The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Illustration of a woman carrying a man on her back (by Pat Linse)

Inequality: Why Women?
A Plausible Sociocultural Explanation for the Persistence & Universality of Gender Inequality Over Thousands of Years

In 2020 Netflix aired the four-part mini-series Unorthodox, loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same title, depicting the flight of a young Satmar Hasidic Jewish woman from her arranged marriage in the insular and oppressive ultra-orthodox community in Brooklyn where she had grown up, to a life of freedom — albeit alienated from her family and that social world — in Berlin, previously the epicenter of the Holocaust.

As we watched the series, we were reminded of similar gripping memoirs of women escaping from extreme forms of other religions. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel (followed by Nomad and Heretic) described her escape from a Somali version of Islam — which included her suffering genital mutilation — to avoid an arranged marriage and find freedom and education in the Netherlands. Amber Scorah’s book Leaving the Witness chronicles her exit from her family’s three generations of devotion to the Jehovah’s Witness religion that left her in Shanghai with no education or support system, and what it was like starting her life over that eventually led her to pursue education and a new life in New York City. And Tara Westover’s memoir Educated described her exodus from a school avoiding survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. She endured physical dangers, physical abuse, and coercive psychological control in a determined effort to achieve an education, even though it would challenge her most deeply held and unquestioned beliefs; and she ultimately received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge.

We began to wonder whether these memoirs constituted a new literary genre or subgenre. Despite the differences of language, culture, geography, and religion, the stories were basically the same. A woman grows up in an insular religious community, where formal education is denied to women (reminiscent of the way American enslaved people had not been allowed to learn to read and write), where contact with the larger world is minimized, where she has a status greatly inferior to that of men, and where her predetermined life path consists of subservience to religious and other community norms, and to the roles of childbearing, infant care, childrearing, and homemaking.

Were these works actually part of a pattern? Was this primarily a phenomenon of women, or of religious extremism, or was it part of something larger — of inequality in general? And if so, where does gender inequality fit in? These are the questions that prompted this article and that it aims at exploring.

Of course, it isn’t only in extremist forms of religion that people in the category of women find themselves in inferior positions to those in the category of men. While not discounting the possibility of rare exceptions, it is fair to say that gender inequality characterizes religions in general, in differing ways and to differing degrees. Religions (and secular ideologies with the same function) are important because they serve as the justification societies use for the social order they impose, including the conferral of power and privilege. However, religions are not the only place where women as a category of humans find themselves in an inferior position to the category of men.

All societies have categories of people who are treated poorly, but these groupings vary widely from one place and time to another. Religion, race, social class, caste, language, ethnicity, and other classifications have been used to justify the unequal treatment of identifiable groups of people. And yet only gender serves as the basis for unequal treatment in all societies in all places and at all times. Why is that? And where does the universality of women’s lesser power and status fit into the overall picture of inequality among humans?

In considering these questions, we have attempted to restrain ourselves from censuring even extreme forms of inequality, choosing instead to describe reality as it exists and has evolved over time. The following brief discussions of gender inequality and social evolution summarize consensus understandings among anthropologists and other social scientists (we are, respectively, an anthropologist and a psychologist).

Myths About Matriarchal Societies

To begin with, we can dismiss myths about women’s domination of some societies in faraway places and/or in the distant past. While women may have been respected elders and sources of wisdom about a society’s rules, there is no documentation of a society where women called the shots. This is a fact that has repeatedly required explanation, even for the peoples themselves — taking the form of myths about the way women once ran things, but messed up badly, so men took over and set matters straight.

Illustration of woman carrying man by Pat Linse

Illustration by Pat Linse

The first and most obvious biological (as opposed to social) explanation is that men run things because on average they are bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than women. This explanation is what most people assume explains gender inequality; and their assumption becomes explicit, especially when it is challenged by a woman. However, this ancient assumption has been examined and shown to be false. As we look at societies around the world, it is evident that the people at the tops of the hierarchies of power and privilege — while overwhelmingly male — are rarely the strongest men; the physical strength of those at the top was rarely of much use in getting them there; and by the time they arrived, they were past their physical prime. Furthermore, their social skills — at which women are thought to outdo men — were key in getting them to the top.

An appeal to humans’ past as hunter-gatherers provides little support for the physical strength hypothesis. To begin with, although physical strength may have been more important then than in later forms of social organization, hunter-gatherer bands typically had much greater gender equality than can be found in nation-states today. In large measure, men and women were equal because moving around following plant and animal food sources meant that a group couldn’t carry much stuff with them, so there wasn’t much material wealth to distribute unequally.

