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Although social stratification lies at the heart of macro-sociology, the study of gender and stratification is comparatively recent, and developed from feminist scholarship. The traditional sociological view is that the oppression of women is adequately covered by class analysis. Feminist theory insists that the class structure, and the oppression of women within patriarchal systems, are separate but interacting social processes. Conventional class analysis treats all members of a household as having the same social class as the main breadwinner, who is usually a man.
Feminists debated whether wives should be allocated to classes on the basis of their husband’s occupation or the wife’s current (or last) occupation. It is now agreed that women’s position in society, and in the labor force, should be studied separately from class analysis. Empirical research has shown that the sex segregation of occupations, and the pay gap between men and women, cut across social classes in ways that vary from one society to another, and vary across time. Occupational segregation and the pay gap develop and change independently within labor markets due to variations in female employment, anti-discrimination policies and other social policies — including family-friendly policies that have been counter-productive in their effects. Similarly, women’s position in the family is studied independently of their position in the class structure, and depends on their education (relative to that of their spouse) as much as their earning power and occupational status.
The feminist assumption that dual-earner and dual-career families would become universal after equal opportunities policies took effect has been proven wrong, even for ex-socialist countries. Instead, couples choose between three family models, corresponding to women’s three lifestyle preferences: a minority of work-centered women who adopt the male profile of continuous full-time employment and are financially self-supporting; a minority of home-centered women who are dependent on their spouses after marriage; and a majority of adaptive women who are secondary earners within their households rather than careerists, and have varied employment patterns. This heterogeneity of women’s lifestyle preferences, and thus employment profiles, cuts across social classes, education levels, and income levels. This diversity of female lifestyle choices produces a polarization of female employment profiles over the lifecycle, and is a major cause of rising income inequality between households in modern societies — as illustrated by income differences between dual-career childless couples and one-earner couples with several children to support.
Currently, female social stratification differs from male social stratification, because women have two avenues for achieving higher social status and class position — through the labor market or the marriage market. Both are actively used by women, even today. Men rarely use the marriage market for advancement because the vast majority of women resist the idea of role reversal in marriage, with the woman as the main income-earner.
Overall, stratification and inequality among women tends to be larger than among men. For example, in Britain at the start of the twenty-first century, there were more female than male millionaires, because some women achieved success and wealth through their own gainful work, and some achieved wealth as rich men’s ex-wives or widows.
The picture in developing societies depends a lot on whether women have independent access to the labor market/market economy, have access primarily through male members of their family (father or spouse), or are expected to refrain from market activities and devote themselves exclusively to homemaking and childrearing activities. In agricultural societies, technology is also an important factor in women’s social and economic position — as illustrated by large differences in women’s position in economies depending on the hoe or on the plough.
- Crompton, R. & Mann, M. (eds.) (1986) Gender and Stratification. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Hakim, C. (2000) Work—Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century: Preference Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Hakim, C. (2004) Key Issues in Women’s Work: Female Diversity and the Polarisation of Women’s Employment. Glasshouse Press, London.
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