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Lead academic: Dr Kate Hext (English)
Lead academic: Professor Anna Mountford-Zimdars
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Find out about a project from a previous Grand Challenge

Social Inequality: How can we create a language of equal rights for the 21st century?

Social Inequality

Social Inequality

Social Inequality

COVID-19 update

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Grand Challenges is not able to go ahead in its usual face to face format, and is instead running as a similar online programme called Challenges Online. The inaugural Challenges Online ran in June 2020 and Challenges Online 2021 will run between 7th-11th June 2021. Please go to the Challenges Online website for more information.

Challenge overview

Social inequality is one of the biggest problems facing Western society. Inequalities defined by gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class hold back individuals and societies.

Did you know that office temperatures are determined by the average metabolic rate of men, which makes them 5°C too cold for women? Or that 10.3% of black students drop out of university in England, compared with 6.9% of the student population as a whole?These are just two examples of the ground-breaking research in recent years that has shone a light on the endemic, often invisible, structures that underlie inequality.

What can we do to build an environment to address inequality? 

This is a very dynamic challenge, introducing you to a range of key debates including the shifting definitions of social 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, imagery, and symbolism of power.

2019 summary

In 2019, the Challenge was focused around Gender Inequality. Speakers included 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. Students also heard from Megha Mohan, the Gender and Identity Correspondent for the BBC.

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.

Enquiry groups

Enquiry groups are the subtopic of the challenge that students focus on for Grand Challenges Week. These are the enquiry groups that are running in 2020.

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!

Are UK universities systematically failing their non-white students? Data from across all UK universities show that white students are more likely to gain the top degree grades. Sector-wide, there is a 20 per cent gap in attainment between White and Black students in higher education. How can we close these gaps?

The task of this enquiry group is to identify ideas, interventions and actions that allow all students, regardless of background, to have the opportunity to achieve highly at university. What can students themselves, academics and professional service staff do to close attainment gaps?

The UK is in the grip of a crisis; a crisis that has arisen over the past 10 years in the wake of the government’s policy of ‘austerity’. There are currently 320,000 people living on the streets. Food poverty has increased exponentially with the Trussell Trust issuing 1.2 million food packs to people in food poverty banks in 2017/18, compared to 41,000 packs in 2009/10. And 135,000 children do not have permanent homes. This enquiry group operates like a charity start-up: it will begin by researching areas of particular concern; brain-storming manageable initiatives to create practical solutions/aids for an aspect of poverty in Exeter; it will then proceed to draw up a plan of action, contacts sponsors and prepare to put the plan into action as a test case. Aspects of poverty that might be addressed could include the following:

  • Period poverty: getting sanitary products to homeless women
  • Getting fresh fruit and vegetables to people using foodbanks
  • Books for people on the streets

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

This enquiry group will investigate the policies currently in place for trying to ensure 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 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 a previous Challenge focusing on Gender Inequality 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.