Gender as a Social Structure: Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries to Advance Science and Equality


  • Barbara J Risman University of Illinois at Chicago



In this paper, I provide a historical narrative tracing the social scientific conceptualization of sex and gender through the 20th Century and until today.  I suggest we have moved from conceptualizing sexual inequality as attributable to internalized sex roles to a consensus that inequality gender stratification exists within social institutions as well.  I offer my own theoretical model to advance the understanding of gender, gender as a social structure.  My theoretical argument suggests we must integrate research on individual differences, social expectations in interaction and practice, and the cultural and organizational logics at the organizational and institutional levels.  I argue that, rather than test theories against one another, a modern scientific view is to integrate levels of analysis.   To illustrate the theory, I review three distinct research projects that have been framed by it: a study of  intersexuality, a study of international labor migration, and a study of a social movement determined against accepting gays and lesbians.  I end by suggesting that viewing gender as a social structure  allows us to envision a utopian society in which feminists have helped to dismantle that structure and build a post-gender society. 

Keywords: Gender, Gender Structure,  Sex Roles, Social Theory






Author Biography

Barbara J Risman, University of Illinois at Chicago

Barbara J. Risman is Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago. She is also the Executive Officer  of The Council on Contemporary Families, a national organization whose mission is to bring new research findings and clinical expertise to public attention. Current research projects include the  relationship between  gender equality and sexual activity  among college age adults, and the meaning of race and inequality in children’s lives.   She is currently finishing a monograph about gender structure theory,  From Sex Roles to Gender Structure: Toward a Utopian Vision for a Post-Gender Society.