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Institutional Discrimination:
Gender Stratification

July 17, 2017
by Russ Long

Economic independence is a primary goal for many of the oppressed in the United States. In American society work is the preferred avenue people follow in pursuit of economic independence. Often, however, those most in need in society have the greatest difficulty finding work (or at least work that offers adequate compensation). The material presented in this article specifically targets women. Much of it, however, applies to economically disadvantaged minorities overall.

An overarching theme in this article calls attention to a concept of institutional discrimination. Legal discrimination is, after all, illegal. Presumably, if one can document legal discrimination, one can remove such discrimination through the courts or legislatures. Institutional discrimination, on the other hand, is much more insidious and, therefore, more difficult to rectify. Institutional discrimination resides within the fabric of society. Harrington (1984) poetically called institutional discrimination "structures of misery." Eitzen and Baca-Zinn (1994:174) describe institutional discrimination as "the customary ways of doing things, prevailing attitudes and expectations, and accepted structural arrangements [that] works to the disadvantage [of the poor]." Institutional discrimination explains much inequality in gender (and race and ethnicity) found in the workplace.

The specifics of this article explore earnings discrimination, occupational distribution, the organization of work, and the character of relationships within the family where, according to many, the essence of gender inequality resides.

I.   Concepts

gender stratification

Gender stratification, cuts across all aspects of social life, cuts across all social classes, and refers to men and women's unequal access to power, prestige, and property on the basis of their sex.

sexual harassment

Sexual harassment refers to unwanted sexual comments, touches, looks, or pressure to have sex (Henslin, 1999:301).


Gender refers to behavioral differences between males and females that are culturally based and socially learned (Appelbaum & Chambliss, 1997:218). Henslin (1999) argues that in every society, the primary division between people is based on gender.


Kendall (1998:68) defines sex as the biological difference between men and women. It's the first label we receive in life.

What is Sexual Orientation?

Sexual Orientation refers to a preference for emotional-sexual relationships with individuals of the same sex (homosexuality), the opposite sex (heterosexuality), or both (bisexuality) (Kendall, 1998:113).


Kendall (1998:67) describes sexism as the subordination of one sex, usually female, on the basis of the assumed superiority of the other sex.  An example of sexism is the statement "a woman's place is in the home."


Feminism is both the belief that social equality should exist between the sexes and the social movement aimed at achieving that goal.  Feminism is based on the philosophy that biology is not destiny.


Patriarchy refers to a society or group in which men have power over women.

Origins of Patriarchy

Henslin (2008:262) contends that patriarchy is tied to the "social consequences of reproduction."  He notes that historically, life was short which required the production of many babies.  This fact had serious consequences for women because only women could become pregnant, carry a child, give birth and nurse children.   Henslin (2008:262) suggests that because women had child care duties, women "assumed tasks associated with home and child care."


II.     Earning Discrimination

A.     Equal Pay for Equal Work?

In 1980 women earned approximately 59 percent of every dollar earned by men (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:253). This ratio improves slightly during economic growth periods in the national economy. In 1990 the figure was 71 percent of every dollar earned by men (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:253). Recessionary periods, on the other hand, are characterized by growing disparity in wages earned by men and women.

Many, like Esping-Andersen (1990), argue that as the economy becomes more internationalized, the gender bias in earnings begins to disappear. The logic here is that advanced capitalism requires the best person for the job despite gender (or race and ethnicity). There is some evidence to support Esping-Andersen's claim. Women who work in internationally competitive industrial sectors do appear to earn salaries that are closer to those earned by men (see Long, 1993).

Long (1995), however, disputes the claim that all women are experiencing greater parity with their male counterparts. Huge salaries earned by women who have skills demanded by corporations that produce in the international arena mask continued (and perhaps growing) inequality experienced between men and women in the United States in the lower social strata.

Comparable Worth

Comparable Worth is a philosophy of "Pay Equity" which suggests that jobs of comparable values (skills and experience) should be paid the same.

B.     Differential Access

Differential access means that men have greater access to the labor market than do women. Differential access does not explain the entire problem, however. Women earn less than men even on jobs where all other qualifications are held constant.

1.     Women Enter the Labor Market with Lower Paying Jobs

Three issues are dealt with regarding institutional discrimination. The first item notes that women enter the labor market at different and lower paying levels than do men. Historically, men were doctors while women were nurses; men taught in college while women taught in primary schools; men worked construction while women were secretaries; men worked in the automobile and steel industries while women worked in apparels and textiles.

