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Lead academic: Dr Kate Hext (English)
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Gender inequality: how can we create a language of equal rights for the twenty-first century?

Challenge overview

From Hollywood and Washington to Westminster and the BBC, inequality and sexual harassment are finally at the top of the news agenda. The explosive revelations about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have shone a light on the often endemic problem of the sexual exploitation of women and men, with Theresa May vowing to take ‘serious action’ to root it out of political life. Meanwhile, the gender pay-gap and widespread reports of employers side-stepping legislation to undermine employees on maternity leave illustrate a culture of more subtle gender inequality.At the same time, the landscape of gender is altering forever with the emergence of transgender rights, which poses important questions for the meaning of gender and equality for transgender people. Now one of the most pressing questions is how we can build an environment in which harassment and inequality are no longer allowed to take place, beginning with the language and images that define our society and places of work.

This is a very dynamic challenge focused on one of the most contemporary challenges faced by society and in the workplace in the 21st-century. It will introduce you to a range of key debates including the shifting definition of sexual harassment and inequality across periods and cultures, including the emerging area of transgender rights; the ethics of complicity; defining professional boundaries in the workplace; how to sensitively address cultures of inequality; interpreting the law; and the language and symbolism of sexual power. 

Grand Challenges 2018 

Speakers included Professor Linda Williams (speaking on women in the film industry), Rebecca Roberts-Hughes (Head of Policy for the Civil Aviation Authority) and Elizabeth Willsteed (human rights barrister and specialist in equality law). Students also heard from Alex Hall (Senior Policy Advisor), who spoke about current University policies, and challenges that we may face in the future; and from Dave Pickering, writer and campaigner, who spoke about masculinity, 

Following introductory sessions students worked in small independent interdisciplinary groups to address one central issue in a creative way: producing a short film, a poster, or a pamphlet, with the opportunity to work with external stakeholders such as charities and schools. As part of these projects students learnt some of the following skills: how to pitch to specific audiences (in words and images); how to address sensitive issues with clarity; how to research and analyse power relations in language and behaviour; how to articulate applied moral questions and provide reasoned answers. 

There was also a film screening of 'A Fantastic Woman', with a Q and A session with co-writer and co-producer Gonzalo Maza (Exeter PhD candidate in Film Studies).

Here is the Gender Inequality Challenge timetable .

Enquiry groups

Enquiry groups are the subtopic of the challenge that students focus on for Grand Challenges Week. These are the enquiry groups that ran in 2018.

Is the Harvey Weinstein scandal indicative of an endemic problem in the Hollywood film industry? And how does Hollywood define gender norms in our society?

Students in this group will look at the way in which our conceptions of gender and inequality are shaped without us even knowing it, by the films we watch and the television we imbibe passively.

How can we define the principles of transgender equal rights? Students in this group will look at the University's policy for transgender equality, and how it could be made more robust and fitting for 2018.

How can young women and men (16-18) develop a vocabulary for effectively understanding and asserting their rights?

Students in this group will visit a school, unertaking a survey of girls between 16 and 18 years old, to think about how they understand themselves through the langauge of gender.

What policies are in place for effectively dealing with issues of male and female sexual harassment in the university? How can university policy-makers learn from recent discussions of sexual harassment to ensure that these are fit for purpose?

Students in this group will be thinking about the corporate world - policies around the difficult subject of reporting and addressing harassment. 

Evidence shows that men find it more difficult to report abuse. So how can we best empower men by researching and representing their experience?

Students in this group will be looking at the language with which men can articulate their gendered identities, and report potential abuse, and the barriers that exist to doing that.