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Why equality is a distant dream: Girls, boys and the real differences between them

Discrimination is still rife, says study

Britain's next generation of women is trapped in a cycle of inequality, with teenage girls condemned to come off second-best to boys, despite decades of campaigning for equality, according to a major new report published this week.

Although they have greater expectations and ambition than previous generations, young women are destined to earn less, have smaller pensions, and be more likely to suffer violent abuse than their male counterparts. Any notion they have of getting the same treatment and opportunities as boys is a "distant dream".

Drawing on new research into the views of thousands of boys and girls aged between 12 and 18, from the UK, India and Africa, the report, "Because I am a Girl" by children's charity Plan UK, states: "Our families and schools are handing gender inequality, and violence against girls, down through the generations."

Girls are conditioned to expect less of themselves than boys, and doing better than their male peers at school does not translate into future rewards – women still earn up to 22 per cent less than men in most countries in the world, including Britain.

Prospects will not improve unless boys and men join the fight for equality, change their mindsets and become more involved in family life, according to the report.

It reveals how sexist attitudes are deeply entrenched among today's children, and that girls suffer a "double whammy" of discrimination due to their age and sex – leaving them at "the bottom of the social ladder".

Fewer than half of British boys agreed that it would be good to have the same number of women as men leading top companies. And British girls are twice as likely as boys to clean the house and help with the washing and cooking. Although the vast majority of girls in the UK think that boys should help in the same way, only 71 per cent of their male peers agree.

Almost two-thirds of UK boys think that a woman's most important role is to take care of her home and cook for the family – something less than half of girls agree with. And 39 per cent of British boys think that men should have the "final word" at home – compared with 20 per cent of girls.

There are some signs for optimism, though, with 97 per cent of children saying that "parents must take equal responsibility for their children".

"Old fashioned, outdated opinions" stand in the way of equality, according to Benjamin Farnes, 16, from Winchester. "People who feel our ability is best suited for particular stereotypical roles are just ignorant," he said.

While levels of inequality are worse in many countries, Britain's gender divide has widened in recent years, taking it down from ninth place in the World Economic Forum's gender gap index in 2006 to 15th in 2010.

British women have only £9,100 in their pension pots on average, while men have £52,800. And they have an average retirement income of £12,900 – far less than the £19,400 that men can look forward to. In the workplace, there are more than 5,000 women "missing" from top jobs in the UK – judges, chief constables, FTSE directors, and MPs. And while women account for the majority of full-time teachers, most secondary school head teachers are men.

Globally, 150 million girls and young women under 18 have been raped or sexually assaulted. And the report by Plan UK warns: "One of the most destructive aspects of inequality between the sexes – the belief that girls and women are somehow inferior – fuels male violence towards them."

In the UK, teenage girls between 16 and 19 are most at risk of domestic violence. British attitudes are not far removed from those in countries where girls are routinely subjected to physical and mental abuse. Almost one in three British boys view women politicians as being inferior to men – a similar proportion to the 34 per cent in Rwanda sharing this view. Both countries are more progressive than India, where 55 per cent see female politicians as second-rate.

And it seems boys are not yet convinced that women should have top jobs. Only 49 per cent of boys in the UK, 52 per cent in Rwanda and 61 per cent of boys in India agreed: "It would be good to have the same number of men and women leading top companies."

In other areas, opinions differ widely. While only 11 per cent of British children "totally agree" that a woman's most important role is to be a housewife, this figure rises to 66 per cent in Rwanda and 74 per cent in India.

Too many men have a "male supremacy idea, which is unacceptable because it damages so many women's lives", said Lucy Lawrenson, aged 16, from Southampton.

And Aneela Ahmed, 14, from Swindon, said: "In my family, boys and girls are treated the same, but in many [Asian] families, if something goes wrong it will always be the girl's fault. If it was a boy no one would say anything!"

Marie Staunton, Plan UK's chief executive, said: "Girls face double discrimination by being young and by being female. Everyone... benefits from a more just, equal world, but it cannot be attained by girls alone – we must all play a more active part.

"We must educate to promote equality from nursery school, campaign to engage men and boys in challenging discrimination, and legislate to... promote equal opportunities."

A Home Office spokesperson said: "This government's commitment to gender equality is clear and unequivocal. We have taken real action to benefit women in all aspects of their lives." The spokesperson insisted that work to get more women on to company boards is "already reaping results".

