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Gender Inequality and The Ethics of Care

by Caitlyn Flores, 2023 President


The idea of inequality continuing to exist in 2022 is one that many can't seem to fathom. From internalized misogyny blinding one’s perceptions of sexism to ignorance and cognitive biases preventing individuals from unearthing the realities of the patriarchy, many believe we live in an equal world that is free from sexism. While granting legal rights to white women during the 1848 Suffrage Movement, giving certain women the right to vote in 1920, and implementing the Equality Act of 1964 all seemed to have fixed the issue of inequality, this is far from the realities women in America still face today. In actuality there are many disadvantages and inequalities that persist in womens’ lives that are seen as fabrications and desperate attempts to narrate one as victims in an equal world. In this paper, I will contend the idea that granting women legal rights serves merely as a formality that hasn't successfully eliminated disadvantages and inequalities for women. In attempts to defend this position I will provide a brief overview of the key monumental instances of the granting of women’s rights and explain their advantageous outcomes for women. Afterwards, the various social ills women still face today will be explored such as unequal pay, lack of representation of women in positions of authority, feminization of poverty, the double burden, and sexual and physical violence against women. After explaining these concepts, the granting of women’s rights as a formality and the philosophical perspective Ethics of Care will be evaluated.

A Brief Discussion About Women's Rights

The woman’s suffrage movement, which started in 1848 during the Seneca Falls convention, allowed women to fight for their rights to social, civil, and religious freedoms. Previously women were not allowed to own property, were limited to domestic housework, had no legal claim to any money they could potentially earn, did not have the right to vote, did not have legal rights to their children, and women were under the complete control of their husbands as they had legal power over women. All these issues persisted as women and activists sought autonomy from men during their decades-long battle to attain independence and freedoms. As a result of womens endless persistence to equality, women were eventually granted rights, such property and voting rights. By the late 1800s, women were finally starting to be allowed property rights in some states. For instance, in 1771 New York was among the first states to pass The Act to Confirm Certain Ancient Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded, which gave women a voice in how husbands managed their joint assets as husbands had to receive their wife's signature before selling her property. Additionally, New York dramatically expanded the property rights of married women with the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848 and the Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife in 1860 (Winke). In 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act served to regard a woman’s wages and property, that is earned through their own work or inherited as her own, as separate property from men and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 extended this principle to all property, regardless of its source or the time of its acquisition (Married women's property act 1870). However, despite the many years it took for white women to achieve these freedoms, it took even longer for minorities and women of color. For example, while white women earned the right to vote in 1920, American-born Native women gained citizenship with the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924 which eventually allowed them to vote, Asian American immigrant women were not allowed to vote until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 was implemented, African American women didn't get the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and finally it took a 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act to expand voting access to Latina women (Not all women gained the vote in 1920).

Advantages of Women Rights

Granting rights to women has allowed for women to have an abundance of autonomy where they are free to make their own decisions on matters that have great influence on their social, political, and legal standing in life. Women are no longer bound to fulfill the role of domestic housewife limited by the expectations of what a man believes a woman should or shouldn't be, but are now able to follow their dreams in terms of occupations. Due to the fact that women now have the finances to support themselves, this allows women who are stuck in relationships based solely on finances and victims of domestic violence to leave as it is no longer the necessity to survive. Women now have a voice when it comes to matters of the country as they can now vote and are slowly being incorporated into political spheres. Previously, “controversial” concepts such as abortion access was not an option, but now that women have some sort of representation within the government, they're able to advocate for their own rights. Additionally, the introduction of women into the workforce allowed for a boom in the economy as new occupations developed, impacting the traditional gender roles that hold men should maintain all the financial responsibilities. Nonetheless, despite these advantages, there are still various social ills women face today.

Unequal Pay and The Gender Pay Gap

Evidently, the granting of rights wasn’t a linear process for all women, especially minorities, but this goes to show that while progress can be seen in terms of expanding rights to women, there are conflicting intersectional factors that makes the route to equality much more difficult. The patriarchy and the withholding of women’s access to social, political, and legal spheres of life, has had a negative impact on the way women are treated and viewed which allows for inequalities towards women. For example, many may argue that women now have equal pay to men due to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which protects both men and women in all forms of compensation such as salary, overtime pay, bonuses, life insurance, holiday pay, and much more (Equal pay for equal work). However, while this seemed to have solved the unequal pay issue, it was merely a band-aid solution that hasn’t actually eliminated the unequal wage gap. According to the article Gender pay gap in the U.S. held steady in 2020, women ages 25 to 34 earned 93 cents for every dollar a man in the same age group earned on average. Additionally, women earned 84% of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full-and part-time workers. Based on this estimate, it would take an extra 42 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2020 (Barroso and Brown).” Although the gender wage gap has narrowed for younger women due to their growing presence in industries like information or professional, scientific, and technical services, women are still over-represented in lower paying industries (Dowell). The withholding of women into the workforce has created a large divide leading to occupational segregation as there is a predominance of one gender in certain occupations. For example, 67% of women still work in traditionally “feminine” occupations such as service jobs, teaching, nursing, and more. Along with this, over 70% of part-time and 60% of minimum wage workers are women (Texas A&M University). This goes to show that there is a large amount of women who are segregated into low level occupations, which works to increase the gender wage gap as occupational segregation and the glass ceiling effect prevents women from holding higher paying jobs.