Over time, research has displaced the image of “man the hunter” to one of “woman the gatherer,” since plants were the main source of food. It is true that males and females did different things, and that men’s activities may have been more highly valued than women’s, but these differences didn’t translate into large differences in power. Rather, the band was more like an extended family, where relatives worked together for mutual benefit (and where a subgroup could split away if the level of conflict became intolerable). The limited gender inequality among hunter-gatherers, however, offered a basis for subsequent more hierarchical societies to build upon. This is an important point — once a cultural system of beliefs and practices gets entrenched it tends to take on a life of its own, even when it has outlived its usefulness.

A second biological explanation for male dominance is that, until recently when people began to live longer and could use methods of birth control, women’s lives were taken up by pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care, in addition to their other responsibilities, leaving little time or energy for dominating the affairs of the group. In addition, in the case of hunter-gatherers, a man who got isolated from the group could survive, while an isolated woman with an infant could not. Thus, among the earliest humans, women did need men to survive more than men needed women.

The problem with using women’s reproductive and infant care responsibilities to explain the subsequent perpetuation of gender inequality can be seen by looking at our two nearest cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos. In both species, as in ours, males are stronger than females; but in the case of bonobos females rule the social group. They do so by banding together, so that their combined strength is greater than that of any male — and the males tend to be solitary. Interestingly, it is the females’ infant- and childcare responsibilities that lead them to band together, rather than making them subservient to the males.

What then can we say about the apparent universality of male dominance? Since human biology is a constant, while the degree of inequality differs greatly among societies (and even in the same society over time), we can conclude that the effect of sociocultural factors is powerful. Because men are one-up in all societies, it is possible that biological differences between the sexes (such as men’s strength and women’s pregnancy and infant-care) may in the distant past have contributed to an initial difference in power. This initial difference would have had the kind of advantage that any prior custom has, but it would not be adequate to explain its ongoing existence and even amplification in today’s complex societies, millennia later. On the other hand, neither has anyone come up with a plausible sociocultural explanation for the persistence and universality of gender inequality over thousands of years.

We would like to propose one.

A Brief History of Social Inequality

To a greater or lesser extent, all documented human societies are hierarchical. Hierarchy can be understood as a response to a variety of environmental circumstances, such as a surplus of food, role specialization, or the structural need for some category of people to oversee and coordinate the actions of others who perform disparate tasks. Over time, different groups organized themselves in a variety of ways, each with its own variety of inequality. The following condensed summary gives a glimpse of our species’ past.

The earliest humans were hunter-gatherers. Depending on whether you date our species as beginning with the cognitive revolution, anatomically modern bodies, or common ancestry with our closest living ape relatives, our hunter-gatherer ancestry extends back tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of years.

The most widespread and dominant form of human social organization on the planet evolved over time — from hunter-gatherer societies, to horticultural societies, to agricultural societies, to industrial societies. Whenever a later occurring form was introduced in a particular geographical location, any earlier form would disappear. (We should note that no other primate species has societies that are larger or more complex than human hunter-gatherer bands. Also, to say that the forms of society evolved through a kind of environmental selection doesn’t imply that a given society has to go through all the intermediate societal types before becoming industrialized. In addition, other social forms — fishing, herding, and maritime societies existed at different times; and the conquests of Genghis Khan’s herding society created a gigantic empire. But herders were never the most widespread societal form on the planet.)

Horticulturalists first appeared about 9,000 years ago, agrarian societies about 5,000 years ago, and industrial societies about 200 years ago. Horticultural societies planted crops, which produced more food, allowed for a surplus to be stored for lean years, and created multi-village societies. These advantages allowed them to out-populate, conquer, and displace hunter-gatherers. But horticulture tied people down to the land — inevitably leading to competition among groups over land and the creation of warriors and specialists to make weapons and farm implements. Warfare in particular lowered the status of women, since it combined the two elements alluded to earlier (and dismissed as biological causes for gender inequality).

The continuous female cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care during the brief lives of early peoples made women less available as warriors, while men’s greater strength and hunting skills were assets for that role. In addition, organized warfare involved a level of social organization not seen in chimpanzees or bonobos. Since the control of violence was in the hands of men, they became the group in charge; and they have perpetuated that power advantage through the millennia.

In addition, under early small horticultural societies, slavery often came about through taking prisoners in warfare. A slave populace served both as a source of labor for menial tasks in times of plenty, and as an expendable population in times of food scarcity. Slavery became more widespread in situations where societies with a slave component had an advantage over non-slave ones.

An important point here is that throughout history humans (and other species) have gone through periodic episodes of food scarcity and starvation; and human societies have developed means for institutional self-preservation. In addition to organized groups of male warriors, horticultural societies with cultural practices like infanticide have also had an advantage over those that did not, since fewer mouths to feed meant more food per mouth, and hence a greater chance that the group as a whole would survive and not self-destruct in disputes over limited resources. Slavery, in its earliest form — by providing an expendable population — functioned to preserve the slaveholding society against internal collapse. In later, larger, and more complex horticultural societies, the advantage of slavery came by incorporating potential competing groups into an exploitable category within the conquering society, and by taking their resources.

