The dynamics of inequality: what have we learned?

In the final episode of the DIAL podcast we’re looking at what’s been learned from DIAL projects about how and when inequality manifests in our lives and what its longer term consequences might be. We’re joined by Elina Kilpi-Jakonen from the University of Turku in Finland. Elina is the Scientific Coordinator for DIAL and, as the programme draws to a close she reflects on some of the programme’s highlights,  key findings and implications for the future.  


Christine Garrington  0:00 

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune in to evidence on inequality over the life course. In series four, we’re looking at what’s been learned from DIAL projects about how and when inequality manifests in our lives, and what its longer-term consequences might be. For this final episode of the series, we’re delighted to be joined by Elina Kilpi-Jakonen, from the University of Turku in Finland. Elina is the scientific co-ordinator for DIAL and today, as the programme draws to a close, she’s here to reflect on some of the program’s highlights, key findings and implications for the future. So welcome, Elina thank you very much indeed, for joining us. Now, first of all, I’m guessing it’s been no mean feat and indeed, I know, it’s been no mean feat, keeping an eye across 13 fantastic research projects with researchers based all over Europe. But just take a minute or two, if you would to remind us of what exactly the DIAL programme is and what it’s involved over the last few years.

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen  0:57 

So thanks a lot, Chris. The DIAL programme is, as you said, kind of transnational programme. And we’ve had 13 research projects involved. And all of those involve international collaboration. And it’s based in the social sciences and behavioural sciences, financed by NORFACE, which is a research organisation bringing together different funding institutes across Europe. And so the focus of DIAL has been on inequality and in particular inequality across the life course and trying to understand some of the structures of inequality cross nationally and some of the mechanisms kind of producing inequality and and what that means to people and societies as a whole.

Christine Garrington  1:41 

Wonder if I can ask you why it has been so important to look not just at inequality, per se, as you were saying there, but at how inequality manifests itself over the life course, because this is an important thing, isn’t it? And indeed how, when and where it sort of accumulates?

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen  1:57 

Inequality is a really complex and multifaceted issue. And so I think one one part of it is that inequality comes across in many different domains. So it’s important to take into account inequalities, for example, in education, labour market, health, and so on. And then I mean, to really understand where it comes from and what it means it’s important to look at the determinants across time, I mean, both across time for an individual and their parents, and so on, kind of that life course aspect, but also, for countries to see how it develops across time. Inequality isn’t something that just is, I mean, it develops. And so kind of building on that kind of developmental process to really kind of inform us about how we can do something about it, or how we can really kind of understand where it comes from, it’s important to take that into account.

Christine Garrington  2:58 

Now, you talked about the programme largely being based in the social sciences. But one of the key things about the project is that we’ve seen researchers from different disciplines as well as different countries coming together to try to tackle, as you say, as you rightly say, this incredibly complex area around inequality, what’s been the thinking there?

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen  3:20 

Well, I mean, inequality is something that interests a lot of academics working in different disciplines. And, and they come from it from from kind of different angles. And I think, because it is kind of a complex issue, and it’s an issue that kind of manifests itself in different ways. So really building on on the strengths of different disciplines, I think is a key key strength here. So we don’t only look at inequality in one domain, for example, say, say something like education, which would then be kind of a subset of disciplines that tend to be interested in inequality in education, but also how education is linked to inequalities in in other aspects and, and in addition to the kind of different domains that come from different disciplines, also, the ways in which we, we analyse it and building on the strengths and knowledge of different disciplines. I think is key here, key to, to just building a comprehensive picture and learning from each other, as well as as then taking that knowledge forward.

Christine Garrington  4:34 

It would be remiss of us not to talk about COVID. And in some ways, it was something of a setback for plans to to stage events and meetings around the the programme of research to get the word out there about it. But it also provided in some respects, a rather unexpected opportunity, didn’t it to use the programme to look at inequality in the context of COVID. So, so tell us a bit about that.

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen  4:58 

Yeah, so obviously the research programme began before COVID. And so the projects had their their kind of plans of what they wanted to do and the analysis that they were going to do. But given this massive impact that COVID had on on society and and on inequality as well. A lot of projects then decided that this would be a really important aspect to look at and an opportunity also to learn about inequality in a changing societal context. So different projects have taken this into account in different ways. But for example, there’s been kind of really important work on on just what happened to inequality for example, due to lock down and and the economic upheaval of COVID, not just the health implications, but then also using that upheaval, to think about how inequalities might be changed. And for example, so work by Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez, Suzanne Harkness and Anette Fasang, looking at what happened to housework, during COVID. People were having to stay at home, both parents and children and seeing what happens to inequalities between men and women. And how the, the the number and age of children influences that and kind of what they saw was that obviously, this change in in family habits changed house work habits, but at the same time, when locked down ended a lot of couples returned to normal. So so even though there was a massive shift, and and people behaved differently for a short period of time, we can see that these kind of entrenched habits, then then go back to normal quite quickly.