Lack of Women Representation

Moreover, there are invisible barriers that have historically prevented women from occupying positions of authority due to implicit biases, referred to as the glass ceiling effect. Promotion to managerial and executive level positions remains difficult to attain and while there are a select few women who have broken this barrier, like Vice-President Kamala Harris, women hold only 29.1% of executive positions even though they make up 56.8% of the labor force (Kagan). According to the article Gender pay gap in the U.S. held steady in 2020, “In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, about four-in-ten working women (42%) said they had experienced gender discrimination at work, compared with about two-in-ten men (22%). One of the most commonly reported forms of discrimination focused on earnings inequality. One-in-four employed women said they had earned less than a man who was doing the same job; just 5% of men said they had earned less than a woman doing the same job (Barroso and Brown).” Gender discrimination along with the glass ceiling effect has negatively impacted the number of women who are promoted to higher positions of authority. From the article The Women’s Leadership Gap, “In the legal profession, women are 45% of associates but only 22.7% of partners and 19% of equity partners. In medicine, women represent 40% of all physicians and surgeons, but only 16% of permanent medical school deans. In academia, women have earned the majority of doctorates for eight consecutive years, but are only 32% of full professors and 30% of college presidents. In the financial services industry, women constitute 61% of accountants and auditors, 53% of financial managers, and 37% of financial analysts. Finally, women are only 12.5% of chief financial officers in Fortune 500 companies (Hananel et al.).” In terms of women's involvement in the government, women make up 25% of the U.S Senate, 23% of the U.S. House of Representatives, 29% of Statewide elected executives, 29% of state legislative seats, 22% of mayors in cities with populations over 30,000, and 0% of presidents in the United States (Women's representation). These statistics confirm that women comprise a relatively low percentage of positions of authority. Because of this, women are still lacking in representation as the majority of men hold the power to make binding decisions that affect women’s lives without their approval. For example, in June 2022 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the infamous Roe v Wade decision which protected women’s access to abortion under the 14th amendment. In the court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, four out of the five justices who voted to overturn Roe v Wade were men, so due to men occupying the majority of seats in the court, it makes representation for women much harder as only 33% of the justices are women. Ultimately abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy was outlawed and abortion bans all across the U.S. were implemented creating political discourse among Americans as 60% consistently oppose the overturning of Roe v Wade (Castleman).

Feminization of Poverty and The Double Burden

The glass ceiling effect preventing women from obtaining higher positions of power, along with the wage gap and occupational segregation, all contribute to the feminization of poverty. This refers to the trend of increasing inequality in living standards between men and women due to the vivid gender gap in occupations which hold higher prestige and income. According to the U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2018 out of the 38.1 million Americans living in poverty, 56% or 1.4 million were women. The gender wage gap, occupational segregation, lack of supportive work-family policies, disabilities, domestic violence, and inadequate public support all contribute to the feminization of poverty and the growing inequality women still facing today (Cusick et al.). Further, women struggle to find balance between contributing to the workforce in efforts to stay out of poverty and being a mother. This becomes a double burden as women have a heavy workload that disadvantages their position in society. The double burden refers to the disproportionate amount of time and responsibilities women experience as they have a significant portion of unpaid care work. Unpaid care work is all work required to maintain a household such as chores, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly. These responsibilities are typically seen as traditional domestic housewife duties and while women were introduced into the workforce, the idea that they still have to perform the same responsibilities is maintained because women’s roles and duties within the household are not viewed as work by men. Evidently, over 64% of women’s work is unpaid and on average women spend 7 hours every day at “work” which is 12% more than men (Ser). This goes to show that women hold the burden of providing for their family and working while having most of their efforts unrecognized and unpaid.

