Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Challenging gender inequality in society

Jemma and Lauren introduce key aspects of reactions to inequality in society - for example campaigns such as. HeforShe, MeToo
In this video we will explore ways in which gender inequality is being challenged in society.
We’ll address these under three broad themes, namely: “media and discourse”, “politics, law and activism” and “education”. Although legislation and policies are important, it has become clear that social norms and how we discuss gender and gender inequality are key drivers for change. When we start treating and speaking of gender in equal terms in everyday conversations, this will be the most significant driver for change. We have already discussed the role of films, and popular television programmes in shaping opinions, expectations and ideals of gender.
Ensuring that women are, firstly, appropriately represented as writers, directors and producers, and secondly, appropriately represented in terms of meaningful and diverse roles, inclusive of all ages and regardless of narrow perceptions of beauty, can play a role in shaping perceptions of women. Female directors -and the lack of them- is receiving increasing attention and has also been tackled with direct action. The Swedish Film Institute, for example, shares production funding equally between men and women to achieve gender equality. This ensures that there are roles for women of all ages and appearances, and moves the focus away from a focus on beautiful young women, typically cast in romantic roles.
Tackling gendered ageism – where women are more likely than men to lose their roles because they are perceived to be too old – has also impacted television presenters, with the BBC in the UK losing a case of age discrimination against a woman being sacked for being too old, despite older men being employed. Retaining older women in such roles makes it clear that their contribution and value goes beyond youth and looks. As we explored in week one, language matters and the gendering of language can also play a role in sustaining our stereotypes about roles – for example in the UK we tend to refer to ‘firemen’ rather than ‘firefighters’.
The move away from the use of ‘man’ to denote men and women towards the gender neutral ‘person’ is a step in this direction. The more that gender neutral language is used the more likely it is that assumptions about who is undertaking a role will be challenged. The use of social media – which as we’ve seen from week one is often associated with fourth wave feminism - can also play a role in achieving gender equality. Social media has the advantage of being able to reach a large number of people quickly, and can easily be shared, giving it its ‘viral’ nature – often seen as digital activism.
It enables the easy sharing of experiences and ideas, and support (or disagreement) can readily be indicated. However, the relatively concise nature of the medium makes more extensive and detailed discussion a challenge, which can lead to misunderstanding. However, it is able to mobilise people and narratives across the world, as demonstrated by the hashtag MeToo movement, which aimed to call out and bring attention to the scale of sexual harassment and assault, especially in Hollywood. Another global campaign is HeforShe, a global United Nations led movement that involves men standing in solidarity with women in seeking a gender equal world.
He For She offers ‘action kits’, which gives people and students the resources to engage in digital and face-to-face activism in their local community, and promote their involvement in the cause. Underpinning this is the argument that gender equality affects men and women, and that it’s about human rights not just a more narrowly defined set of women’s concerns. Having men act alongside women is crucial, and it responds to the criticism that much gender equality work is focused at supporting women without including and educating men. Without the support of everyone, particularly men, change will not happen. Ultimately much of this is about giving women voice and visibility. This also underpins our next theme of politics, law and activism.
Last week we came across the idea of gender mainstreaming – a strategy that requires policy decisions to be evaluated for their impact on men and women, recognising that they may be affected differently. This goes beyond specific initiatives to support women and focuses on systems and structures that can perpetuate gender inequality. Adopted at the Fourth World Conference of Women in 1995 in Beijing, and then by the EU, it promises to provide an important basis for structural change. It is often supported by gender budgeting, in which gender is a primary factor in budgeting decisions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that funds are dedicated to women, but that the impact of budgeting decisions on gender equality are considered.
In practice, gender mainstreaming has not had the impact that was hoped. Gender mainstreaming has been criticised for failing to affect core policies or demonstrate impact on, for example, women’s participation in positions of influence. Its focus on embedding gender considerations throughout has also been blamed for a move away from initiatives targeting direct support at women and for moving responsibility away from individuals with the remit to consider gender as it becomes the responsibility of everyone (regardless of expertise). It has also been criticised for a lack of monitoring and follow-up action.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, and effective implementation of gender mainstreaming efforts, with the right support and expertise, still offers the potential to tackle the roots of structural inequality, that in turn could impact our gender consciousness. Outside of the realm of public policy, feminist or gender activism can also take an effective role. For example, in the UK, “Sisters Uncut” tackle domestic violence, taking direct action for the purpose of securing support for victims of domestic violence, such as tackling the reduction in funding for refuges. Similarly, Action Aid is working in Rwanda to tackle period poverty for young women which means they end up missing school.
Although often single-issue organisations, activists can play an important role in accumulating specialist expertise, mobilising support and taking action on specific issues. Although narrow in focus, they have the advantage of being able to dedicate resources to a particular cause. Historically they are responsible for fundamental rights such as the right to vote. Political agency can even take the form of political parties, such as the UK’s Women’s Equality party. Legislative changes can also play a role in tackling inequality. Gender equality laws exist in most countries, but still many lack fundamental rights. Access to free contraception is also limited.
Much of the population has to pay for it, and this can have significant life changing effects for poorer women who are unable to afford or access contraception. Legislation can also tackle modern phenomena, such as making the practice of ‘upskirting’ a crime. This is where images or videos are taken of the crotch area under a skirt without the person’s permission or knowledge. Although legislation can be slow to tackle social attitudes, it can provide important signalling effects and offer redress for victims.
Finally, education also plays a crucial role, both in terms of ensuring equal access to and appropriate levels of education for boys and girls alike – particularly in countries where girls get less or no education – but also in terms of education that enables them to tackle gender inequality by providing the basis for equal access to opportunities and also learning about gender inequality. But education is not only important for the younger generations. Education about gender inequality applies across generations, and whether achieved through the media, television, or news items, or workplace training as previously discussed, it plays an important role in shifting understandings of gender and creating an awareness of everyone’s responsibility to tackle gender inequality.

Jemma and Lauren introduce key aspects of reactions to inequality in society – for example campaigns such as: HeforShe, MeToo

Materials written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter, with contributions from Lauren Castle.

References and sources

Action Aid

BBC Case on age discrimination


Law on ‘upskirting’

Me Too

#Me Too

Political parties, Women’s Equality Party UK:

Role of feminists

Sisters Uncut

Swedish Film Institute

Value of gender equality for everyone

This article is from the free online

Understanding Gender Inequality

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now