See how this weighs up with your own understanding.
The first image shows a vertical 'hierarchical' interpretation of this whole cosmology business.
- Red = Unpleasantness
- Blue = Pleasantness
- Green = The path to Nibbana
This is how us humans often interprete things in terms of a vertical structure.
An important thing to note is that Woman are placed lower than men on the scale. In terms of intrinsic suffering, I believe this is the case. You suffer less (albeit not much less) as a man. You suffer a little bit more as a woman. To put it simply, it's harder to be a woman than it is to be a man
It does not make one better than the other though, as you will see in the next picture.
This is how I like to see things now:
It's a horizontal structure, which shows that no being is actually better or worse than one another. One is simply differentiated by one's kamma-vipaka.
- Red = Unpleasant
- Blue = Pleasant
- Green = Path to Nibbana
- Whole blue/red scale = Samsara
- Yellow circle = Nibbana
So we see from this second picture, that in fact no being better than one another. Beings are simply differentiated by their Kamma. You do bad deeds, expect to end up down the red end. You do good deeds, expect to end up down the blue end.
As soon as we start thinking in terms of:
"Oh I am better than a dog, it's much better to be a human than a dog, therefore humans are better than dogs."
I - Blackbird, am no better than a dog.
I may have more fortunate circumstances, I may be closer to the blue end, but I'm not higher up than a dog, because there is no height to begin with.
Hierarchy serves a purpose in conventional reality, but as far as ultimate reality goes, it's not a factor - In my opinion.
To answer the question of "Well what about the Sangha, where to they fit in?"
Exactly where you and I fit in.
Those worthy of veneration are not worthy based upon how blue or red they are, but because of how far along that green path they have progressed.
I'll finish with a quote
- Narada, The Buddha and His teachings - Characteristics of Buddhism. Buddhism and Caste - Pages 308, 309.Ven. Narada Mahathera wrote: "It was the Buddha who, for the first time in the known history of mankind, attempted to abolish slavery and "invented the higher morality and the idea of the brotherhood of the entire human race and in striking terms condemned" the degrading caste-system which was firmly rooted in Indian society at that time. The Buddha declared:
"By birth is not one an outcast
By birth is not one a brahmin
By deeds is one an outcast,
By deeds is one a brahmin"
- Sutta Nipata - Vasala Sutta
Vasettha Sutta relate that two young brahmins had a discussion with regards to what constitutes a brahmin. One maintained that birth made a brahmin, while the other contended that conduct made a brahmin. As neither could convince the other both of them agreed to refer the matter to the Buddha.
So they approached the Buddha and presented their case before Him.
The Buddha at first reminded the questioners that although in the case of plants, insects, quadrupeds, serpents, fishes and birds there are many species and marks by which they could be distinguished, yet in the case of men there are no such species and marks. Then He explained how men differentiated themselves according to their various occupations. In conclusion the Buddha commented:
"Birth makes no brahmin, nor non-brahmin makes;
'Tis life and doing that mould the brahmin true.
Their lives mould farmers, tradesmen, merchants [and] serfs;
Their lives mould robbers, soldiers, chaplains [and] kings."
Sorry about the silly-citation style, for those citationally inclined.
 This post was originally a response to this thread, however I feel it's application is a bit wider, so I have elected to post this here instead.