A Look at the Paradox of Inequality and Gender

Via Politcal Theory Daily Review, Michael B. Katz, Mark J. Stern, and Jamie J. Fader examine inequality and gender, in the Journal of Social History.

Throughout American history, male/female has defined an enduring binary embodied in access to jobs, income, and wealth. Women’s economic history shows how for centuries sex has inscribed a durable inequality into the structure of American labor markets that civil and political rights have moderated but not removed. This economic experience of women reflects the paradox of inequality in America: the coexistence of structural inequality with individual and group mobility. Women, like African Americans, have gained what T.H. Marshall labeled civil and political citizenship. No longer are they legally disenfranchised, and discrimination on account of race and gender is against the law. They have also increased their social citizenship, as represented by access to jobs and education, and women, in particular, benefit from many programs of the welfare state. Yet, they remain unequal. On the whole, they earn less than men, end up in occupational ghettos, bump up against glass ceilings, and find themselves, in relation to men, as poor as ever.

The process of internal differentiation characteristic of the history of groups defined by sex, race, or ethnicity provides the key to understanding how the paradox of inequality works. As a group, women, like blacks, experienced mobility that disrupted the processes which had systematically excluded them from access to jobs and income. But their assaults on durable categorical inequalities had their limits. Men/whites re-drew category boundaries, retaining their hold on economic advantage while women/blacks assimilated into and reproduced existing economic and occupational hierarchies among themselves. In the United States, group mobility did not challenge structural inequality—instead, it reinforced it. This process of differentiation—the key to the paradox of inequality—is very important to understand. It is one of the primary ways that inequality works in America, and it poses serious issues and dilemmas for public policy.