This is a key point about inequality. The exploitation of a category of people, a characteristic of hierarchy, can produce a benefit and even a survival advantage for a given society in competition with others — leading to a selection over time of societies with comparable practices.

Agricultural societies, with plows and irrigation systems, were huge and hugely complex in comparison to previous forms of social organization. They had cities of over 50,000 people, and while the percentage of such societies with slavery declined, the actual number of enslaved people increased dramatically because the societies were so large. In addition, class systems came into existence and became the form of inequality affecting the most people.

The world’s largest religions developed before the industrial revolution and still have billions of adherents, illustrating the way in which complex cultural practices can continue for centuries or even millennia after the circumstances that gave rise to them have ceased to exist. Thus, in addition to the subordination of women, we see slavery in both the Old and New Testaments, reflecting conditions in the Ancient Egyptian and Roman agricultural empires. And the monotheism of the Jews harkens back further to their life as herders, viewing God as standing in relation to them the way a herder controls his animals. (“The Lord is my shepherd.”)

Periodic starvation posed a particular problem for gigantic agricultural societies like China and India, and the practice of female infanticide prevented the overall losses from being even worse. (In recent decades, following the availability of amniocentesis and ultrasound, this practice has been largely replaced by the selective abortion of female fetuses.)

Given the fact that only females give birth to babies, it follows that those societies that limited the number of females were more effective at controlling population size than were societies that did not. This is because a man can impregnate many women in a short period of time. For example, it is estimated that 0.5% of all men now living — between 15 and 20 million — carry Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome; and he died less than 800 years ago. So, not that many men are needed to make a population grow. In contrast, a woman can give birth to only a small number of children, so many women are needed for population growth. Put differently, if you kill a boy baby, other men can still father the children he might have had; but if you kill a girl baby, you prevent the births of her children, and her daughters’ children, and her granddaughters’ children, and so on through the generations.

Of course, unlike slaves who constitute a disposable category of people during hard times, significant numbers of fertile women always have to be kept alive in order for the society to reproduce itself. Still, once a view of female inferiority becomes established through a practice like female infanticide, it opens the door to all kinds of derivative effects, which can take on a life of their own — even if the initial function — avoiding societal collapse in the face of starvation — is no longer relevant. If females are so worthless that society would keep them from living, then all kinds of mistreatment — from unpaid work to physical violence, rape, honor killings, and dowry killings — become less unacceptable. For example, even if, in the distant past, the function of female infanticide in India may have been population control, people today are unaware of that origin. Rather, the dowry system provides an economic incentive for getting rid of girl babies — parents won’t have to pay other families to take them.

Industrial societies used the developments in science to harness the powers of nature, such as the steam engine to power railroads and steamships making the United States and England powerful empires, and led to the rise of factories that moved masses of people off the land to ever larger cities and creating a gigantic urban working class.

As a byproduct of industrialization and urbanization, slavery became largely obsolete — slave labor was not well suited to work in factories, and the diminished economic incentive allowed arguments about its immorality to become more salient. Still, it took a protracted struggle to overcome this superannuated institution, illustrating once again that entrenched cultural practices do not disappear of their own accord. This is because, despite their counterproductive effects for the society as a whole, many powerful people and groups still benefit from the practices, and change in itself is viewed negatively by many others.

We can see the historically and geographically accidental and pragmatic ways that categories of exploited people have been created. Horticulturalists conquered and enslaved the people next door instead of others far away; agricultural colonists from Europe who settled in the eastern part of New World imported slaves from faraway Africa because the local populations lacked the large numbers and disease resistance needed; and British industrialists got their factory workers from the peasantry because that is where people in the requisite numbers could be found. There was nothing inherently inferior about the oppressed categories of humanity. Ideological justifications for the legitimacy of their exploitation were provided after the fact to sustain and perpetuate the newly imposed forms of inequality. In other words, people weren’t exploited because they were believed to be inferior; their presumed inferiority was constructed after the fact to justify their exploitation.

As societies became ever larger and more complex, they benefitted from the social evolutionary advantage of hierarchy, and they contained ever more hierarchies with ever more layers. And, as we have seen, hierarchy means that some category of people has to be at the bottom. To use a popular computer metaphor, inequality is a feature of human societies, not a bug.

Why Women?

So, we return to our original question — why women and why in all societies?

In order to subordinate a category of people they need to be identifiable, so easily recognizable sensory information is of key importance. Since vision dominates the other senses in human perception, obvious visual cues are the most commonly used tool for classifying people into categories. The clearest current example is that of race.

What people look like varies gradually around the planet, with populations near each other looking more similar than they do to more distant populations. If you go in different directions, the people look different in different ways. This pattern of gradual change, as opposed to clearly demarcated types, is why the human species lacks biological races — but if races did exist, they would all be in Africa, where our species has been since its earliest beginnings.

