My approach to working up this difficult and abstract concept is to specify a simple social context from which a structural inequality emerges. Using this example, I will describe a general picture of structural inequality.
A woman that I know, let’s call her Mary, has a seat in the monthly executive-level strategy meetings at the company where she works. Fourteen people regularly attend these meetings, 10 men and four women. In the formal corporate hierarchy, she is on the third tier from the top, which is the lowest that participates in such meetings. She is one of two people and the only woman on her level.
Her male colleague, John, with whom she is in direct competition for promotion and other benefits, is younger than her and was hired after her. In the spirit of a team working for the interests of the company, all participants are expected to offer their thoughts and ideas and are tacitly evaluated by their superiors on their contributions to the discussion. Indeed, the opinions of each are explicitly solicited, and Mary is often asked what she thinks about the issue at hand.
Now for some reason, Mary is also tasked by the president of the company with taking meeting notes. There is no obvious reason for Mary to get this particular assignment, but on one occasion when Mary was not able to attend a meeting, the note-taking responsibility was given to her immediate supervisor, also a woman, rather than to the man at Mary’s level. These strategy meetings are fast-paced and require quick and creative thinking from participants.
The problem for Mary is that taking notes on such conversations makes it extremely difficult to contribute to them. Her bearing this responsibility thus puts her at a disadvantage with respect to the adequacy of her participation. She is negatively evaluated for what appears to be a lack of insightful and creative thought. If, however, she were to resist the note-taking assignment, she would be penalized for lacking team spirit. Were she to do the note-taking job poorly, she would be judged incompetent, so she diligently takes precise and comprehensive notes. This fact, of course, seems to offer some justification for the president’s decision to assign the task to her and ensures that it will remain hers.
Moreover, since she is taking the notes, everyone else in the meeting is free to concentrate fully on strategizing. So her good work serves to improve the performance and thus the evaluations of others. This has the effect, especially for John, of increasing their status in the eyes of their superiors relative to hers. Hence her considerable efforts work against her own interests.
Mary is encircled in what Marilyn Frye calls a “double bind,” a kind of trap that limits her options and opportunities and makes the avoidance of penalty impossible.1
Mary’s plight is not necessarily apparent to the casual observer, so there is no reason to think that the president intends to put her in this situation. The evaluative criteria are the same for everyone in the meeting. All are expected to participate. Mary has a seat at the table, and her opinions are actively solicited. Note taking in itself isn’t a particularly odious or difficult task, and it arguably gives Mary an opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to the team. All might seem fair if each element of the situation in which Mary finds herself is considered in isolation from the others. But if all of these considerations are taken together, it is clear that Mary is at a disadvantage relative to her colleagues.
Borrowing Peter Blau’s spatial metaphor, Iris Marion Young provides a generalized account of this kind of inequality. According to Blau,
A social structure can be conceptualized as a multi-dimensional space of differentiated social positions among which a population is distributed. The social associations of people provide both the criterion for distinguishing social positions and the connections among them that make them elements of a single social structure. 2
Each meeting participant occupies a particular social position, the features of which condition the options and opportunities that are available to the occupant. Each of these positions is defined and thus differentiated from other positions by the relationships that exist between them. These relationships also connect each position to every other position, and it is by virtue of such connections that the various social positions together constitute a social structure or social space.
In Mary’s strategy meetings, such relationships include but are not limited to the patterns of authority and deference of the formal corporate hierarchy, social norms, role assignments and responsibilities, evaluative criteria, expectations, etc. An important correlate of this picture is that the positions and their features are relationally constituted. Each position in the structure is differentiated by its relationships to other positions, and the set of conditions that a position places on the options and opportunities of its occupant are a function of the relations in which it stands with other positions.3
As a specific example, consider the position of note-taker in the social space of Mary’s strategy meetings. The features of this particular position are constituted in part by the fact that every other position does not carry with it the assigned responsibility of taking meeting notes. And reciprocally every other position is in part constituted by the fact that the note-taker position has note-taking responsibilities. So conditions on the options and opportunities of the occupant of the note-taker position are partially a product of the fact that the other positions don’t have note-taking responsibility.
