The labour market

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Wikipedia defines gender inequality as “obvious or hidden disparities among individuals based on performance of gender”. The development of feminism had led to attention being focused on the subordinate position of women in many societies. Many feminists put more emphasis on the position of women in the labour market as an important source of female disadvantage. Both Marxist feminists and liberal feminists see employment opportunities as crucial to understanding gender inequalities. Liberal feminists aim to combat the gendered division of labour.

They believe that women as individuals deserve the right to pursue their interests without any barriers halting such progress. They want to bring about changes in existing systems that will allow women to progress to their desired occupation. However it can be argued that they are combating the problem in the wrong way. Instead of changing current systems and barriers in the law they need to seek out the major root of the problem which, many sociologists claim, is the upbringing and socialisation of children.

Minimising gender divisions at an early age will minimise the future gendered division of labour. Generally, the issues of inequality brought up by feminists’ movement drew attention to the fact that women are being left out from the labour market. As a result, many sociological researches were being done on this topic. Despite the improvement in the labour force towards equal opportunities and pay for females in many countries, evidences show that these changes are slowly taking place and inequality still exists.

Gendered division of labour is apparent in today’s society and can be proven. According to Equal Opportunity Commission, in 1999, almost two thirds of all full time employees were male. One of the reasons of this is that women sometimes find it hard to balance work and childcare and get discriminated because they need the time off. Views like this often put many women off full time jobs and seek part time work. However it is not just types of work separate the majority of men and women, it is also the rate of pay.

Although the gap is narrowing, the difference is still substantial. The implementation of the Equal Pay Act between 1970 and 1975 reduced the wages gap a little. In 1970 women earned only 63% on men’s hourly rates, and only 55% of men’s gross weekly pay. In 1997, women working full time earned 81% of men’s hourly rate, but those women working part time only earned 59% of men’s hourly rates. Thus the size of the gap has been closing steadily for those working full time, but not for those working part time.

The issues of inequality have been the debated topic due to growth of feminist movements and attracted attention to studying of inequalities in the workforce. Nowadays, many sociologists are doing research and provide statistical data and analysis of different attitude towards male and females at the labour market. Marxist feminists have a strong position on why there is a gender inequality in the workforce. They argue that capitalism requires a ‘reserved army of labour’ which in Britain, according to Veronica Beechey, consist of women.

She points out that women’s position within the family and the primary importance placed on their domestic role, women are more likely to accept part-time jobs and variations in their hours of work. Another thing she points out is that women are prepared to work for less than men because they rely on their husband’s wages as a source of main income for the family. Radical feminist argue that patriarchy is the most important concept of explaining gender inequalities.

Radical feminists believe that woman’s disadvantages in the labour market stem from the exploitation of women by men and have no little to do with the operations of capitalism. Radical feminists concentrate in particular on how men exercise their power over women at work and protect their own interests by intimidating women and excluding them from senior positions. Radical feminists claim that one way that men do this is by the use of sexual harassment – unwanted sexual attention. Alternative to feminists view are the functionalist and human capital approaches.

Functionalists argue that women are naturally suited to the “expressive” role of childcare, whereas men are more suited to the “instrumental” role of competing in the labour market. This implies that women with children will give up or interrupt their careers in order to take care for the children. Furthermore, human capital theory, which is advocated by some economists, argues that women’s lack of commitment to paid employment is the cause of the disadvantages they suffer in the labour market. Women often chose to take career breaks or to work part-time because they wish to combine work with raising a family.

Since they are likely to abandon or interrupt their careers at an early age, women have fewer incentives to invest their time in undertaking lengthy programmes of training or education. They are therefore of less value to employers than their more highly trained and more skilled male counterparts. Similarly, on average women will have less experience of their jobs than men because they are less likely than men to be in continuous employment for many years. This makes it difficult for women to be promoted to higher status and better-paid jobs.

Once again, women are paid less than men because they are worth less to the employer. Their lack of training, qualification and experience, which all result from the demands of childcare, create disadvantage for them in the labour market. To sum up, both alternative views on the origins of women’s inequalities in the workforce – feminists opposed to functionalists, prove the fact that the gender inequalities on the workforce exists. Even though due to the introduction of Equal Opportunity Act and Equal Pay Act the situation for women is getting much better, the problem is still relevant.


1. Giddens, A. (2006) Sociology. 5th ed. Cambridge: Polity press

2. Gosling, R. and Taylor, S. (2005) Principles of Sociology. LSE: University London Press

3. Haralambos, M and Holborn, M. (2004) Sociology. 6th ed. London: Collins press

4. Walby, S. and Olsen, W. (2002). The impact of women’s position in the labour market on pay and implications for UK productivity.

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