The illusion of race in the United States was created by the accidental bringing together of peoples from three of the most distant populations on the planet, who therefore looked noticeably different from one another. Beginning with the origin of anatomically modern humans in East Africa at least two hundred thousand years ago, different populations migrated from there over many thousands of years all the way to England, to West Africa, and, by way of Northeast Asia, all the way to the Eastern shore of North America. These populations’ adaptation to differing climates included superficial differences in visible appearance. Since these obvious visible differences could be used to categorize people, it was easy to develop ideological rationales to justify taking the labor of Africans and the land of Native Americans, and to implement systems of law to crystallize the American forms of inequality.

Visible cues are so useful in classifying people, that they have even been created by societies where none exist. For example, the Nazis made Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and those in other stigmatized categories wear special armbands, since they could otherwise be visually indistinguishable from the general population.

Auditory cues have also been widely used — different regional, ethnic, and social class accents allow native speakers of a language to know where a person fits in a country’s hierarchy. For example, Americans learned at the first presidential impeachment hearing that Fiona Hill immigrated to the United States because her British working-class accent would have prevented her from professional advancement in the United Kingdom. Similarly, a Spanish accent could be sufficient to provoke discrimination in the United States. In general, however, learned auditory cues, like an accent, are easier to change from one generation to the next than are inherited visual cues, like skin color or sex — making auditory cues a less reliable way of identifying a category of people over time. So, this is our proposed explanation for the ongoing universality of the subordination of women.

In all societies, women are a category of people who are easy to identify visually (e.g., secondary sex characteristics like breasts), and hence can be treated differently from others (men) — with little danger of misclassification (“passing for male”) and no danger of a shortage.

Furthermore, unlike skin color, which can vary greatly across generations through mating, biological sex remains for nearly everyone divided into two separate categories. All societies can count on producing an ample supply of women, roughly equal to the number of men, in every generation; and all societies have had some pre-existing forms of inequality — including gender inequality — to build upon. Rather than asking what it is about women (or blacks or any other group) that justified putting them in an inferior position, we should examine the ways in which the groups already in power saw an advantage in doing so. In this sense, women can be seen as an omnipresent target of opportunity, whose availability for exploitation has been taken advantage of — in differing ways and to differing degrees — in all historically recorded societies. (In the United States, although women greatly outnumber African Americans, African Americans got the vote long before women — though under segregation it was denied to them in the South for nearly a century — and an African American man was elected president, while to date no woman has been. In addition, while men are also visually identifiable and might in principle have been subordinated if women had been running things, it was women whose initial disadvantage got amplified over eons in the competition among societies.)

This explanation — of women as a numerous and visually identifiable category of people to exploit — seems so obvious to us that we wonder why we haven’t come across it before. We think that the answer lies in the difference between an insight in the social sciences and an insight in the other sciences.

Insights in the Social Sciences

In the biological and physical sciences, a significant barrier to a new idea is the amount and depth of knowledge that has to be acquired in order to put previously unrelated elements together to form a new pattern. And in order to understand the insight, other scientists need to have much of the same relevant knowledge.

In the social sciences, a significant barrier to a new idea is ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism in the social sciences is like egocentrism in psychology. In egocentrism, people are unaware of obvious things about themselves in part because they are unable to observe themselves from the outside, to see themselves as others see them — for example, you can’t see the expression on your face. In ethnocentrism, people are unable to observe their culture from the outside, to see themselves as people from other cultures see them — for example, in the United States, women don’t need written permission from their husbands to travel alone or with their children — as is the case in many other countries.

Here is an example of a social science insight from the educational anthropologist John Ogbu, whose focus was on another variety of inequality. Ogbu was interested in understanding the poor school performance of minority group children. First, he recast the question into a broader one — Why do children of some minorities do poorly in school, while children of other minorities do well? Then he came up with his insight. He made the distinction between voluntary and involuntary minorities. It is easy to understand once you hear it, but before him no one had thought of it. (Perhaps Ogbu’s personal experience, as both a member of the involuntary Igbo minority in Nigeria and a voluntary member of the black minority in the United States, combined with his anthropological training, gave him the background that enabled him to have his insight.)

Voluntary minorities are those who joined the majority culture, often at great personal and economic cost — seeking a better life or fleeing persecution — and accepted their minority status. Involuntary minorities, like conquered or enslaved peoples, have had their minority status thrust upon them against their will, and do not accept it. As a result, involuntary minorities are open to accusations of disloyalty, and have the additional burden of proving their trustworthiness.

Since one of the main functions of schools is to socialize students into the majority culture, voluntary minorities tend to view formal education as an opportunity to succeed in their new home. In contrast, students from involuntary minorities (e.g., Native Americans and African Americans) tend to view formal education as indoctrination by their oppressors. Ogbu found examples of immigrants from the same culture who did well academically in countries where they were voluntary minorities, and poorly where they were involuntary minorities. For example, ethnic Korean children have done poorly in schools in Japan and well in schools in the United States.

