Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World

Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World

Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World

Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World


In an advanced society like the U.S., where an array of processes work against gender inequality, how does this inequality persist? Integrating research from sociology, social cognition and psychology, and organizational behavior,Framed by Genderidentifies the general processes through which gender as a principle of inequality rewrites itself into new forms of social and economic organization.

Cecilia Ridgeway argues that people confront uncertain circumstances with gender beliefs that are more traditional than those circumstances. They implicitly draw on the too-convenient cultural frame of gender to help organize new ways of doing things, thereby re-inscribing trailing gender stereotypes into the new activities, procedures, and forms of organization. This dynamic does not make equality unattainable, but suggests a constant struggle with uneven results.

Demonstrating how personal interactions translate into larger structures of inequality,Framed by Gender is a powerful and original take on the troubling endurance of gender inequality.


Gender has many implications for people’s lives, but one of the most consequential is that it acts as a basis for inequality between persons. How, in the modern world, does gender manage to persist as a basis or principle for inequality? We can think of gender inequality as an ordinal hierarchy between men and women in material resources, power, and status. A system of gender inequality like this has persisted in the United States despite major transformations in the way that gender, at any given time, has been entwined with the economic and social organization of American society. A gender hierarchy that advantages men over women survived the profound social and economic reorganization that accompanied the transition of the United States from an agrarian to an industrialized society. By the end of this major transition, the material base of gender inequality seemed to rest firmly on women’s relative absence from the paid labor force, compared with men. Yet as women in the succeeding decades flooded into the labor market, the underlying system of gender inequality nevertheless managed to refashion itself in a way that allowed it to persist. More recently, women have moved not simply into the labor market, but into formerly male jobs and professions, like physician, manager, or lawyer, but again, a pattern of gender hierarchy has remained in which men continue to be advantaged not only in employment but also throughout much of society. What is the dynamic of persistence that allows gender inequality to survive like this?

These social and economic transformations have not left gender untouched. Each brought substantial changes in social expectations about how men and women should live their lives. The degree of inequality between men and women in material dependence, social power, and status has also gone up and down over these transitions (cf. Padavic and Reskin 2002, pp. 17–28). Yet the ordinal hierarchy that advantages men over women has never entirely faded or been reversed. This is a bit of a puzzle.

Gender, like race, is a categorical form of inequality in that it is based on a person’s membership in a particular social group or category, in this case, the categories of females and males. As we will see, social scientists generally agree that categorical inequalities in a society are created and sustained by embedding membership in a particular category (e.g., being a man or woman) in systems of control over material resources and power (e.g., Jackman 1994; Jackson 1998; Tilly 1998). If, for instance, in an agrarian society, men have greater control over ownership of land or, in an industrial society, men own the factories and occupy better jobs, these sources of wealth and power create and maintain gender inequality. Theoretically, then, when the system of resource control on which gender inequality is based in a given period is upset by technological and socioeconomic transformation, the gender hierarchy itself should be at risk of collapse. Yet this collapse has not happened in American society. How—that is, through what means—has gender inequality managed to persist?

When I ask this question, I am not asking for a story of the specific, contingent historical events through which gender hierarchy has been reestablished in the transitions from one socioeconomic period to another. Instead, I am asking a more abstract and analytical question. Are there any general social processes through which gender inequality manages to reinscribe itself in new forms of social and economic organization as these forms emerge in society?

Notice, too, that I am not asking the ultimate, sweeping question of why gender inequality has persisted, but rather the more proximate, means-focused question of how it has persisted. The “how” question is essential to any effort to intervene in the perpetuation of gender inequality. Even the how question is a very large one, however. To bring it down to a manageable scale, I will focus on its more specific, modern version. In this book, I ask how gender inequality persists in the contemporary United States in the face of potentially leveling economic and political changes, such as men’s and women’s increasingly similar labor market experience . . .

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