worked outside the home, competition could arise and the marriage could be threatened. As a result, they did separate spheres for men and women as a way to preserve the institution of marriage, which they believed was not well supported in urban, industrialized societies. Further, this theory arose during a time in which theories of social stratification assumed that the status of a woman was determined by the status of her husband. Postmodern, postindustrial society no longer accepts this assumption as a given.


The Functionalist Approach within...

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