Consider that Mary’s difficulty comes in part as a result of the fact that though she is held to the same evaluation criteria as everyone else, she has an additional cognitive burden that no one else has. If either everyone or no one were to have this extra burden, then the disadvantage that Mary suffers as a result of her being the only note taker would not exist. Moreover, conditions on the options and opportunities of those who occupy positions that do not have note-taking responsibility also come in part as a result of the fact that the note-taker position has this responsibility. The advantage that everyone else enjoys because they are free of note-taking responsibility comes in part as a result of the fact that Mary is taking notes. And again, if everyone or no one were to be required to take notes, then this advantage would not exist. Mary is unequally positioned relative to her fellow participants in that her position carries with it a constraint on her options and opportunities that disadvantage her relative to the others in the meeting. Furthermore, her disadvantage is reciprocally related to their advantage.
Generalizing a bit more from my example, the reciprocal relation between the advantaged and the disadvantaged (and thus structural inequality itself) can be constructed in at least three overlapping but distinct ways. First, a social structure, in which some occupy positions of privilege, necessarily puts others in disadvantaged positions, so individuals in the privileged positions are granted a sort of positional good that is denied to those who are not. Next, it will often be the case that disadvantaged individuals are relegated to performing service work for those with privilege, e.g. wives caring for the emotional needs of husbands, housekeeping staffs and secretaries freeing up their employers’ time, etc. And lastly, the privileged often extract value from the disadvantaged. The benefits that advantaged persons receive enable them to improve their position relative to the disadvantaged. The energy that a disadvantaged person expends is thus used against her in a way that furthers her disadvantage.
From here, we can work up, in very general terms, the further notion of a social group. Such groups consist in people who occupy similar social positions. So we can say that the existence of a note-taker position in the social structure of Mary’s meetings creates at least two groups: note-takers, of which there is only one member, and non-note-takers, which has 13 members. There is a complex myriad of other overlapping social groups in even this simply social context as well: those who are on the same levels of the corporate hierarchy, those who are in various departments, men, women, etc.
Like the positions that constitute them, social groups have features that condition the options and opportunities of their members. We may also conceive these features and the groups that bear them as relationally constituted, so the existence of a group that consists of a set of similarly disadvantaged positions implies the existence of another group that consists of a set of positions which are advantaged with respect to those disadvantaged positions. The presence of structurally unequal groups in a social structure thus entails social stratification.
There is much more to be said, but this should begin to shed some light on the notions of social structure and structural inequality. Societies have a social structure. Individual persons occupy social positions in this space that are differentiated by the relations between positions. These relations determine the features of each position, and these features condition the options and opportunities of the occupant. Positions that exhibit relational similarities form the social groups which typify the divisions and hierarchies of race, class, sexual orientation, and, as Haslanger defines it, gender.4
An additional aspect of structural inequality is that inhabiting a particular position often involves significant and psychological effects The relations in which a particular position stands with other positions condition and constrain the options and opportunities of its occupant, and these constraints and conditions are often internalized by the occupant through socialization processes with the effect that the selves of some people are reduced, fragmented and alienated.
Focusing on the positions that constitute gender, the unequal and oppressive set of norms that characterize the genders may be understood as the ideals of masculinity and femininity, and when internalized these ideals become important elements of people’s identities. Sandra Bartky has argued that the internalization of femininity distorts the psychological development of women in a way that reduces and fragments their selves. For example, women who have internalized femininity may be significantly less inclined to question the roles that they are expected to play and norms that they are required to follow. This is not a simple matter of women not being allowed to speak or not being heard. It is not even that women may be afraid to openly question and criticize the way things are. While all of these factors may also be in place, a deeper problem is that women may be psychologically conditioned such that they do not even feel a desire to speak. As Bartky suggests, a person, who has internalized the conditions, constraints and norms of the positions to which “woman” refers, is likely to feel quite at home in her femininity. She is also likely to see the subordinate relationships that she and other women have with men as entirely natural as well. So in addition to being an effect of the structural inequality of gender, the internalization of gender ideals should also be seen as a mechanism for the maintenance of gender itself.
While my focus is on gender, it is very important to note that sexism is not the only such structure. Similar accounts could be given of inequalities based on class, sexual orientation, age, disability, ethnicity, religion, and so on.
1 See Frye, Marilyn. “Oppression” from The Politics of Reality (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1983).
2 Blau, Peter. Inequality and Heterogeneity (New York: Free Press, 1977), 4.
3 Young, Iris Marion. Inclusion and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 92-99. See also Young, Iris Marion. Justice and Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 43-65.
4 Young 2000 93-94. Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55; Mills, Charles W. “But What Are You Really? The Metaphysics of Race” in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 41-66.
5 Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge , 1990), 23-32.