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Lead academic: Dr Kate Hext (English)
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Find out about a project from last year's Grand Challenges

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.

Grand Challenges 2019 confirmed details

Among this year’s Gender Inequality speakers are such notable names as Stephanie Boland, Exeter Alumnus, Head of Digital at Prospect Magazine, and co-founder of The Second Source, an alternative network for women in media that aims to combat sexual harassment in the workplace; and Dave Pickering, a blogger, campaigner and author of Mansplaining Masculinity, who works towards eradicating toxic masculinity and restrictive patriarchal structures. We’re also looking forward to welcoming a senior BBC reporter, who will talk about gender in the media.

Enquiry groups

Enquiry groups are the subtopic of the challenge that students focus on for Grand Challenges Week. These are the enquiry groups that rain in 2019.

Is the Harvey Weinstein scandal indicative of an endemic problem in the Hollywood film industry? How does the Daily Mail’s language position and judge women as bodies? To what extent does the BBC perpetuate gendered assumptions in how it sets the news agenda? How are women portrayed in films and television?

These very diverse and current questions cut to the heart of a gender bias at the media. The task of this enquiry group is to identify where and how media bias operates and address what the next generation of journalists, policy-makers, presenters and media executives can do to about it.

In Grand Challenges week, this enquiry group will investigate how the media and films shape our perceptions of gender in numerous subtle, often, invisible ways. It will give you the opportunity to draw on recent articles, cutting-edge research in the field, and extensive discussions and analysis in your group. The task is to draw this research together into a campaign, specifically aimed at people in the 18-25 age category highlighting the images and language that define damaging gender stereotypes through the media and/or films. The aim? By highlighting exactly how gender is represented, you will help your target audience to see beyond the myths they perpetuate.

Your product might include the following: a pamphlet, a short film, a website, a poster to showcase your ideas, alongside a campaign. But ultimately it’s up to you!

‘We have changed the rules but now we must change the reality.’ – Harriet Harman MP

Social media has provided a forum for the explosion of gendered abuse, including derogatory names and death threats. This abuse is disproportionately aimed at women in public life and, particularly, at women from ethnic minority groups. It has been proven to discourage women from pursuing careers – such as MPs, CEOs, and head teachers -- that might attract public abuse.

In Grand Challenges week, this enquiry group will investigate the extent and character of this abuse, as well as its root causes. You will have the opportunity to conduct primary research, analyse data and recent research, and the nature/targets of abuse. You will debate the best means to combat the culture of abuse in social media – is this by targeting the abusers? Or increasing resilience in women? Or is it a case of campaigning for social media companies to adopt a zero-tolerance policy over abuse. The choice is yours. Your task is to produce a creative campaign to address one of these groups and help to stamp out the abuse holding women back.

Your primary product could include any of the following: a GIF/GIFs, Tweetable poster, Instagram/Twitter/Facebook, a pamphlet, a website, and will be presented alongside a media campaign.

From toxic masculinity to ‘Lolita’ fashion in women’s dress, and from preconceptions about the kinds of sports suitable for boys and girls to peer-pressure over personal appearance, formative perceptions of gender identity can be a big problem. Entrenched ideas about what a girl or boy ‘should’ be like can have a long-term detrimental effect.

This enquiry group asks how can girls and boys between the ages of 12 and 13 develop a vocabularies and behaviours for confidently understanding and accepting their identities, sensitively talking to their peers about issues around gender, and the tools to begin to deconstruct unrealistic or biased images in the media.

During Grand Challenges week, the team will visit a school to meet children in their target age group and lead workshop activities around gender identity with them. Using this primary data alongside new research in the field and extensive group discussion, the group will create a campaign aimed to promote self-confidence and gender-sensitivity among young adults aged 12-13. You will collaborate with your group to produce one of the following: a website, a poster, a short video, a pamphlet, and present this alongside a campaign.

Like most twenty-first institutions, the University of Exeter aims to be equal and inclusive in every aspect of its policies around gender. But does it always succeed? And how can you help to shape policy and/or publicize the university’s policies around gender quality?

This enquiry group will investigate the policies currently in place for trying to ensure male, female and transgender equality amongst students in the university. It will discuss these policies with a policy-maker in the university’s Equality and Diversity Team and seek to identify areas of strength and weakness. Using these insights alongside workshopping ideas in focus groups and analysing policy documents, the enquiry group will then set out to develop/define new policy in an area it feels could be better. The area could be (for example):

  • Transgender Equality
  • Dealing with harassment
  • Students and maternity leave
  • The language of dealing with gendered illnesses

The end goal is to write a policy document and present this in a campaign aimed at university leaders. Your primary product will be this policy document but you can present it creatively, using a poster, a short film, a pamphlet.

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 university via a poster, social media campaign, and a pitch to the guild to garner support.