Why tackling gender inequality must start by re-writing the script for girls and young women
“Gender equality is pointless; we can do anything boys do. I don’t even like pink!” declared one young woman in a secondary school in the heart of the South Wales valleys. Her voice is not alone. Echoed by girls and boys, men and women the length and breadth of the country, it seems that the fight for gender equality has been won. Our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers can rest easy knowing that their efforts to secure equal pay for equal work, votes for women, and the right for women and girls to live free from victimisation, has resulted in a veritable utopia of equality for all.
Unless, perhaps, that isn’t the case. Despite the huge strides our foremothers have made, including legislation to advance and protect women and girls, not one country across the globe is gender equal. Equal pay for equal work is at most a dream for those women who toil for 18% less than their male counterparts. A staggering one in three young women receive unwanted sexual touching in school, and today’s teen girls will spend up to nine years of their life undertaking unpaid care work, of children, siblings or parents.
Girls and boys across the country have been sold an idea that they have equal rights, and yet issues such as sexism, gender stereotyping, catcalling and harassment fester under the radar of adults. Many of these systemic problems are not voiced by girls, who believe this treatment is to be expected and endured, solely by virtue of being female. Girls can play football, secure a job in engineering, wear crop tops and join the school council, but their right to equality seems to extend no further, and all the while they must navigate crippling body image negativities, hostile online environments, and domestic violence in their teen relationships.
Far from an equality utopia, it seems that the picture is bleaker than ever. The thin veil of equality is beginning to lift: as women across the world march for their rights and campaigns shine a light on sexism and harassment, the myth of gender equality is being exposed.
So how do we begin to tackle gender inequality, when our young people are either unaware or silent about the challenges?
This month saw the establishment of a new organisation, Girls Circle, to ‘empower, educate and elevate girls and young women to reach their potential’, and the launch of research into the views and experiences of girls and young women in Wales.
The largest survey of its kind in Wales, Fundamental Rights 2017 found that only 8% of respondents feel there is currently enough support for girls and young women. The majority of girls (59%) do not feel as though they have the same rights and opportunities as boys and young men.
Despite schools in Wales producing annual Strategic Equality Plans outlining their efforts to tackle all inequalities under the Equality Act 2015, only 34% of young women had been taught about gender equality.
Prevention is better than cure, and to tackle ingrained beliefs and attitudes education is needed. If young people are taught about gender equality both girls and boys would be able to join forces to challenge the stereotypes of old, which limit both genders. Rather than empowering girls at the expense of boys, we create an informed generation who are equipped to tackle the challenges we have perpetuated, together.
Creating a gender equal society has never been achieved; there is no blueprint for such a process, but consistent action could revolutionise Wales into the first gender equal country, if we are able to recognise that there is a need, and understand the benefits gender equality brings for all.
This work must start with girls and young women, rather than waiting for girls to grow into women to be told they should be leaders and entrepreneurs, they deserve equal pay and don’t have to suffer harassment and abuse.
By taking a girl-focused approach to gender equality, we could prepare girls and young women (and boys and young men) for a more equal and prosperous society, and revolutionise Wales within a generation.
Gender equality does not only serve women. By creating equality for women and girls we create equality for all, and a nation that can support every citizen to achieve their potential.