Theoretical Perspectives on Gender

Learning Outcomes

  • Examine gender from a structural-functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist perspective

Theoretical Perspectives on Gender

Sociological theories help to explain complex human behaviors, social phenomena, and social structures. To take a specific example, let’s consider how each theoretical perspective might explain the gender wage gap. In 2017, full-time working women made 80.5 cents to every dollar earned by men, meaning there is a gender wage gap of 19.5 percent. This gap is even more pronounced for Black and Hispanic women.[1] So why do women make less than men?

Not only do we need to examine each woman’s experience in the workforce, we should also understand intersectionality, or how each person’s experience is affected by race/ethnicity, social class, age, etc. We then want to scrutinize the structures and processes that shape these experiences. To establish a more comprehensive analytical framework, we can apply each of the three main sociological perspectives to better understand the socio-economic phenomenon of the gender wage gap.

Structural functionalists might look at how values and norms shape societal notions of success in the workforce, and how these established values and norms reinforce the division of labor as well as gender inequality. For functionalists, when roles are clearly established, social solidarity increases. When large numbers of women began to enter the workforce beginning in World War II, they were paid less, but the rationale for this wage was that it was a necessary cost-saving measure during wartime. When women began to collectively demand “equal pay for equal work” in the 1960s, formal norms (laws) had to be passed for this to occur. As we have seen over the past 60 years, values do not always keep up with changing norms and vice versa.

Conflict theorists influenced by the theories of Karl Marx might analyze how the bourgeoisie use the wage gap to perpetuate an unequal system, and how the wage gap is successful in keeping the working classes both divided and subject to a politically neutralizing false consciousness. Females, as a minority group, are paid less so that the dominant group (men) can maintain a greater share of status and power. The United States is an advanced capitalist society, so by paying some workers less than others (and all workers less than the actual value of their labor), those at the top increase their wealth, while the workers are led to believe they too can join the bourgeoisie if they work hard enough.

Interactionists would likely examine how meaning is produced and negotiated in social interactions and how that meaning is then translated into wage inequality. A woman who displays certain behaviors that are generally conceived of as being appropriate for leadership (i.e., strong, opinionated, concise) might be perceived as “bossy” or “difficult to work with,” whereas a man depicting the same behaviors would be perceived as someone who is ready for a leadership position. This type of meaning-making, which is heavily gendered through generational cycles of socialization, contributes to the wage gap at the microsociological level.

Let’s look at each of these perspectives again as they apply more broadly to gender.

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Is the gender wage gap a real thing? Watch this vlog from John Green to learn about some of the latest research on the topic.

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism has provided one of the most important perspectives of sociological research in the twentieth century and has been a major influence on research in the social sciences, including gender studies. Viewing the family as the most integral component of society, assumptions about gender roles within marriage assume a prominent place in this perspective.

Functionalists argue that gender roles were established well before the pre-industrial era when men typically took care of responsibilities outside of the home, such as hunting, and women typically took care of the domestic responsibilities in or around the home. These roles were considered functional because women were often limited by the physical restraints of pregnancy and nursing and were unable to leave the home for long periods of time. These roles were passed on to subsequent generations, since they served as an effective means of keeping the family system functioning properly.

When changes occurred in the social and economic climate of the United States during World War II, changes in the family structure also occurred. Many women had to assume the role of breadwinner (or modern hunter-gatherer) alongside their traditional domestic role in order to stabilize a rapidly changing society. When the men returned from war and wanted to reclaim their jobs, society fell back into a state of imbalance, as many women did not want to forfeit their wage-earning positions (Hawke 2007).

Conflict Theory

According to conflict theory, society is a struggle for dominance among social groups (like women versus men) that compete for scarce resources. When sociologists examine gender from this perspective, they typically classify men as the dominant group and women as the subordinate group. According to conflict theory, social problems are created when dominant groups exploit or oppress subordinate groups. Consider the Women’s Suffrage Movement or the debate over women’s “right to choose” their reproductive futures. It is difficult for women to rise above men, as dominant group members create the rules for success and opportunity in society (Farrington and Chertok 1993).

Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), a German sociologist and Karl Marx’s frequent collaborator, studied family structure and gender roles. Engels suggested that the same owner-worker relationship seen in the labor force is also seen in the household, with women assuming the role of the proletariat (i.e., the industrial age, routine-bound workers). This is due to women’s dependence on men for the attainment of wages, which is even worse for women who are entirely dependent upon their spouses for economic support. Contemporary conflict theorists suggest that when women become wage earners, they can gain power in the family structure and create more democratic arrangements in the home, although they may still carry the majority of the domestic burden, as noted earlier (Rismanand and Johnson-Sumerford 1998).

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism aims to understand human behavior by analyzing the critical role of symbols and meaning-making in human interaction. This is certainly relevant to the discussion of masculinity and femininity. Imagine that you walk into a bank hoping to get a small loan for school, a home, or a small business venture. If you meet with a male loan officer, you may state your case logically by listing all the hard numbers that make you a qualified applicant as a means of appealing to the practical, analytical characteristics associated with masculinity. If you meet with a female loan officer, you may make an emotional appeal by stating your good intentions as a means of appealing to the empathetic, nurturing characteristics associated with femininity.

Because the meanings attached to symbols are socially created and not natural, and fluid, not static, we act and react to symbols based on the current assigned meaning. The word gay, for example, once meant “cheerful,” but by the 1960s it carried the primary meaning of “homosexual.” In transition, it was even known to mean “careless” or “bright and showing” (Oxford American Dictionary 2010). Furthermore, the word gay (as it refers to a homosexual), carried a somewhat negative and unfavorable meaning fifty years ago, but has since gained more neutral and even positive connotations. When people perform tasks or possess characteristics based on the gender role assigned to them, they are said to be doing gender. This notion is based on the work of West and Zimmerman (1987). Whether we are expressing our masculinity or femininity, Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman argue, we are always “doing gender.” Thus, gender is something we do or perform, not something we are.

In other words, both gender and sexuality are socially constructed. The social construction of sexuality refers to the way in which socially created definitions about the cultural appropriateness of sex-linked behavior shape the way people see and experience sexuality. This is in marked contrast to theories of sex, gender, and sexuality that link male and female behavior to biological determinism, or the belief that men and women behave differently due to differences in their biology.

Being Male, Being Female, and Being Healthy

In 1971, Broverman and Broverman conducted a groundbreaking study on the traits mental health workers ascribed to males and females. When asked to name the characteristics of a female, the list featured words such as unaggressive, gentle, emotional, tactful, less logical, not ambitious, dependent, passive, and neat. The list of male characteristics featured words such as aggressive, rough, unemotional, blunt, logical, direct, active, and sloppy (Seem and Clark 2006). Later, when asked to describe the characteristics of a healthy person (not gender specific), the list was nearly identical to that of a male.

This study uncovered the general assumption that being female is associated with being somewhat unhealthy or not of sound mind. This concept seems extremely dated, but in 2006, Susan Seem and M. Diane Clark replicated the study and found similar results. Again, the characteristics associated with a healthy male were very similar to that of a healthy (genderless) adult. The list of characteristics associated with being female broadened somewhat, but did not show significant change from the original study (Seem and Clark 2006). This interpretation of feminine characteristic may help us one day better understand gender disparities in certain illnesses, such as why one in eight women can be expected to develop clinical depression in her lifetime (National Institute of Mental Health 1999). Perhaps these diagnoses are not just a reflection of women’s health, but also a reflection of society’s labeling of female characteristics, or the result of institutionalized sexism.

Watch It

Watch this video to see more examples related to each of the main sociological theories on gender.

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biological determinism:
the belief that men and women behave differently due to inherent sex differences related to their biology
doing gender:
the performance of tasks based upon the gender assigned to us by society and, in turn, ourselves
social construction of sexuality:
socially created definitions about the cultural appropriateness of sex-linked behavior which shape how people see and experience sexuality


  1. "Pay, equity, and discrimination." (2018). Institute for Women's Policy Research.


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