So, we see viewing women’s sex as creating a visible category of exploitable people — similar to the way skin color created the exploitable category of race — as the same kind of social science insight as Ogbu’s distinction between voluntary and involuntary minorities.

Potential Criticism

Whenever a new idea is proposed, it gets scrutinized and critiqued to test its cogency, so we would like to briefly imagine a few potential objections and give a sense of how we would respond to them.

Critique: The assertion of a social cause for gender inequality (that women form a visible category) as opposed to a biological cause is not testable because biological sex and social gender go together.

Response: We would say that some biologically intersex people are raised in one gender and then, at puberty, develop a body more like the other. Before puberty, the way society treated them was based on their visible appearance, not their biology.

Critique: What does the view of women’s sex as creating a visible category of exploitable people have to offer in explaining social inequality over explanations relying on social learning alone?

Response: We would argue that the difference is in the level of explanation. Social learning is a process that takes place at the individual level, while a phenomenon like gender inequality requires an explanation at the societal level. Children may learn to distinguish males from females at the individual level, but the patterns that their parents and others transmit to them exist at the societal level and are communicated through language and other widely shared social processes.

Critique: Various biological or biologically associated differences between the sexes, individually or in combination, are sufficient to explain gender inequality. These include differences in physical strength, height, aggressiveness, testosterone, male bonding, women’s menstruation, pregnancy, birth, lactation, infant care, and so forth.

Response: In our view, in the absence of actual evidence, this is basically an argument from correlation to cause. (It also resembles myths that women once ran things but weren’t up to the job — in this case for biological reasons — so men took over.) Furthermore, when two scientific explanations are proposed for a phenomenon, the principle of parsimony (Occam’s Razor) asserts that we should choose the simpler one, because it makes the fewest unsupported assumptions or assumes the existence of the fewest entities. In general, social explanations, which don’t need to postulate innate differences, are simpler than biological ones, and therefore preferable. Biological differences result at least in part from a long history of evolution, while social differences can be learned and/or changed from one generation to the next.

For example, it is simpler to propose that behavior such as gender roles gets passed down through the generations by social learning than to argue for a genetic cause without identifying the relevant genes. We recognize that there might have been limited gender inequality among hunter-gatherers in the distant past. But in the absence of evidence of biological causation, it is simpler to explain both its existence through time and space and its extreme variability from one society to the next by means of social processes, including transmission across the generations, rather than by biological causes. Just to make matters clear, we are not saying that biology plays no role in male-female differences. Rather, we are arguing that it is unnecessary to postulate a biological cause for gender inequality at the societal level.

Gender, Race, and New Forms of Inequality

Once a particular pattern of inequality has been established in a society, it tends to become entrenched and self-propelling. This is because of the benefits it offers, such as free labor, both to the society as a whole and in its competition with other societies. In addition, the religious and/or other ideological justifications that have grown up around particular forms of inequality create a cultural consensus about their morality — or at least acceptability. Changing an entrenched pattern is difficult, but if the costs of exploiting a category of people outweigh the overall societal benefits, coordinated action for change has a better chance of succeeding.

We believe that technological changes originating in advanced industrial societies are mainly responsible for recent improvements in the status of women. In the competition among societies, intellectual contributions (as opposed to previous forms of industrial labor, like assembly line work) are now the main key to success. Thus, the disqualification of the female half of a society’s intellectual potential is a much higher price to pay than is the loss of women’s menial labor and exploitability. (We saw this kind of calculation during both World Wars, when the scarcity of American men necessitated permitting women to function in many previously male jobs; but gender inequality was restored when the soldiers came home.) In a parallel to the decreased economic value of slavery in the face of industrialization, the decreased economic value of the exploitation of women has allowed arguments about its immorality to become more salient.

Modern technology also offers the opportunity to create new subordinate categories of people in addition to or in place of more traditional ones. China offers an instructive example. China’s spectacularly successful industrialization allowed it to grow from an impoverished country that could barely feed itself to become the second greatest world power in only four decades. In order to achieve these results, it has created Dickensian conditions that are at least comparable to those during the nineteenth century industrial revolution in England that so appalled Karl Marx. However, since Communist ideology claimed that this progress was spearheaded by the working class, China needed a different huge category of exploitable laborers on whose backs its achievements could be built.

