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A social system in which men have a privileged position in society

The term ‘patriarchy’ is used by various sociological theories to describe a system of social relationships, values, norms and behaviour patterns that are predominantly shaped by men and which encourage a privileged position for men.

According to these theories, the emergence of patriarchy happened in the distant past and it is benefitted by numerous factors. For example, Marxist theories trace patriarchy back to societal transitions towards sedentary settlements and private property. The historian Gerda Lerner put forward the thesis that the exclusion of women from the education system was a significant contribution to patriarchal structures. Common to many theories is the observation that patriarchy as a system for organising society is something that was developed in the course of human history – and patriarchy can therefore also be brought to an end by the process of history.

Worldwide, patriarchal, hierarchical gender structures still dominate today. One example is the use of the family name of the man after marriage. Another is the gender pay gap: in the labour market, women are generally paid less than men. Raising children and unpaid care work are mostly performed by women. Furthermore, around the world there are many more women and girls who have no access to education.

Patriarchy and violence against women

The concepts and practices of patriarchally influenced masculinity help to maintain gender-specific discrimination. Here, masculinity is also a social construct. Within a framework of patriarchal role expectations, it is often connected with aggression. There is a deeply rooted attitude underlying this: male is superior to female. And this is a fundamental cause of violence against women and girls. It is expressed in a wide range of forms and at different levels. Generally, this attitude serves to keep in place women and other people who do not match the image of patriarchal masculinity, ensuring they have less economic, political or social power than men.

Find out more about the causes and consequences of violence against women and about women’s rights.