Patriarchy can be understood in several ways, the most common of which is as a system where the economic, legal and political power lies with men, most often older men. Historically, most countries/societies we are aware of have been patriarchies. As this understanding only has room for two genders, it is sometimes described as cis patriarchy, a patriarchy where the men with power are cis men ( see also cisgender).

At present, Sweden is not understood as a patriarchy in the concrete sense described above. Yet the long history of patriarchy has impacted and continues to impact the structure of society to a degree high enough to justify a notion of patriarchal structures. With this understanding, patriarchal structures can be said to have a strong influence on all people’s lives, but it is not the only factor that determines a person’s position in society or the family. Thus, the concept can be criticised for being too one-dimensional as it neglects factors such as socioeconomic characteristics (class), ethnic/cultural background and functionality. Using the labour market as an example, we see that pay differentials exist not only between men and women but also between people whose parents have different backgrounds in terms of geographical origin and education.

The patriarchy is a deeply rooted social structure that is clearly based on and reinforces heteronormative notions and that can be manifested in a variety of ways. Knowledge about patriarchy and patriarchal structures can both be used in order to describe, analyse and understand how gender inequality is created and maintained in modern society, and as an idea of how it should be. As a consequence of the patriarchal notion that men are rational, reasonable and political beings, while women are assigned the opposite traits, men are considered to be best suited to have the economic, political and legal power (see also dichotomy).

Although Swedish law prohibits differences in salary solely based on gender, we know that the country’s gender pay gap remains large. And although women and men have the same formal opportunities to participate in the labour market and go on parental leave, women continue to perform a majority of the unpaid household and family work. Feminist theory has shown that patriarchal structures remain strong in today’s society due to a vast array of norms, values and social mechanisms.