Over 290 million workers — more than a fifth of the country’s population — have been streaming from rural areas to cities in search of work. In response, the government has imposed severe restrictions on migrants once they arrive at their destinations and has given them no protections either in their homes or at work. As a result, because of the illegality of their presence, this new class of internal migrants has become the essential illegal labor force. They suffer wretched working conditions, pitiful wages, and no social benefits; and they have no legal means to appeal their exploitation or organize to demand better conditions. In this case, China’s digital infrastructure has helped officials to check on people’s household registration — a reminder of the potential that advances in information technology pose for enforcing inequality. Even though (unlike race in the United States) the predominantly male members of this new class are not visibly different from the legal population around them, their residence in shanty towns and the auditory cues provided by their extra-regional dialects and accents makes them easily identifiable. Of course, if China’s economic progress continues and the size of this category diminishes rapidly, the visible category of women will still be available to provide large numbers of people to exploit.

It was our discovery that internal migration was illegal in China that drew us to collaborate on this article. It was one of those moments of insight, recognizing that something taken for granted and unremarked upon in one’s own culture was defined differently and played a central role in another, that demanded explanation. In this case, it was that the freedom to move from place to place in China has required government approval — a situation difficult to imagine in the United States. A government decree restricting movement is so antithetical to American values that its suggestion during the COVID-19 pandemic raised cries of outrage. Part of Americans’ cultural identity comes from the massive movement of pioneers and settlers to populate the continent, so a challenge to freedom of movement in the United States can be seen as parallel to a challenge in China to an equally strong and more ancient understanding — the place of women in the social hierarchy.

In the current globalized competition among industrial economies, having an exploitable category of people still provides a country with a competitive advantage. In this sense, China can be seen as leveling the playing field with the United States, which already has its own illegal category of migrant workers.

Latin American undocumented immigrants are so intrinsic to the American economy that, despite their being constant targets of opprobrium, their underpaid labor is essential to the economy and creates an economic incentive — both for those who exploit them and for the United States in its competition with China and other countries — for keeping them here as an exploitable underclass. Similarly, in China, rather than allowing free internal migration or clamping down on it, the government accepts the economic benefit from this exploitable source of labor and limits its oversight to periodic harassment to prevent workers from asserting perceived human rights. Since China has the digital tools and means at its disposal to track and control individuals, digital profiling can function similarly to racial profiling. In terms of international competition between the United States and China, we can also see the benefits to China from exploiting its internal immigrants as competing with America’s benefits from exploiting undocumented immigrants. Internal migrants offer China an economic advantage comparable to that offered by African Americans throughout our history — from slavery to Jim Crow to current practices — augmented by Latin Americans and women.

The emergence of a new oppressed category of internal migrants in China is a reminder that an improvement in the lot of one category of people need not improve the mistreatment of others, and even that new subordinate categories may be created.

The Future of Inequality

There is no getting away from the fact that all nation states are hierarchical, that hierarchy means inequality, and that inequality means a small number of people at the top and a substantially larger number at the bottom.

While categories like religion, race, social class, caste, language, ethnicity, and other classifications have been used to put people at the bottom, these arbitrary distinctions come and go over time and space. Only gender, because it is always and everywhere visually identifiable, creates the universal opportunity for unequal treatment. This means that, if gender discrimination provides societies with a competitive advantage, others will be driven to imitate the practice. But it also means that, if technological advances make gender discrimination disadvantageous, over time competing societies will either become more egalitarian or will lose out.

Hierarchy provides a benefit to a society by giving those at the top the time and resources to innovate in ways that provide it a survival advantage in competition with other societies. For example, the United States spent a huge amount of money developing the science to put a man on the Moon during the Cold War; but once the conflict ended, it stopped funding the much less expensive superconducting super collider because politicians couldn’t see how the knowledge it would produce could benefit the country in international competition. (We might mention in passing that the climate crisis and nuclear proliferation offer contemporary examples of ways in which cooperation among societies would benefit them, while competition poses an existential threat. Unfortunately, as we have pointed out, social practices generally continue long after they have ceased to be of use.)

So, there is an opposition between hierarchy — which produces more security and potential innovations for the society as a whole in competition with other societies — and attempts to provide the best quality of life for all individuals.

That being said, among the most technologically advanced societies, the proportions of people in different categories, and the degree of difference between the lives of those at the top and those at the bottom can vary dramatically. For example, the Nordic countries have rich people and poor people, but nearly everyone has access to food, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare. In contrast, in the United States, a small number of individuals have more wealth than entire countries, while more than a sixth of the population lives in poverty.

Furthermore, in the United States, the category of people classified as Latin American includes more than half of over ten million undocumented people. Like illegal internal migrants in China, their exploited labor makes a huge contribution to the American economy — which would suffer greatly if they were expelled, but would create substantial costs in wages and other benefits to their employers, and higher prices for the public, if their residency were legalized; and their uncertain status confronts the country with the injustice of their condition. As a result, they present the United States with a conundrum, and their fate is currently the subject of intense debate.