In each of the above comparisons men are employed in labor sectors that pay higher wages than jobs that employ women.

2.     Women Enter the Labor Market Later than Men and Periodically Have to Leave.

A second observation notes that women enter the labor market later than men and periodically have to leave. The explanation is obvious. Women enter the labor market later than men and periodically leave to have children. Childbearing is obviously a necessary social endeavor. The labor market and society overall would cease to function if women did not leave the labor market to have children. Unfortunately society does not compensate women for this activity (and other domestic concerns) and it penalizes them in the labor market.

One has difficulty arguing that an employee who has longevity on a job deserves raises while one who has a "spotty" work record does not. On the other hand, it is not especially difficult to see the inherent inequity in a system that penalizes women for essentially doing a good job (domestically) in an activity that is absolutely indispensable socially.

3.     Women Earn Less Overtime Than Men

A final observation revolves around the fact that women earn less overtime than do men. Overtime pay represents the difference between having a good life and a marginal life for skilled and semiskilled workers. Industry and manufacturing provide overtime pay. These sectors hire primarily males. Service sector work, such as clerical work, does not pay overtime nearly as much as manufacturing. These sectors rely heavily on a female workforce.

Differential access highlights the institution character of gender inequality. One can easily see the dynamics that generate inequality. Solutions are difficult to pinpoint within the institution of work. One might argue that Americans place too much emphasis on WORK as an avenue to prosperity. An analysis of Scandinavian social arrangements might be in order.

The Second Shift

Appelbaum & Chambliss (1997:228) argue that the "second-shift" is the unpaid housework that women typically do after they come home from their paid employment.

III. Occupational Distribution

The kind of work an individual does often determines whether that individual (and his or her family) is wealthy or poor. The previous section, in part, explored inequities in wage-compensation associated with various kinds of work. Wages, of course, are only one benefit gained from employment. Other benefits include time-off (Gorz, 1984 argues that leisure is a fundamental issue regarding work), health and retirement benefits, and longevity (to mention a few).

At this point exploring the general structure of work is beneficial. Often minorities are tracked into jobs that do not provide compensation at a level that allows economic independence. An observation that one might draw is that there are entire categories of jobs that have similar characteristics.

A.     The Split-labor market

Worker's finds themselves employed in one of two great segments in the capitalist economy. These segments have different characteristics, fulfill different roles in the economy, and provide different rewards for the laborer (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:441-443).

1.     The Primary Sector

The primary sector is composed of large, bureaucratic organizations with relatively stable production and sales. Jobs within this sector require advanced skills, provide relatively high levels of wage compensation, include good working conditions, and are characterized by stable employment.

a.     Upper Tier

Women are moving into professional areas, but their proportion in professional areas is still quite low. There has also developed a split in the professional circles that see some professional jobs becoming routinized. Much of the employee's autonomy is taken out of these "professional" jobs. Structural change occurs within the world system also which has impact on women.

Within the primary sector are two sub tiers. Characteristics of the jobs in the upper-tier are highly educated employees who work at jobs that require creativity and initiative. Upward mobility is likely.

b.     Lower Tier

In the lower-tier one finds white-collar clerical or blue-collar skilled and semiskilled people. Limited mobility characterizes employment in the lower-tier, but jobs are relatively secure and have union advocacy.

2.     The Secondary Sector

The secondary market is composed of marginal firms where product demand is unstable. Poor working conditions characterize the work place. Secondary sector employment provides low wages, few opportunities for advancement, and little job security. Secondary sector employment requires little education or skills. People get locked into these positions because they do not have skills. Many account for the low levels of benefits and security found in the secondary market by blaming the person occupying such positions. Many accuse secondary sector workers of having poor work histories. Often, however, the poor work history is a result of unemployment related to the production of marginal products. Workers in the secondary market are subject to harsh working conditions and oppressive discipline from management. Both conditions are related to the fact that there are no unions.

Minorities (ethnic, racial, and gender) tend to work in the secondary sector.   This, in part, explains wage and salary inequities.

Glass Ceiling

Appelbaum & Chambliss (1997:232) describe the glass ceiling as a seemingly invisible barrier to movement into the very top positions in business and government, which makes it difficult for women to reach the top of their professions.

