Gender inequality is an issue far from the minds of most young people growing up in the UK. Whereas generations before were limited by outdated stereotypes and women had to fight for even basic rights, 21st century Britain appears – at least on the surface – to be a fair and level playing field for every child to succeed.
But scratch a little deeper and it’s clear that life for boys and girls is not so equal after all. Despite significant advances in equality legislation, a gender pay gap of 18% still exists, with men in financial professions earning a staggering 21% more than their female counterparts, simply because of their differing anatomy. Young people’s ambitions remain stagnated and stereotypical, with just 36% of girls exploring careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) industries.
In 2016 a report by the UK government’s Women and Equalities Committee found that one in three girls experience unwanted sexual touching in school and 2016 research into the rights and experiences of girls in Wales found that nearly 70% suffer from sexism, with one young woman reporting that “I have seen too much sexual harassment from certain boys in my school who think it is ok to tell me and my friends that they are staring at our [bodies] and some even go as far as to touch us inappropriately. This must stop.”
While we know that girls can become scientists or engineers, and boys can study dance or pursue an artistic career, it seems that gender stereotypes and all forms of gender inequality are rife in our society, although many assume they don’t exist. In our work with young people through the social enterprise Full Circle Education, we encounter the impact these stereotypes have on both boys and girls. With mental health problems reaching epidemic proportions in adolescents, and suicide the leading cause of death for young people aged 20-34, it’s time we stopped telling boys to ‘man up’ and encourage girls to be more than ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’.
The picture for girls
While gender stereotypes affect and limit both boys and girls, gender inequality disproportionately affects girls and young women, who already face multiple adversities to be overcome in later life, including the shocking statistic than one in three women in the UK will experience violence in her lifetime, and dedicate nine years of her life to unpaid care work. The time to simply pretend these problems don’t exist has passed.
What can schools do?
Schools play a key role in compounding or counteracting gender stereotypes and various forms of gender inequality. From early years, schools can create learning environments that support children to move from the narrow blue and pink ideals of yesteryear, such as creating home corners that boys aren’t afraid to access, and ensuring construction toys are targeted at girls too.
Primary and secondary schools can ensure that they include both male and female figures of prominence throughout the curriculum, and encourage pupils to set their aspirations high, regardless of their gender. Inviting male and female role models from diverse industries to speak to pupils about their careers can begin to break down limited ideas and ensure children are aware of the full breadth of opportunities awaiting them, post-education.
All of these actions can support schools to complete their Strategic Equality Plans and will complement other agendas, such as tackling bullying – including sexual bullying – and supporting pupil wellbeing.
International Day of the Girl
Earlier this year we launched a sister organisation to our well established social enterprise, Full Circle Education, to specifically support girls and young women across Wales and beyond. Girls Circle aims to ‘elevate, educate and empower girls to reach their full potential’, acknowledging the challenges that still exist for girls, and supporting schools and youth settings to strive to overcome them.
This October we will be officially launching our new organisation, Girls Circle, and releasing findings of a widespread survey into the experiences of girls and young women across Wales to mark International Day of the Girl. October sees the sixth International Day of the Girl – a UN led day to celebrate girls across the world – which is an excellent opportunity to take stock of the leaps forward we’ve made, and the distance still be travelled towards reaching gender equality in the UK.
Combating gender inequality starts in early years and will continue throughout children’s education and into the workplace, but despite the effort this work is vital. Gender equality does not only serve women and girls. By creating equality for women we create equality for all, and a nation that can support every citizen to achieve their potential.
Nikki Giant is the founder of Full Circle Education and sister organisation, Girls Circle, and is an author and ambassador for US organisation Girl Rising. The International Day of the Girl event will be held on October 13th at the home of the National Assembly for Wales – the Senedd – in Cardiff Bay. The event is free to attend, and places can be booked via Eventbrite.