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Has There Always Been Gender Inequality?

As some of you may know, yesterday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day.

This is a day that celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women, which all too often is diminished and/or goes unrecognized.

One thing it focuses on is the rampant gender inequality that has become the norm in modern society.

Mama Fish Saves has an awesome collaboration post which highlights some of this inequality, and as a bonus there are over 40 posts from rock star women personal finance bloggers about taking control of your finances. Check it out!

This day got me thinking, has there always been gender inequality?

Many try to explain gender inequality by saying, “it’s always been this way” or “humanity was made to be like this.”

After hearing this my entire life, I was intrigued to find out that this is not the case at all.

In fact, gender inequality comprises a relatively small portion of human history.

Has there always been gender inequality?

There are many studies out there that show that, contrary to popular belief, early humans did not exhibit gender inequality.

Many believe that even early hunter gatherer tribes would exhibit gender inequality as the men would be hunters and women would be gatherers.

This is simply not true.

Everyone contributed. Women would sometimes join the hunts, while men would sometimes gather.

In fact, in some tribes, the gathering made up a majority of the total food, which actually makes that more valuable than hunting.

While the acquisition of food was split equally, it is also interesting to note that in this time period, females were equal in other regards as well including leadership, authority and decision-making.

All of this evidence points to a society that was not male dominated, and was actually more egalitarian (equal) and/or female dominated.

That’s right. It is believed that females may have been the dominant gender even as far back as the origins of humanity.

So what happened?

The Agricultural Revolution

Around 10,000 years ago something major happened. The Agricultural Revolution.

Largely hailed as a major step forward for humanity, it is interesting to note that this is largely determined as where gender inequality has its roots.

Perhaps a step forward for all (in terms of life span) but a larger step forward for men.

Here’s how it is thought that gender inequality began.

The invention of the plow, and the accumulation of wealth.

A pretty random object to be sure, but think of it this way:

While early farming could be done by either gender, as technology advanced the plow was invented.

Back then the plow was a big heavy object and tough to control. The ability to use the plow vastly increased the amount of food that could be produced, which helped support bigger populations of cities.

There was finally something that favored men over women.

From there, it spiraled.

While women could still help out on the farm, because it was tougher for them to control the plow, they were seen as less valuable.

In addition, with more food readily available, more people could be fed and thus birth rates increased.

Men could “produce more” and thus worked the fields, while women would be the ones to care for the children.

The more a man could produce, the more power and wealth he would accumulate.

As society grew around these farming cities, social classes began to emerge and in most, women took a backseat.

The more wealth you had, the better off you would be.

From there it hasn’t gotten much better for women, even up to the present day.

Sure there have been cultures in which women had more equal roles than others (such as the Norse, Celtic and Spartan cultures), but none have lasted.

Is Wealth to Blame?

For millennia, it seems that humanity was able to live without gender bias. Introduce technology that favors men and wealth into the equation and society has become unequal.

While a society solely based on primitive agriculture may have favored men, we have moved past that.

With the Industrial Revolution and the rapid advancement of technology in the 20th and 21st centuries, our society no longer revolves around physical, manual labor.

Automation has taken over, and no longer can we that be used as an excuse for gender inequality.

Therefore, is the pursuit of wealth the reason gender inequality persists? (The quote “money is the root of all evil” may apply here).

Or is it simply that men are comfortable how things are and don’t want things to change?

That, I cannot answer.

If the desire of the accumulation of wealth is partly to blame though, how can this be fixed?

I’m not suggesting that we need to change to some sort of socialist or egalitarian society in which everything would be shared.

Would the world still run the way it does today if everyone was less focused on money?

Mr. Money Mustache somewhat tackles this one with an interesting argument on how frugality can benefit the world.

Could this also be the answer to solving the economic side of gender inequality as well?

That remains to be seen.

Where do we go from here?

Obviously gender inequality remains a huge issue in the modern day.

Many people may think that the issue too big for them to make any impact, and thus they ignore it.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

There are several things you can do in your everyday life to help promote gender equality.

As change only happens when individuals come together to make an impact, by simply doing what you can in your everyday life you are helping.

Remember, it hasn’t always been this way.

Let’s do what we can to help ensure that everyone truly has the same standing as our long time ancestors once did.


Interested in History? See some other posts I have on historical figures in the History Annex.

7 thoughts to “Has There Always Been Gender Inequality?”

  1. Could you explain what you’re trying to get at in this post? If you’re talking about treating everyone equally with the same rights and respect, I agree. I doubt anyone would disagree.

    If you’re talking about the so-called “wage gap” or “gender pay gap,” I disagree. Your value to an employer is based on the skills you bring to the table and the revenue you generate. It’s the reason why WNBA basketball players don’t make as much as NBA players or PGA Tour golfers make more than LPGA Tour golfers. The market and revenue just isn’t there. The same applies to any other job in America. The free market decides what wages will be. When the boundaries are artificially moved, I think that’s a slippery slope when it comes to the salary of workers.

    1. I agree with your comments on the LPGA and WNBA, but I think those are more outliers. In more regular jobs such as corporate America I think a wage gap definitely exists and a huge reason for that is because of the lack of women in senior roles (where the pay is higher). Now there are many reasons behind this, but I definitely think one of them is because women don’t get the same opportunities that men do. I think that women are just as capable of holding those senior positions yet for some reason are vastly outnumbered. I just find it hard to believe that the market decides this and there is not a broader issue at hand.

      This post was really just to highlight that there is gender inequality and try to find the “root” of what caused these issues in the first place.

  2. Take this with a grain of salt because although I work in an office (with an equal amount of men and women! 🙂 , I work for a small business so I don’t have much exposure to the day in, day out goings on in corporate America.

    There seem to be plenty of powerful women out there in the business world. Off the top of my head, I believe Lockheed Martin, Pepsi, IBM, General Motors all have women CEO’s. That’s just an example, but I do think there a lot of high achieving female professionals in the business world today. Not to the level of men, but that isn’t going to change overnight. The “stay at home mom” has a more positive connotation than a “stay at home dad.” So maybe the opportunities are there but the desire for large numbers of women to pursue those positions may not be? I’m honestly not sure, but it’s food for thought.

    Just my two cents. This is a good post to start a conversation!

    1. Absolutely, I’m with you in that I think there’s a lot of societal issues behind that as well. More than likely it’s a huge combination of things that all have led to what we’re seeing today.

      That was the goal! The more people that are aware, the more it can be talked about and something can be done! 🙂

  3. Well done with this post, and I appreciate the shoutout to the #womenrockmoney collaboration! It’s important to know our history to figure out how things happened the way they have, so we can figure out how to move forward in a more equal way.

  4. Wow, it was the plow of all things? I don’t know what I was expecting, but I don’t think I would’ve guessed that! Also the Agricultural Revolution is simultaneously earlier AND later than I would’ve expected for gender inequality to become entrenched in the course of human history. While it hasn’t always been this way, I think 12,000 years is certainly long enough 😉

    Thanks for this great post!

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