B.     Structural Change in the Job Market: Pink Collar Work

Eitzen and Baca-Zinn (1994:252) note that in 1940 only 20% of women of working age were in the job market. By 1991 this figure had risen to 57 percent. Greater participation in the labor force does not, however, translate into empowerment (Staudt, 1987) because often they are forced into what Eitzen and Baca-Zinn (1994:252) call "pink-collar" professions. As the capitalist economy is transformed from a manufacturing economy into an advanced service economy, there is greater need for clerical and service sector jobs and women generally fill these jobs.

Pink-collar refers to jobs generated in the clerical and service sector.  They generally employ women, but many men do this kind of work as well.   "Pink-collar" positions generally offer low wages compared with employment in manufacturing.

IV.     The Organization of Work and Inequality

Economic independence is ultimately enhanced for some because their job allows them to experience a great deal of upward mobility. Some individuals do not experience UPWARD mobility. Their jobs are dead-end jobs. On the other hand, some jobs have slots that allow some people to experience upward mobility, but the manner in which promotions are granted is biased. This section addresses blocked opportunities and "old boy" networks.

A.     The Power of Organizational Position: Blocked Opportunities

Majority groups always develop justifications to explain the inequalities they impose on minority groups. Often religious or biological explanations are involved. Biology might be used to explain stereotypical perceptions that "men are more ambitious, task-oriented, and work involved." Perhaps god might even be invoked to explain why women are "seen as less motivated, less committed, and more oriented toward work based social relationships than to work itself."

Obviously we live in the 1990s and educated people recognize such clichés' as trash. There is, however, the possibility that the expected behavior exists at a sufficient level to perpetuate the stereotype -- a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In the work force, male bosses in secretarial pools might see enough "socializing" to fulfill their expectations that women socialize too much. While that boss might conjure up religion or biology, the behavior he is seeing might be related to "pressures" which emanate from the organizational position his secretaries occupy.

Blocked opportunities refer to structural barriers that minorities encounter that prevent their advancement in an organization.  People who have their opportunities blocked (despite their demographic characteristics) limit their aspirations. Instead of defining themselves through the work they perform, they seek satisfaction in activities outside work, dream of escape, and create sociable peer groups in which inter personal relationships become more important than the specific job they are hired to perform. The key point is that the characteristics of work (that block opportunity) determine the characteristics of the employee.

B.     Old Boy Networks

Old-boy networks refer to the informal social relationships that occur within any large organization. They may not have discriminatory intentions, but their actions amount to discrimination in that minorities are ultimately excluded from participation in the organization.  While the term "old-boy" implies a male dominated organization, the gender reference might be misplaced. Old-boy simply refers to those individuals who have a historic relationship with an organization who occupies positions of power within the organization. Women can occupy these positions, but often men are the controlling force in many firms.

Demographic characteristics of informal associations within corporations may inadvertently (or overtly) limit minority access to higher positions within the organization. Many decisions concerning company policy (in terms of hiring and firing) occur in these "old-boy" networks. Imagine, for example, the informal gathering at the health spa at 6:30 in the morning before work. Obviously women would not "fit in" here. Or suppose the old-boys gather at the local bar Friday evenings to discuss business or to tell gender specific jokes.

Again, it would not be too far-fetched to think of a scenario where the "old-boys" would argue that women might be uncomfortable in the barroom setting. They might even convince themselves that they would do a potential female employee a favor by not subjecting her to that environment. Despite the patronizing position, one might hypothesize that many a minority has been excluded from companies as the organization hierarchy engages in precisely these kinds of arguments and justifications for not hiring minorities.

V.     Inequality within the Family

The status of women within the family parallels the position that they hold in the job markets.  Women, however, earn no money for the jobs that they perform in terms of housework and child rearing, although these jobs are necessary for the survival of the family. Despite the importance of such work, it is not viewed as prestigious in terms of wage compensation.

The status of men, as wage earners outside the home, helps establish his highly valued position within the family because women do not have access to resources outside the home.   The position of women in the labor market adds to their dependence experienced within the family.

Gender inequality is historically related to the subordinate position of women within the family in terms of rule making and control of resources (e.g., money). This relationship is continued within the labor market where historically men have secured vested positions by making the rules (controlling management and labor) and by receiving unequal (greater) rewards. (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:443)

The reader should be aware that the kinds of relationships discussed above characterize most majority/minority relationships. The dominant partner in any social relationship can maintain power via a combination of control over decision making processes, control of wealth, and one might add control over ideology that superimposes a justification on top of unequal relationships.


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