Special Topics: A sociology of gender

Special Topics / Thursday, October 1st, 2020

by Teo You Yenn

Gender issues are not just women’s issues. Inequality—between people who are categorized as women and those who are categorized as men, as well as between people whose categorizations are generally recognized and those whose categorizations are contested—is central to understanding the significance of gender in contemporary societies. 

The scholarship on gender is rich and traverses multiple disciplines. Some scholars focus on the signs and symbols of gender in popular discourse or literary traditions, while some study how state institutions and public policy both draw on and perpetuate gender differences. There are scholars who trace legal, art, and scientific histories to excavate how beliefs of gender travel through these fields, as well as those who work on contemporary issues around gendered violence, domestic divisions of labor, unequal pay or discrimination at the workplace, and uneven representation in leadership. Gender research focuses often on women but increasingly also on men, transgendered or non-binary persons. Scholars move back and forth between articulating social conditions and human experience and agency. They center gender while also paying attention to class, race, sexuality, and other social identities and principles that intersect with gender in generating outcomes on inequality. Research and expertise on gender issues has developed in the so-called global North as well as global South—with vocabularies and frameworks traveling between places and interacting in dynamic ways. We also see especially complex interactions between scholarship and activism—social movements have been major forces for propelling knowledge on the significance and consequences of gender, and gender scholarship has informed the strategies and goals of feminist activism. 

We thus have much to draw on to enrich our understanding of how societies have perceived and reproduced gender differences, how gender has been used to justify inequalities, how people have experienced the significance of gender in their personal and public lives, as well as how people have—individually and collectively—resisted the inequalities built around the notion of gender differences. 

Women strike on 8 March 2019, International Women’s Day, in Argentina. In gender more than in other fields, scholarship and activism have been closely connected. (Photo: Wikimedia)

With such a rich and diverse range of scholarship and expertise, it is not possible nor desirable to simplify or caricature key arguments and points of view. It is difficult, too, to have a comprehensive reading list that is not so long as to be overwhelming. What follows then is a short, eclectic list of readings that I hope will be of interest to people with varying degrees of exposure and interest in the topic. It captures issues that are immediate and urgent as well as conveying the longer trajectory of feminist activism and scholarship. There are scholarly and theoretical works that I learnt from as a student and then used as a teacher, as well as work I have discovered more recently that I find energizing and thought-provoking. There is knowledge centered on Singapore and research on other contexts–both of which can, if we keep an open and curious mind, help us understand our own society better. 

I have listed books rather than journal articles where possible, so that those who do not have access to paywalled journals may locate these books in libraries and bookstores. But many writers have written well beyond what’s here, so I encourage interested readers to follow the trail and expand beyond the limits of this list. 

I hope these readings spark interest in further exploration, thinking, and conversations. Some questions to ask and answer about gender inequality include:

  1. How do people in a given society think about gender? What are some beliefs people hold of what women/girls and men/boys are or should be? How is gender used as the justification for differential treatment? 
  2. How is the significance of gender institutionalized—in schools, at home, in the law, through public policy, at the workplace, in government and politics? 
  3. How does gender inequality matter? What effect does it have on girls and women, on boys and men, and on nonbinary persons? 
  4. What are some specific inequalities—in salaries, status, occupation, labor, representation, etc—that result from gendered differentiation? 
  5. What are the possibilities for more gender equality? What are some laws and international conventions aimed at reducing gender inequality? What practices need to change, and by whom? 
  6. How are gender inequalities linked to more general questions of development, justice, freedoms, and democracy?

Many of us interested in gender come to it with a sense of personal investment—a personal cost in inequality and therefore a personal stake in gender equality. But this is not, and does not have to be, everyone’s experience. I have found, from teaching the sociology of gender over the past decade, that many young people come to my course without a strong sense that this has anything to do with them and leave seeing all the ways in which it does. Whatever your journey, I hope this list and the above questions enrich your knowledge and empower you to partake in the ongoing public conversations about the state of gender (in)equality in Singapore today. 

Suggested readings

  • Benard, Stephen, and Shelley J Correll. 2010. “Normative discrimination and the motherhood penalty.” Gender & Society 24 (5):616-646.
  • Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
  • Chin, Christine B. N. 1998. In service and servitude: foreign female domestic workers and the Malaysian “modernity” project. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Clawson, Dan, and Naomi Gerstel. 2014. Unequal Time: Gender, Class, and Family in Employment Schedules. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Collins, Caitlyn. 2019. Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.
  • Connell, Raewyn. 2009. Gender: In world perspective. Cambridge: Polity.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Arlie Russell Hochschild (Eds.). 2003. Global woman: Nannies, maids, and sex workers in the new economy. New York: Metropolitan Books.
  • Gillard, Julia, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. 2020. Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons. UK: Random House.
  • Gornick, Janet C., Marcia K. Meyers, and Erik Olin Wright (Eds.). 2009. Gender equality: Transforming family divisions of labor. London: Verso.
  • Kandiyoti, Deniz. 1988. “Bargaining with patriarchy.” Gender and Society 2(3):274-90.
  • Lan, Pei-Chia. 2006. Global Cinderellas: migrant domestics and newly rich employers in Taiwan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Lee, Ching Kwan. 1998. Gender and the South China Miracle: Two Worlds of Factory Women. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Lim, Linda 2015. “Beyond gender: The impact of age, ethnicity, nationality and economic growth on women in the Singapore economy.”  The Singapore Economic Review 60 (2):1550020.
  • Lin, Eileen, Grace Gan, and Jessica Pan. 2020. “Singapore’s Adjusted Gender Wage Gap.” Singapore: National University of Singapore and Ministry of Manpower, Singapore.
  • Meadow, Tey. 2018. Trans kids: Being gendered in the twenty-first century. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Pascoe, C. J. 2007. Dude, you’re a fag: masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Peng, Ito. 2002. “Social Care in Crisis: Gender, Demography, and Welfare State Restructuring in Japan.” Social Politics 9(3):411-43.
  • Radhakrishnan, Smitha, and Cinzia Solari. 2015. “Empowered Women, Failed Patriarchs: Neoliberalism and Global Gender Anxieties.” Sociology Compass 9(9):784-802.
  • Ray, Raka, Jennifer Carlson, and Abigail Andrews. 2017. The Social Life of Gender: Sage Publications.
  • Rinaldo, Rachel. 2011. “Muslim Women, Moral Visions: Globalization and Gender Controversies in Indonesia.” Qualitative Sociology 34(4):539-60.
  • Schilt, Kristen. 2006. “Just One of the Guys?: How Transmen Make Gender Visible at Work.”  Gender and Society 20 (4):465-490.
  • Scott, Joan Wallach. 1988. Gender and the politics of history. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Smith, Dorothy E. 1987. The everyday world as problematic: a feminist sociology. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. 2017. The mother of all questions. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
  • Stivens, Maila, and Krishna Sen. 1998. Gender and power in affluent Asia. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Teo, Youyenn. 2009. “Gender Disarmed: How Gendered Policies Produce Gender-Neutral Politics in Singapore.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 34(3):533-58.
  • Waylen, Georgina, Karen Celis, Johanna Kantola, and Laurel Weldon. 2013. The Oxford handbook of gender and politics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • World Economic Forum. 2020. Global Gender Gap Report 2020.

Further Singapore-specific works can be found in our Singapore Studies section.

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