But the Government is failing to lead by example, according to Anna Bird, acting chief executive of The Fawcett Society: "Despite his pledges prior to the election, the Prime Minister runs the country with a cabinet where just four of the 23 ministers are women."

Additional reporting by Sasha Magill

Case studies...

Latrell Randeen, 15


"I help clean the house about twice a week – I wash the dishes and tidy the front room. I don't do the washing, mum does it. On occasions, I'll cook. My speciality is shepherd's pie. I'll use Quorn with carrots and peas. Most of the time women can cook better than men. Most men can't cook, so women do it.

"I suppose boys should help with housework the way that girls do, but if mum asks me to do something like fold the clothes when they come out of the washing machine when I'm watching television with my sister then I'll ask my mum why my sister can't do it. I think things like changing nappies, bathing and feeding children are the mother's responsibility, at least at first, because when the mother and baby come out of hospital, then the mother is more used to it and so can do those things, whereas the man needs to get used to changing nappies. I think domestic chores should be done by women.

"I think there should be equal numbers of men and women in top jobs because if a woman goes for a job, she should get it if she's good enough. I think women are better politicians than men because women do things better, whereas men just rush stuff to get things over and done with."

Lucy Lawrenson, 16


"There is still so much gender inequality in the world. Not all men are responsible for that, but there are still too many who are. They have this male supremacy idea which is unacceptable because it damages so many women's lives.

"Gender stereotyping is still a real issue among young people, which is upsetting and quite surprising. You'd expect them to be more educated, but I think, often, sexist ideas are handed down from parents to their children.

"I feel that, a lot of the time, I'm subjected to a scrutiny that men aren't. It's quite common for men to give me the eye or make offensive comments. Just because I'm a woman, it doesn't mean you can view me as a sexual object. I think a lot of women are subject to this and it's not acceptable.

"To counter these attitudes, there are a range of techniques. Organising workshops provides an opportunity to explain why gender inequality is wrong. Education in schools and colleges should also be improved. And it's really important for those in positions of responsibility to set a good example."

Aneela Ahmed, 14

Swindon, Wiltshire

"At school, I have been encouraged to do out-of-school clubs. They usually suggest something typically girly, like a cake-baking class, which I wouldn't want to do.

"One thing at my old school which was frowned on was girls doing rugby or using a heavier shot put. Girls got the little ones as we weren't allowed to lift the heavier ones. The boys always got given them, but they weren't even heavy.

"In some Asian families it is still regarded that boys are perfect and girls always do something wrong. In my family boys and girls are treated the same, but in many families if something goes wrong it will always be the girl's fault – if it was a boy no one would say anything!"

Luke Magill, 12

Newbury, Berkshire

"Men and women will always be different. And so they'll be better at some things than the other, and vice versa.

"There's always been a lot of sexism towards women from men. This means that in the past women have never been able to show their full potential. Even though the law was passed in 1918 allowing women to vote, there is still a lot of sexism today – such as the pay women get and how men sometimes get preference in job interviews.

"There'll always be petty fights between men and women about why they are better than each other. But when it comes down to it, one can clearly see that the two sexes are equal, but in different ways."

Nilofar Samedi, 15

Caversham, Berkshire

"In Afghanistan the difference between boys and girls is really extreme. Coming to the UK, it's much less noticeable. I think there's sexism everywhere, but in the UK it's much more subtle and it's not very openly talked about.

"Now, when I'm looking for universities and careers, I find that a lot of the courses are male-orientated. With things like engineering, people say 'that's a boy's thing to do', and that medicine is 'a male career'. Obviously, I want a career and a future that I make for myself. I try to prove to people that I can do that."

Benjamin Farnes, 16


"I guess that my view really is that sexism is anold-fashioned thing – it doesn't belong to society now, it's something from the past and should be completely irrelevant today. Women and men should have the same rights. But they don't. I think people need to take this more seriously than they do. It's discrimination plain and simple, and should be treated as seriously as other forms of discrimination.

"When it comes down to it, there is no real difference between men and women. People who go around questioning the ability of girls to do things are wrong – there should not be any barriers to what people want to do. Some girls do have a harder time of it, and that needs to change. There's still a feeling out there that women and men should do certain jobs – that shouldn't be the case. Some girls I know have felt they wanted to be a doctor, for instance, but there's still a perception in their own families that women are expected to stay at home, have children and be a housewife.

"One of the worst things is that women still get paid less than men for doing exactly the same job."

Case studies provided by: National Children's Bureau; Girlguiding UK; Queen Anne's School, Caversham; Plan UK