The cultural meaning of gender difference varies across different cultures. Historically, gender difference has been linked with gender inequality, or the relationship of the status of women to their often-dominant male counterparts. Gender difference is determined by social and biological factors, but as the emphasis put on these factors changes, the significance of gender difference in society also changes.
Gender difference through time
Gender difference as a cultural concept primarily describes the status of women in society relative to their often-dominant male counterparts. Women’s status has historically been determined in large part by their contribution to production. For roughly the first 99 percent of their existence, over three to four million years, humans were hunter-gatherers living in tribes. These tribes were egalitarian because, as foragers, women contributed the primary share of resources. As agrarian and pastoral societies emerged over the past 10,000 years, and industrial societies over the past two centuries, the contributions of women to production decreased relative to men along with their social status.
The biological basis for gender difference
Biological factors have played a key role in how societies perceive gender difference. Perhaps the most notable example is women’s ability to bear children. Even in hunter-gatherer societies, women’s role in childbearing determined their overall role in society. Since reproduction was seen as vital, women’s contribution to production was limited to the domestic sphere, as they were also responsible for attending to their offspring. Even in the industrial era, the exclusion of women from employment, in terms of biological factors, was less about men having more upper and lower body strength than it was about protecting women’s abilities to bear children. More important than biological factors in determining gender difference, however, are the social stereotypes about gender that they create. Such stereotypes have often justified perceptions of male leadership and female subservience based on biological factors alone.
The social basis of gender difference
The extent to which biological factors determine gender difference is based on social factors, which vary across different cultures. Biological factors are the most prominent in more conservative or traditional societies, where gender inequality is high. In more progressive or less traditional societies, the role of women is close or equal to that of men. With less of or no concentration on manual labor, strength and other biological factors like childbearing are less important or even non-factors in these societies. Furthermore, the emphasis that biological factors have received in societies has historically been exaggerated by stereotypes of gender that support male dominance. As a social factor, these stereotypes play an even greater role than biological factors in determining perceptions of gender difference in societies.
Gender difference in the future
The concept of gender difference is changing, particularly in more progressive, egalitarian societies. Arguably, gender is no longer sufficient as a human distinction or topic of study on its own. In other words, the biological and social factors that have separated men and women in the past are being replaced by new social factors, such as economic class and educational level, that more accurately describe the context of contemporary social orders. As economic opportunities change and women’s contribution to production equals or surpasses that of men, the relevance of gender difference as a cultural concept is diminished.
Article prepared by Marc Rosenberg