The term inequality refers to a condition of being unequal, or of being given an unequal share of treatment, status, or opportunity. People are often aware of inequalities in social status, human rights, education, job availability, and income opportunities. A continued perception of racial, social, and wealth inequality and discrimination continues to plague society, causing discontent, anger, and even fear. To explore this concept, consider the following inequality definition.

Definition of Inequality


  1. The condition of being unequal.
  2. A social or economic disparity.


1375-1425       Late Middle English

What is Inequality

Because the term refers generally to a condition of unevenness, or to unfair treatment, it takes many forms in society. Individuals experience a sense of inequality in many areas of their lives, from being treated unfairly because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other trait, to feeling despondent about a lack of educational opportunities and high-paying jobs.

It is a normal human condition for people to be quite aware of themselves, and of their positions, in relation to others. Because of this, inequality does not only result in a disparity in treatment, but in how individuals see themselves. A lowered sense of self-esteem may lead to depression, and a heightened sense of unfairness.

Social Inequality

Social inequality refers to the uneven social status in any society, resulting from unequal opportunities, and lower rewards for effort. This type of disparity is caused by a feeling of being unfairly treated, or of discrimination in host of areas, such as limited access to quality education and jobs. Americans typically measure their value or success in terms of earnings from work or investments, reputation in one’s occupation, and perceived importance of race, ethnicity, schooling, and other factors.

Social inequality has been a source of much conflict in the U.S. since its infancy. While Americans are seen as being better off than many peoples around the world, the fact is, poverty and discrimination run rampant throughout the country.

Inequality by Personal Characteristics

In addition to income inequality, people who have certain personal characteristics, either from birth, or which have been forced on them by others, are often the subject of unequal social treatment. These characteristics include such things as race, skin color, and eye shape; as well as parentage, the parents’ social status, disability, gender, sexuality, and gender identity. These are characteristics over which individuals have no control, but for which they are commonly judged in a negative light. This example of inequality includes gender inequality, race inequality, and sexual identity inequality.

People possessing such characteristics have experienced discrimination for generations, perhaps beginning with the enslavement of black Americans in the nation’s infancy. Even after slavery was finally abolished, these people were denied equal access to education, employment, healthcare, housing, and other benefits. Without an equal opportunity for jobs and income, people who had been discriminated against flooded the poorer class. In this example of inequality, differences between social classes grew, leaving a great gulf between the “haves,” and the “have nots.”

Racial Inequality

Throughout the world, peoples of certain racial and ethnic groups face inequality in resources, power, respect, and supposed personal worth. Those who study ancient history and philosophies have speculated that racial inequality has its roots in the acquisition of power by other groups – power that came of having superior numbers and greater economic resources. These advantages led to their possession of superior weapons and technology, making it a simple matter to oppress minority groups.

The majority groups of peoples in possession of great power perpetuated racial inequality by dominating the less powerful groups. Often these groups were divided along racial lines, and ethnic origins. In modern times, those systems of racial inequality have been maintained through social influences.

Racial inequality involves a hierarchy of races in which, in America, those of White European descent have held the top position, and black people occupied the bottom. Historically, this hierarchy has served to reserve positions of power and greater opportunities for education, employment, and wealth to whites. It has also ensured that those of lower social rank were available to do “society’s dirty work” for low wages. This is known as “racial stratification.”

Gender Inequality

Gender inequality refers to the unequal perceptions and treatment of people, based on their gender. History has constructed gender-based social roles for individuals, in which men were the hunter-gatherers, responsible for the physical support of the people, and their families.

Women were the nurturers, caring for others, bearing children, and teaching the children their societal responsibilities, according to their gender roles. As the centuries passed, gender roles became solidly entrenched, though the methods used by both men and women to achieve their respective goals of support, nurturing, and education, changed a great deal.

At some point, women began to feel their roles were less valued by society, and they wanted to do more. Women have moved into the workplace, taking positions of authority and power, proving that they can do whatever men do, though the struggle for recognition, respect, and fair treatment continues. In reality, the differences between the sexes are many and diverse. In addition to physical appearance and relative strength, men and women view the world differently in many ways, and have differing attitudes about what their societal roles are.

While it seems necessary for society to embrace those differences, it makes it difficult to identify gender inequalities, and what attitudes need to be changed. In America, gender inequality is most commonly used to refer to issues in the workplace. Calls for women to receive equal pay for equal work attempt to bring the duplicity to light.