Physical and Sexual Violence Against Women

While women obtained rights that have prompted many advantages, there have been other overlooked disadvantages women face, such as physical and sexual violence. As women gained an abundance of autonomy that conflicted with the traditional patriarchal views, the sense of dominance over women began to cease as they challenged male authority and gained individuality. The patriarchy, which are the structures, beliefs, and practices that maintain male dominance over women, often resulted in violence due to their lack of control over women and the failure to see them as equals. From the article Ending Violence Against Women: A Challenge For Development and Humanitarian Work, “ violence against women, exemplified in practices like rape and incest, is not just a collection of randomly vindictive acts, but a social institution which is crucial in reproducing male power by keeping women in a state of fear and unfreedom.” This is evident when victims of violence are covertly condoned and blamed for their situation which ultimately shifts the blame off men and onto women (Pickup et al.). Violence against women is the most pervasive form of abuse that is understood to be a human right violation that includes physical, sexual, and psychological violence. Acts such as intimate partner violence, rape, sexual abuse, torture, trafficking, forced prostitution, kidnapping, harassment, and more constitutes violence against women. According to the World Health Organization, about one in three women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. The majority of this violence is intimate partner violence and worldwide almost one-third of women aged 15 to 49 years have been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner (Violence against women). Additionally, women are sexually assaulted and raped at disproportionate amounts with over 82% of female juvenile victims and 90% of female adult victims. On average, there are 463,634 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, but out of every 1,000 sexual assaults 975 perpetrators will walk free (Victims of sexual violence: Statistics). Violence against women negatively affects their physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health as they face dehumanizing behaviors. To mitigate the lack of sanctions against perpetrators of violence, a growing number of advocacy groups work to solve these issues of inequality by providing domestic violence shelters, national domestic hotlines, and various nonprofit organizations that serve to support victims of violence.

The Granting of Women’s Rights As A Formality and Equality Constructed By Men

Evidently, there are various inequalities that persist today despite the popular view that women are now fully equal to men. While women did gain an array of advantages from receiving rights, it is my belief that they served merely as a formality that was constructed by men, and hasn't successfully eliminated inequalities, or address the issues that persist in women's lives today. Gender bias is built into all of the political, legal and social institutions due to living in a patriarchal world that is dominated by men. This prevents men from truly understanding how deeply rooted sexism and inequality really is, and we can see this as they struggle to recognize the subordinate positions of women as well as their denial of feminism. Although women demand parity and equal rights, which are typically male rights that are defined by males, demanding rights does not address the entirety of the issues women deal with. The achievement of such rights are not only inadequate, but also counterproductive as they create the illusion of a substantive equality that is formally recognized. Legal rights are a positive obstruction to advancing the cause of equality and justice since equality is viewed in terms of what men believe to be equal (Tebbit, 2000). Because the needs of men and women differ, the structural oppressions must be further acknowledged through law, with no gender bias, in order to attempt to fully eliminate inequality. Until this happens, gender inequality will continue to thrive in our patriarchal world, but the incorporation of ethics of care can be used to address these issues.

Ethics of Care and Solving Inequalities

The ethics of care, also called care ethics, is a feminist philosophical perspective first introduced by psychologist Carol Gilligan that uses a relational approach to morality and decision making. The relational approach intertwined with care ethics is characterized by the ways in which communicating and interacting with others embodies values such as respect, inclusiveness, compassion, and cooperation. Care ethics was founded on the idea that men and women differ in their ethical and moral decision-making. This is made evident as Gilligan conducted a study on little girls and how they view ethics. In the end, it was concluded that moral development in girls tends to focus on compassion rather than reason and justice, which were thought to be inherently male values. Ethics of care challenges traditional male-centric theories as it holds that they downplay values that are culturally associated with women, such as femininity and women's roles like housework and caring for children. This perspective places emphasis on connection to others and putting oneself in their shoes, then acting on feelings of empathy. Everyone has responsibilities and obligations to care for others and the needs of all individuals in any situation are identified. As attempts to maximize equality are made, sustaining basic needs and capabilities as well as alleviating pain and suffering are core values of this approach. Additionally, a strong emphasis on compassion, empathy, and the interconnectedness of humanity is crucial (D’Olimpio, 2021). This perspective attempts to correct problems of power inequalities and oppression, which would provide less opportunities for inequalities to exist as we would practice empathy consistently. Given the significance of empathy, the incorporation of care ethics into our social, political, and legal institutions would limit the amount of inequalities because individuals will gain perspective into the lives of women as they put themselves in their shoes and understand the issues they face first-hand. This would result in adequate policies to address inequalities and stronger sanctions for those who contribute to gender related crimes. If we incorporated the ethics of care into all spheres of life, we would live in a more just world that acknowledges these persistent issues instead of ignoring them. We will not only preach empathy and compassion, but we will practice it in ways that provide restorative justice to oppressed individuals. Such ways include incorporating stronger policies that protect women from physical and sexual violence, sanction companies who violate the Equal Pay Act, allocate resources to struggling women in need, and much more. Ultimately, social ills will continue to exist if we keep engaging in a culture of silence that holds little to no care for the experiences of women.


Overall, while women’s rights provide an array of advantages, inequalities continue to exist as the illusion of equality in our patriarchal world is a result of the granting of women's rights. Further, these rights serve as a formality as they’re constructed in terms of what men consider to be equal, which results in the inadequate elimination of inequalities such as unequal pay, lack of representation in positions of authority, the feminization of poverty, the double burden, and sexual and physical violence. In efforts to alleviate these inequalities, the philosophical perspective ethics of care should be incorporated in all spheres of life to address and solve these disadvantages.


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