The Sociology of Gender and How it can be Applied
March 2020 | US
Sociology of Gender
The sociology of gender is one of the largest subfields in sociology today, which may be unsurprising given how frequently gender-related issues arise in popular discourse today. In recent years, the United States has experienced the #metoo movement exposing sexual harassment in the workplace, women have organized to hold enormous political marches throughout the country, and globe, and the trans community continues to fight for basic human rights, such as having their government issued identification reflect their true gender. On a global scale we have seen attention towards the gender wage gap grow, along with attention toward women's and girls' access to education and reproductive rights. Each of these examples demonstrates a case in which sociological knowledge can be immensely useful.
Sociological Perspectives of Gender
Sociologists study gender in a variety of ways. Often, sociological research falls into one of three paradigms. Although this list may not be exhaustive, it is useful for understanding differences between the main approaches to gender in sociology.
Positive sociologists historically did not study gender, but rather focused on sex differences. From this perspective, "gender" is viewed as a categorical variable that allows sociologists to understand trends related to how people differ on the basis of biological sex. This lineage of sociological research in the U.S. is referred to as "sex roles" research. Although sex roles is considered to be an outdated approach to gender by most in the discipline, we still see much of the positivist sociological research taking a similar approach to gender analyses due to restrictive survey data. Often, surveys measure gender as a binary variable that is conflated with sex. This conflation may appear as a question constraining folks to claim their gender as either "male" or "female." In cases where sociologists use these data sets to answer research questions, they are left with only one way to measure and analyze gender that still mostly conforms to the outdated sex roles approach. Despite the majority of the discipline subscribing to the idea that gender is separate than sex—and that "male" and "female" refer to biological sex categories rather than gender—this positivist approach to gender is still rampant in the (mostly quantitative) sociological research. You can find a well-known critique on sex roles in the 1978 piece authored by Helena Z. Lopata and Barrie Thorne.
Transformativism (AKA Critical Sociology)
Transformative, or critical, sociologists view gender as a structure and assert gender includes an element of power. Through this perspective, gender is understood as a social structure that constitutes and perpetually reproduces inequality based on gender. Sociologist and gender scholar Barbara Risman brought the idea of gender as a social structure to sociology in her well-known chapter "Gender as Structure." Risman's argument here is that gender is not an individual phenomenon, but rather a social phenomenon that is determined by the structures that make up society. Another prominent gender theorist contributing to critical ideas of gender in the discipline was Joan Scott, an American historian. She argued that "gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power" in her well-known 1986 article in American Historian Review. The ideas of gender as social structure and gender as a signifier of power relations are the prominent perspectives that, together, make up the transformative, or critical, approach to gender in sociology.
Social Constructionists claim gender is a non-binary construct that is produced through experiential interactions and discourse. Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman's theoretical work titled "Doing Gender" is one of the most influential pieces when it comes to constructionist perspectives on gender. This theoretical perspective views gender as both constructed through social interactions while simultaneously structuring those interactions. Hence, gender is something that we "do," or perform, during social interactions. Importantly, doing gender is not always conforming to gender expectations for behavior. For example, someone who identifies as a man can "do" femininity via drag. In this way, constructionists see social interactions as a site for both reproducing normative gender performances, as well as disrupting them. With these ideas in mind, sociologists who view gender from this perspective might argue that the more we subscribe to the idea that gender is a spectrum in our social interactions and discourse around gender, the more that idea will become our gendered reality.
Applying the Sociology of Gender
There are multiple domains in which sociological understandings of gender can be useful and marketable. We provide a few examples below, but the possibilities are surely not limited to these domains.
Hiring practices and Human Resources
Sociologists Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik coined the term the "motherhood penalty" in their well-known 2007 research published in the American Journal of Sociology. Through a carefully designed social experiment, their research shows that mothers, compared to women who are not mothers, face many penalties in the workplace. Those penalties include, but are not limited to, lower ratings of competence and commitment to the job as well as lower salary recommendations. Findings from sociological research such as this study can help Human Resources departments identify and eliminate sources of bias in hiring practices.
Such research might also inform policy decision. For example, the United States prohibits employers from asking questions about children, childbearing plans, and marital status, to name a few. Such regulations are meant to eliminate gender biases, such as the motherhood penalty, in hiring practices. However, sociological theories and methods are also incredibly useful for evaluating whether or not such policies work as promised. For instance, a sociologist might be tasked with identifying whether or not the motherhood penalty disappears when information regarding children and martial status are withheld from employers during the hiring process.
Public health is another domain where sociological research on gender is incredibly useful. For example, understanding gender norms around femininity and masculinity can help us understand why men take more risks that may have adverse health effects. With such knowledge, folks can then use the sociology of gender as a framework for public health campaigns around risk-taking. Ideas from the sociology of gender can also help us understand why men and women are treated differently in healthcare settings. Using that knowledge, sociologists can help develop practice guidelines that minimize gender bias in clinical interactions.
Where to Find Training in the Sociology of Gender
There are many places to acquire good training in the sociology of gender. For graduate programs in the U.S., there is the University of Nevada - Las Vegas, the University of California - Irvine, the University of California - Riverside, the University of Illinois - Chicago, and the University of Michigan, to name some. Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) is also a great U.S. academic association focused on fostering a community for those working on gender scholarship in sociology. The history of this association is tied to the resistance of the marginalization of women in the discipline, making it an interesting site for sociological analyses of the discipline. They publish the peer-reviewed journal Gender & Society, which is also a great resource for research and theory related to the sociology of gender.