According to the International Labor Organization (“ILO”), women earn about 80% of what men earn for the same jobs. This is ironic, as over 37% of women in the American workforce possess college degrees, compared to men at 34.9%. Women are 50% more likely than men to work in the public sector. The nearly 70 million American women in the workforce make up about 60% of the low-wage workers.

Income Inequality

In the U.S., it is not uncommon for people of the middle and upper classes to blame poverty, or income inequality, on those who are weighed down by it. A primary cause of financial hardship is a lack of employment sufficient to pay for the necessities of life. America is seen as a nation of many opportunities, and indeed, a great many people have lived the “American dream.” In this environment it is easy for those who have never experienced income inequality or hardship to blame the poor for their own plight, saying they lack the motivation or willingness to gain a proper education and find a good job.

On another front, some place the blame for poverty in a wealthy nation on society. The economy of any society drives the number of jobs available, and the rates of pay for whatever jobs exist. In any recession, a great many people become employed, and businesses fail. As the economy slowly recovers, some find new jobs, but there are rarely enough jobs fast enough to employ all those who need them.

Lack of income leads some people to seek alternative ways to feed their families, including illegal means, such as theft, drugs, and prostitution. Poor families are forced to accept sub-standard housing, as they cannot afford the rent in the “nice” neighborhoods. This example of inequality creates a concentration of needy individuals and families in certain geographical areas, where other things, such as schooling, suffer from the generally depressed economy. Such conditions of poverty, and few opportunities for quality education and employment, lead to a sense of social inequality.

Wealth Inequality

Virtually everyone understands the concept of disparate incomes, however wages are not the same thing as wealth. This example of inequality considers all of the things a person owns, such as a home, a car, a boat, valuable works of art, retirement accounts, insurance policies, and stocks and bonds. The average person’s income is spent each month to pay for the necessities of life, and to buy a few recreational items and entertainment.

Although a person’s income may be spent to acquire valuable things, wealth is ownership of things whose value is self-perpetuating. A wealthy person’s possessions earn an income for themselves, enabling that person to reinvest in more assets. For instance, a home or other property generally rises in value over time, savings accounts earn interest, stocks earn a return on the individual’s investment, and paying into a retirement account pads a nest egg that will pay out more than the amount put in over the years.

While all nations have some level of wealth inequality, the U.S. stands out in the crowd. New York University economist, Edward Wolff, explains that the middle class was hit hardest by the recession of 2008. Wealthy Americans were able to acquire wealth-building assets at very low prices, thus increasing the wealth inequality gap, creating a virtual chasm. As the economy leveled out, the ordeal left just the top 10% of the nation’s population owning 77% of the country’s net worth, with the remaining 90% of the Americans owning only 23% of the pie.

To break down wealth inequality in the U.S. – out of a total population of 320,091,000:

  • Just 32 million people own over 77% of the nation’s wealth. About half of that wealth, or 35%, is owned by the top 1%, or about 3 million, people.
  • The remaining 23% of the nation’s wealth is unequally divided among the remaining 288 million people.

Inequality Example in Workplace Discrimination Lawsuit

In September, 2015, a female Microsoft employee filed a class action lawsuit against the mega-corporation, claiming that the company had a “continuing policy, pattern and practice of sex discrimination against female employees in technical and engineering roles.” Katie Moussouris, a security program manager at Microsoft, claims that she was passed over for several promotions, which were given to male colleagues who had fewer qualifications.

Moussouris’ complaint alleges that Microsoft uses “stack ranking,” which requires managers to fire their lowest-performing employees each year – even if those employees did a great job. According to Moussouris, female technical employees predictably received lower numerical scores in this ranking system, regardless of their performance.

As a separate issue, Moussouris claimed that she had complained internally about one of her superiors sexually harassing her and other female employees. Rather than firing the supervisor once the company had determined the complaint had merit, he was merely reassigned to another position. Moussouris claims he then retaliated against her by decreasing her responsibilities, and lowering her bonus.

Microsoft is not the only tech company accused of using a gender-biased stack ranking system. Women have complained of gender employment discrimination at Google, Apple, and Amazon as well.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Rights – The rights belonging to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th Amendments.
  • Class Action Lawsuit – A lawsuit filed by one person, on behalf of a larger group of people with a common interest in the matter.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.