Are we achieving gender equality? Can we do more?

by Emma Jeanes

Gender equality is firmly back on the public agenda. Unless you’ve switched off the television and radio, disconnected from social media and abandoned the printed press you can’t fail to notice that gender equality and related topics of sexual harassment, that disproportionately affects women, are regular topics of conversation. Social media has played a crucial role in spreading the word, with many campaigns such as #MeToo and #HeForShe drawing attention to gender inequality, and coalescing support to tackle it. This is all fantastic news and a step in the right direction. What is also heartening is the role men are playing in this as women cannot address gender inequality on their own.

We’re not there yet when it comes to gender equality. This is evident not only in the many examples coming to light through social media, but also through so called hard data such as the recent gender pay gap reporting in the UK where in some organisations the female pay deficit is getting worse not better. The causes for gender inequality are multiple and complex but ensuring that people understand what it is, how it manifests itself and the consequences of that for both men and women is a crucial part of our response to effect change.

The educational aspect of the action required to ensure change applies to everyone but looking to our young – the next generation of thought leaders and change agents – is a crucial part of that.

In November 2018, I led an ESRC Festival of Social Science ‘gender equality’ event attended by pupils from Torquay Boys Grammar School and Exeter College in Devon. The day-long event addressed understandings of gender and equality, provided empirical evidence to help explore and understand the extent and nature of gender inequality in our homes, work, politics and society more widely, and tasked the students with developing projects to tackle gender inequality, building on existing empirical research and feminist theory. The aim was to engage and inform through presentations, videos, posters, exercises and discussion, but also to demonstrate that they could make a difference and play a role in tackling gender inequality.

The students were tasked with creating something that set out some of the core messages and actions that could be taken to help create a more gender equal world that they could share in their schools . The students created a poster highlighting gender stereotypes and what we can do to tackle them, and wrote a letter entitled “Keep it Simple” that set out the importance of equal treatment regardless of gender from birth and throughout one’s life, which reframes gender equality around notions of ungendered choices rather than necessarily that of balance (e.g. the proportion of women in science-related careers versus men).

Gender Stereotypes poster

Students’ suggestions for tackling gender inequality

The success of this event demonstrates the potential of working with schools and pupils – they have the creativity and passion to make a difference if only we give them the evidence and understanding, and time to think about it.

This type of intervention comes at a crucial time, as my ESRC-funded study “Overcoming gender barriers to leadership experienced by school-leaving girls” demonstrated, which found that young women experience schools as mostly gender equal spaces, but anticipate and to an extent accept as inevitable, a gender unequal future thereafter. This shouldn’t be a given, and getting young men and women working together to address this plays an important role in making a change for the better.

So what next? There are repeat events planned in local schools, and similar events could be run across the UK. To extend the reach of these ideas, there is also a free-to-join Massive Open Online Course (on Future Learn) targeted at 16+ adults (but open to everyone) that seeks to increase understanding of gender inequality and how we can tackle it planned for later this year.

Education leads to action. We can do it.


Emma Jeanes is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter Business School. Her ESRC supported research has involved educational programmes targeted at young people to enhance their personal development and tackle gender inequality, working in partnership with schools, charities and youth organisations. She is also interested more broadly in wellbeing and equality in the workplace.

The ESRC Festival of Social Science is an annual celebration of the social sciences, aimed at policymakers, business, the public and young people alike. This year’s Festival will take place between 2-9 November 2019. If you would like to host an event and share your social science research with a new audience, look out for the call for applications which will be launched in the coming weeks. You can follow updates on Twitter using #ESRCFestival

Throughout 2019 we will be using the #ESRCBetterLives hashtag to showcase outstanding social science research and demonstrate how social science is relevant to everyone. Our Better Lives theme for March is ‘equality’. What social science research has inspired you?

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