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Inequality 2

Systemic failures contributing to gender inequality

24 Mar 2022 | Mairi Young

Our previous blogs have highlighted inequalities in how public spaces are designed, but there are various other systems which are failing women, girls, and non-binary people. The design and delivery of these systems impacts directly on gender inequalities because they contribute to the “othering” of women. As men have historically been the default around which these systems were created and delivered, all other intersectional groups (I.e., disabled, LGBTQ+, people of colour, and women) consequently become ‘others’ or ‘add-ons’ to the system, and are more at risk of being failed by the system.


Woman experience healthcare differently to men and there remains damaging taboos and stigmas within women’s healthcare. On average, it takes longer for women to receive diagnoses, women’s pain is less likely to be taken seriously, and misdiagnoses is common for women, particularly within mental health.

The contraceptive pill is a useful example of how this plays out in practice. The pill has been available since the 1960s; it was hailed as offering freedom and choice to women, and indeed offers various positive benefits to many women today. However, 60 years on we are still learning about the full extent of its side effects. Moreover, there is still no male equivalent because the same side effects which have been accepted as standard for women were deemed unacceptable during clinical trials for men. And this is indicative of multiple areas of healthcare, research, knowledge, and practice which disproportionately impact on women.


While legislation may protect women more now than in the past, there remains a deep-rooted mistrust in the justice system and policing, particularly when it comes to male violence against women. These feelings are even more pronounced among marginalised groups (i.e., women working in prostitution, women of colour, trans and non-binary people).

There is a burden on women to prove that not only did violence happen to them, but that they also didn’t encourage the behaviour; and sexual harassment remains widely under-reported which serves as a further barrier to women reporting crimes in the future. As concluded by the Fawcett Society, male violence against women is endemic in the UK and the justice system needs a fundamental reform to address it

The media

In terms of reporting of male violence against women, the media has been accused of perpetuating sexist, racist, classist, and gender stereotypes through selective reporting, loaded language, and hyperbole headlines. The media can also be guilty of propagating a notion of “good” or “bad” victims of male violence.

For example, Sarah Everard was framed as a “good and blameless victim”: she was a young, white, middle-class, well-educated, conventionally attractive female, who wasn’t dressed in revealing clothing but was “just walking home”. This language suggested that Sarah had done everything right: she was killed by a stranger, but it wasn’t her fault. Meanwhile, there are scores of women who don’t fit this demographic or “good victim” profile. Their deaths go unreported, are given much less consideration, or they are blamed. Take the case of Grace Milane: a UK national who, while travelling through Australia, was murdered on a Tinder date. The media focus on her alleged character and her use of a dating app for a one-night stand contained a sub-text that her behaviour contributed to her death.


One-third of UK female students have experienced sexual harassment at school and one-third of teachers have witnessed this harassment on a weekly basis. The same issues are endemic within Scottish schools and Scottish Universities and a recurring theme is that women and girls are too frightened or are actively discouraged from speaking out.

The education system is a key setting for changing discriminatory attitudes and behaviours. It’s concerning that these settings may instead be embedding a fear of stigmatisation or not being believed into the mindset of women from a young age.


The gender wage gap means that a portion of women’s employment goes unpaid. The average Scottish women works for free for 52 days per year. This wage gap varies between industries but is found in those dominated by female workers (i.e., education) with the largest gap occurring within finance and insurance.

Women still do most of the unpaid care for adults and children, and household work. In 2020, there were over 1 million unpaid carers in Scotland, of which 61% are women. Every year, 54,000 pregnant women and working mothers in the UK are made redundant or pressured to leave their jobs. The cost of childcare can be directly prohibitive to women’s participation in the workplace and can negatively impact on career progression.

It is essential that for women with such caring responsibilities to fully participate in the workforce, employers offer flexible working rights to all employees.

Power and leadership

Women are globally under-represented in political leadership roles, with only the Nordic countries coming close to equal representation. In Scotland, women make up 52% of the population and we have a female First Minister. Yet women still only represent 25% of public board chairs, 35% of MSPs, and 29% of Councillors. While women’s board representation in the FTSE 250 rose from 11% to 28% in the last decade, these figures remain worryingly low.

Simply having more women in power and leadership roles is not enough. Women need to be supported in multiple levels to enable career growth; and discrimination and harassment in all forms need to be eradicated before equality can ever be fully actualised.


Because of these underlying systemic failures, women bore the brunt of the adverse social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and they are also expected to be worse impacted by climate change.

There are significant equality gaps in each of these systems, both between men and women, but also between women. Any attempt to reset the dial on these systems failures needs to offer equal support, care, power, and opportunities regardless of gender; but also address the intersectionality of women and how this can contribute to furthering gender inequalities.

The next blog in this series will focus on what could drive change going forward.

This blog was co-authored by Mairi Young and Katharine Timpson.

Read the first blog in this series on gender inequalities.

Read the second blog: Women have a right to the city

Read the third blog: Women’s public safety is a health issue

Read the fifth blog: Gender inequalities and intersectionality

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