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Lead academic: Dr Kate Hext (English)
UN Sustainable Development Goal
UN Sustainable Development Goal
UN Sustainable Development Goal

Gender Inequality: How can we create a language of equal rights for the 21st 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, and we now have to ask ourselves 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, introducing you to a range of key debates including the shifting definition of sexual harassment and inequality across periods and cultures, 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.


2018 summary

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, 

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).

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, a pamphlet, or creating a campaign. 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.

At the end of the week, students presented their work to all other students on the Challenge. In the afternoon, they showcased their work at an exhibition in the Forum, which was attended by students from all Challenges, University staff and members of the general public.

Here is the 2018 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. 

Student projects

Student projects from the 2018 Challenge are shown below.

Gender Memequality: An Instagram account aimed at boys and girls from 16-18 years old, with memes that challenge ideas about gender (in)equality with an educational purpose.

Gend-Huh?: A book format which is satirical in genre, and addresses the language of gender inequality by challenging gender labeling and accepted assumptions made about gender.

A campaign raising awareness of the unconscious bias found in language, particularly focused on adjectives used for self-description, and how revealing this bias can help us to create a language of equality.

Sex Sell$: Depicting the over-sexualisation of women in Hollywood by creating realistic parodies of movie clips. The clips are on the Instagram and Twitter pages. 

The Hollywood Illusion: Deconstructing the Hollywood image and raising awareness of the social pressures to adhere to a certain type of beauty

Dear Director: A video and a zine addressing the inequality of Hollywood and the problematic depiction of some characters

Addressing the university’s current and proposed transgender policy to create a more representative policy

Dismantling the issue of toxic masculinity and the way it hinders the strive for both male and female social liberation.

Recognise RED: A campaign to tackle sexual harassment at universty via a poster, social media campaign, and a pitch to the guild to garner support.