Rapid and synergistic advances in biology and computer science, like the horticultural, agricultural, and industrial revolutions of the past, offer the potential both for major new advantages for individuals and societies and for the creation of new subordinate classes. Emerging technologies create the prospect of making genes, political views, or other as yet unforeseen criteria the enforceable basis for exploiting new categories of people.

We can ask, what will happen to women as new categories of subordinates appear?

Around the world, we are now observing a transition in the status of women. As we see it, the willingness and ability of a society’s dominant groups to give up or decrease the subordination of women depends on four factors. These are: the availability of other categories of subordinates; the number of subordinated people of use to those who dominate the economy and the appropriateness of their geographical distribution to their usefulness; the degree of entrenchment of the society’s preexisting understandings of women; and the potential economic and other competitive advantages offered to the society as a whole by their liberation. (In contrast, the fact that practices such as female infanticide have morphed into gender selection by technological means merely reveals the perpetuation of preexisting hierarchies.)

Thinking about the question, what category of people will be worse off as the condition of women improves, brings us back to where we started: memoirs of women escaping from religious extremism, which subordinated their interests to those of the larger group. A key element in the memoirs was the women’s education, and the liberating effect it had on them. Technological changes in society have given even cloistered women access to education, have provided an opening for them to learn about the world, and have allowed enterprising women to strike off in a new direction. Some even write memoirs about their experiences; and it stands to reason that those most subjugated would be among the first to speak out. So, it seems to us that, as educated women’s lives improve, the condition of less educated people — especially men with their traditionally greater power and privilege — diminishes in comparison. Less educated men don’t like that, and we have seen loud demands for a return to the status quo ante. Meanwhile, women using education to venture out on their own, in defiance of their predestined inferior status, may well be the social trend that has given rise to these memoirs. END

About the Authors

Dr. Dolores Newton (Ph.D. Harvard) is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Stony Brook University. Her specialties include the indigenous peoples of the New World—especially the Krikati and related tribes of Brazilian Indians—material culture, and museology.

Dr. Jefferson M. Fish (Ph.D. Columbia) is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St. John’s University, New York City, where he served as department chair and also as director of the PhD Program in clinical psychology. His most recent book is The Myth of Race; and he is the author or editor of eleven others dealing with therapy, race, culture, and drug policy. In addition to more than a hundred other academic publications, he has written for Psychology Today, Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, The Humanist, and other periodicals.

This article was published on September 16, 2021.


7 responses to “Inequality: Why Women?
A Plausible Sociocultural Explanation for the Persistence & Universality of Gender Inequality Over Thousands of Years

  1. Michael Amacher says:

    Not to belabor the issue, but I just responded to a somewhat related article I found (as I did this one) on a science website. Both articles involved “academic” commentary regarding discrimination. This article, as well as the other article I just read (and also commented on), were both poorly thought out and politically biased.

    That other article, penned by a Psychiatrist, used statistics to point out supposedly outrageous discrimination in hiring patterns based upon race, except that the author was so math-challenged that his argument was quickly undermined by an obvious, significant math error. Correcting his error, I demonstrated to the publisher of the article (not the website featuring the article) that this was a relatively minor difference once the math had been corrected. I also questioned why they didn’t catch the error before publishing, and also why they had no comment section following the article. “Afraid of something?” I posed.

    Sorry for the long path, but my point is this. We apparently live in an age where even supposedly “academic” research is so obviously biased as to render it little more than personal opinion. Biased, incomplete and/or inaccurate opinion at that!

    Woe unto us. We are truly approaching another Dark Age…

  2. darkic says:

    We sure are lucky that that all the evolutionary difference between men and women are trivial and cannot possibly confer an advantage to one sex over the other. I guess humans must be extremely special for all of us to be entirely equal (outside of the sexists who make us not).

  3. Chuck Mire says:

    For another view of the history of oppression against women, read this book preserved online:

    Woman, Church & State” by Matilda Joslyn Gage


    “Original Exposé of Male Collaboration Against the Female Sex”

    (Original publication date: 1893

    Various formats here. 👇

    Read online in HTML Format (On a smartphone, turn sideways in landscape) You can jump to any chapter by tapping on the chapter page link on the right side in the Table Of Contents. 👇

  4. Bruce Adam says:

    Bruce B Adam
    This explanation appears to be based on the assumption that groups which practiced female infanticide fared better in times of scarcity than groups which practiced male infanticide , indiscriminate infanticide or no infanticide .
    They are said to fare better by virtue of stable population less prone to the shortages of hard-times.
    While it’s clear that a food supply that can only sustain thirty people through a hard winter will cause greater suffering in a group of fifty than in a group of thirty-five , both would have an equal number of survivors.
    Here in New Zealand it’s apparent that cannibalism also played a large part in humanity’s social evolution. Slaves became livestock when required. This may not be universal in human history or pre-history , but it shouldn’t be ignored in framing speculations about social development.

