Society is a complex system with various parts working together to ensure harmony, solidarity, cohesion, and peaceful co-existence. From a functionalist perspective, the various social structures and social functions are shaped by norms, traditions, customs, and institutions. In other words, parallels could be drawn between the human body and society from a functionalist perspective whereby the various organs (social structures and functions) work together for the proper functioning of the body (society). With this understanding, it becomes easy to understand various social issues that exist in society, such as gender inequality. From a functionalist perspective, gender inequality exists as a way of creating a social system whereby some segments are supposed to certain acts of labor – or simply labor division. This paper discusses gender prevalence in medical roles as a sociological issue from a functionalist perspective.
The Functionalist Sociological Theory
According to the functionalist perspective, society is a sophisticated web with various parts each working towards the achievement of the same goal – the promotion of stability and solidarity. According to Lindsey (2015), functionalism, also known as “structural functionalism, is a macro-sociological perspective that is based on the premise that society is made up of interdependent parts, each of which contributes to the functioning of the whole society” (p. 6). As such, the society, from a macro-level perspective, is subject to structures and social functions that shape it. Functionalists “believe that there are specific requirements – functional prerequisites – that must be met in all social systems and that these can provide the basis for the comparative analysis of social institutions” (Holmwood, 2005, p. 87). These prerequisites include basic needs, money, and all other factors that allow a society to have a social order. From this perspective, every individual should play a certain distinguished role and contribute to the whole. As such, men and women are assigned different roles based on their gender. For instance, for the purposes of division of labor, women, and men occupy complementary gender roles. Based on this understanding, women are expected to take care of homes while men are supposed to provide for their families. This perspective could be used to explain the prevalence of gender in medical roles.
Gender Prevalence in Medical Roles
As mentioned earlier, society is structured in a way that allows different people to have varying labor roles to ensure stability and growth. However, the determination of who does what is subject to norms, customs, and available institutions. For instance, males and females are expected to have different roles in society based purely on one gender. As such, while it is clear that what men can do women can also do as has been shown in various societies and professions, cultural norms play a significant role in assigning gendered roles to people. For instance, in the field of medicine, there is a gaping gender inequality with women affected disproportionately. Even in cases where women have access to more opportunities in this field, the majority of them occupy the lower ranks in the hierarchy of power and leadership. This phenomenon could be explained from the functionalist perspective.
A huge gender disparity is experienced in medical roles in most societies around the world. According to Wienclaw (2014), “Gender inequality can be defined as the existence of disparities among individuals based solely on their gender rather than objective differences in skills, abilities, or other characteristics” (p. 111). This form of inequality could be obvious like women being paid less for doing the same work as men or subtle whereby women are not given the equal opportunity to advance as men. This problem is hinged on the functionalist theory whereby women are expected to take care of homes. In other words, females are not supposed to be in the workplace or out there looking for money because that is men’s work. Consequently, men will be given preference over women in the workplace based on this presumption. This argument is in line with the functionalist perspective of gender inequality whereby gender differences exist as a way of ensuring division of labor whereby women and men are expected to perform certain duties based on predetermined cultural gender roles. This assertion explains why the number of women in the field of medicine is lower as compared to that of men.
However, times are changing and with modernity whereby the issue of gender equality has taken precedence, it is expected that the number of women in the field of women would increase significantly. According to OECD (2017), women are overtaking men in the overall health workforce in contemporary times. As of 2015, in all OECD countries, almost half of the doctors were women – a significant growth from the 1990s whereby females made up only 29 percent of the entire workforce in the health sector (OECD, 2017). This phenomenon could also be explained through the functionalist perspective as discussed earlier. From this perspective, women are associated with taking care of homes and families, and thus they are normally perceived as natural caregivers. This perception is transferred to the field of medicine where the different roles revolve around caring for patients. Therefore, females’ natural caring attributes are highly applicable in the field of medicine, and thus they are increasingly being accepted into this profession.
Nevertheless, even with the increasing number of females in the field of medicine, gaping inequalities are being witnessed. For instance, there is a huge pay gap based on gender whereby women earn less than their male counterparts despite occupying similar positions and doing the same duties. According to Boesveld (2020), “primary care physicians in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Brazil, and Mexico reported similar gender pay gaps, with female doctors in those countries making 20%–29% less than their male colleagues” (p. 19). These disparities exist mainly due to cultural norms whereby women are expected to remain at home and take care of their families, which is part of the functionalist perspective. Even in leadership positions, women are underrepresented mainly because due to the aforementioned norms, women are not given equal opportunities for advancement as their male counterparts.
Sociological theories attempt to explain why societies function in a certain way. This paper has explained gender prevalence in medical roles using the functionalist perspective. Based on this perspective, women are expected to perform certain duties in society, such as taking care of families and homes, by virtue of their gender. On the other hand, males are expected to be in the workplace providing for their wives and children. Therefore, there is a gaping gender disparity between men and women in medical roles. The drastic increase of women in medicine could also be explained from the functionalist perspective because they are seen as natural caregivers.
Boesveld, S. (2020). What’s driving the gender pay gap in medicine? CMAJ, 192(1), 19-20.
Holmwood, J. (2005). Functionalism and its Critics. In A. Harrington (Ed.), Modern social theory: An introduction (pp. 87-109). Oxford University Press.
Lindsey, L. L. (2015). Gender roles: A sociological perspective. Routledge.
OECD. (2017). Gender equality.
Wienclaw, R. A. (2014). Structural functionalist theories of gender inequality. In The Editors of Salem Press (Eds.), Gender Roles & Equality (pp. 111-118). Salem Press.