  5. Michael Amacher says:

    When I was a boy, my father had a saying for the process of first establishing a conclusion, then attempting to provide evidence to support that conclusion. He called it “Ready, Fire, Aim!”, and it seems appropriate to consider this article in that context.

    While I laud the intent of the authors, which seems to be to highlight and criticize forms of anti-female discrimination, I fear that their innate political bias prevents their accurate description and analysis of the issue.

    No doubt such discrimination exists, however you’d be hard-pressed to identify any population cohort on earth which is easily identified by some factor such as sex, skin color, place of origin, political or religious belief s, which is not in some way discriminated against. The reason is obvious, though apparently not to the authors.  

    They have a large hammer in their hand, and as a result everything they see looks like a nail.

    I fear that most behavior in society appears to them (the authors) to be the result of “discrimination against” (i.e., exclusionary) behavior, whereas in my experience most human activity is a result of “selection for” (i.e., preferential) behavior.  In other words it is to seek like-mindedness; a desire to become part of a cohort and not primarily to exclude.

    The viewpoint expressed is insidious. It seeks to characterize most human behavior as inherently negatively motivated.

    I cannot dispute the fact that we are surrounded by objectionable behavior. Just a few hundred people in our world now possess wealth exceeding the remaining population of mankind! But to attribute the plight of exploited women to a structural (and according to the authors) universal and primordial contempt of women by men is outrageous!
    Aside from a few antisocial types I’ve met in my lifetime (I’ve met hundreds of thousands of people in my career, including several Billionaires, thousands of educated professionals and hundreds of thousands of working class people) I’ve rarely met a man who didn’t consider his primary purpose in life to be to support, treasure and protect the women in his life.  Most men consider their wives, mothers and daughters as their sacred trust.

    We will literally die for them, as we have done in appalling numbers since time immemorial. After all, we are the “worker-bees” of society and our place is historically outside the home. We provide and protect. We mentor and mend. But we always know, the heart of the household is the female, not the male.

    To say that the article avoids examples and conclusions which are at odds with the authors’ premise, is an understatement. Nowhere is it discussed how many men are damaged, dominated, cheated on, or otherwise abused by women.  Routine sacrifice by men in favor of women is entirely ignored. Ready deference by men to women in myriad situations is ignored, and the list could go on for pages more….

    Face facts, humans are capable of bad behavior regardless of sex. Don’t indict all men in an effort to justify your pre-determined political biases.

  6. Testing, 1,2,3 says:

    A couple of quick thoughts:

    1. All of the other subordinate groups at one time or another have revolted and either become dominant or at least threatened to do so. The Mamlukes after all began as slave who eventually took over Egypt. Blacks in Haiti rose up and ultimately began systematically killing whites. Christians were a despised, persecuted minority in Rome that became the official dominant religion, likewise, the Jews revolted against the Romans. The French Revolution overthrew and liquidated the ancien regime social classes and there have been many caste revolts in India. Why, exactly, are there no attempts by woman, as a subordinate class, to turn the tables or otherwise revolt?
    2. Infanticide was far from a universal practice and seems not to correlate particularly well with famine potential. Egypt, for instance, had a very strong prohibition on infanticide that Romans remarked upon. Yet Egypt was far more prone to famine should the Nile floods fail. Likewise, The Japanese practice male infanticide as they could always sell daughters as slaves.
    3. What other universal behaviors have been passed down through the overwhelming majority of world cultures? There should be many structures that were group beneficial in days of food scarcity or violent, unindustrialized combat that are no longer viable, so what are they? If the most parsimonious explanation is that thousands of cultures all preserved at least some elements of female subjugation well past their period of actual use, surely there should be some other clear examples.
    4. Why are these cultural inheritances so powerful? Exceedingly few radical revolutionaries/visionaries (e.g. Joseph Smith, Marx, Noble Drew Ali, Handsome Lake, Nestor Makhno, Kim Il Sung, Robespierre, Hus, Hong Xiuquan) make any progress on eliminating this subordination or not even bother trying? Even when strict egalitarianism is the official policy (e.g. the USSR, Communist China) decades later we still see massive underrepresentation in leadership and far worse casual sexism than in more traditional societies. If the solution to female subordination is education in a modern economy, why exactly did so few radicals who set out to completely transform society and cast off the old received traditions take up that cause? Why did the few who tried have such limited success given that it is just a cultural holdover?
    • Patrice Boivin says:

      I wish the education system was built around sharing skills and practical knowledge instead of polemic. Everyone would be more capable. We might know how to get things done, how to build things, how to defend our country and wipe out or reform bad people, how to prevent cultish behaviour and faith-based belief systems, how to heal people, how to prevent manipulation and lying, how to identify and catch paranoids, sociopaths and narcissists. Political science would be about determining and designing the best political science system possible. Sociology would quash Marxism and capitalism as simplistic ideas. We would all be better off.

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