Christine Garrington  6:43 

Yeah, really interesting piece of work that so. And also, despite COVID, you were able to, nevertheless, to involve a great number of stakeholders in in the research, what messages did you receive from them, I wonder about what was emerging?

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen  6:58 

So yeah, we’ve had some really interesting discussions with stakeholders, both policymakers and then kind of non-governmental organisations involved in both practical work and lobbying as well. And they’ve been really interested in in the work that we’re doing. So in particular, we’ve talked to stakeholders involved in kind of gender inequality work, and how participation in the labour market is unequal between men and women, and in particular, between mothers and fathers. And then we’ve also talked a lot to stakeholders involved in kind of childhood disadvantages, and how different types of children are put at a disadvantage. And what are some of the mechanisms kind of potentially either alleviating those disadvantages, or that are currently making those disadvantages larger, and that would kind of be important to look at. So we’ve kind of talked both about the the bigger picture of inequality, but also some of the mechanisms and obviously, stakeholders are, are often interested in what they can do. And then we’ve also had really good discussions about especially with policymakers also about the kinds of data that going forward, would be needed to, to kind of really analyse these things further. And I think there’s a lot of kind of shared interest in collecting data or making administrative data available for researchers to be able to address inequalities in the future.

Christine Garrington  8:28 

Yeah, now a major part of your role, Elina has been to pull together all of these different strands of work in some way to ensure that we get to a, what we hope is a coherent picture of what’s been learned from the programme as a whole. And I wonder whether it’s possible in the short period of time that we have to say what has been learned from the programme as a whole?

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen  8:48 

Well, that’s no mean feat. To then kind of say what’s been learned because I think there’s such richness in the research coming through and I mean, we’ve only kind of touched upon some of the aspects just now. And so we what we’ve been trying to do is, is bring together kind of thematically, things we’ve learnt in terms of, for example, gender inequalities, as I just mentioned. So So really looking at further at kind of motherhood, penalties and how, how those might be potentially for example, by by further training ameliorated although at the same time, we need to remember that women tend to nowadays have higher education levels than men. So education isn’t always the key here. So also looking at kind of gender and sexual minorities, even though we’ve been making progress in terms of legislation and policy. The discrimination can still be kind of an ongoing issue for people and and kind of the legacy of the past is still a major issue for for LGBT citizens across Europe and even though legislation has progressed a lot to still the practices in terms of, of workplaces or educational institutions aren’t aren’t really catching up necessarily, to such a large extent. And then moving on to kind of a different area, I think there’s been a lot of really interesting work in terms of, of the role of genetics, which is a big new area of research in terms of social sciences, and how that plays into the reproduction of inequalities across generations and over the life course, and how that changes depending on the environment that people live in. So, so we’re learning a lot about so called gene environment interplay, and which is obviously kind of something that social scientists are really keen to look at is the the environmental aspect of, of how genes play out. So so we’re learning a lot about the fact that genes aren’t our destiny as such, but but the the context or the environment matters a lot for that.

Christine Garrington  11:00 

Yeah, lots of really fascinating and very, very innovative work that’s going on in that area, for sure. Now, you’re talking about stakeholders a moment ago, you’ve been responsible also for helping to ensure the dissemination of this research to to those non-academics as well as other researchers. So I’m interested to know and I think others will be interested to know what sorts of resources there are available. For those interested to know more, aside from the obviously, the dozens, and I know, there are dozens of journal articles and working papers that have have been produced if you’d like for the scientific community. But what else is there.

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen  11:34 

Starting from those journal articles, I think we’ve tried to make a kind of effort to make those more accessible in terms of both bringing them all to our website, but also providing summaries that are not just the academic abstract. So even looking at the journal articles, starting from from summaries that are more accessible to everyone involved, and not just researchers in those fields, I mean, abstracts can sometimes be a bit difficult to disentangle. Then bringing together the research we’ve we’ve been producing policy briefs that, I mean, obviously are aimed at policy audiences but I think those bring together thematically some of the research as well in a really nice way. So those are available on the on the website, then obviously, this podcast series, I think is has been a great way of disseminating the research. In addition to that, so we had our final conference last autumn. And some of those videos from the presentations are available still through the website. I mean, there’s both recordings of presentations that bring together entire projects, but also kind of individual, more finely specified research topics. But But in particular, there’s there’s videos of researchers presenting their whole project at the final conference. So I think those are also a great resource.

Christine Garrington  12:57 

Yeah, indeed, a wonderful library of materials that people can dip into at their leisure and really catch up on and get to grips with the important things that have emerged from this, this work. So finally, Elina, the ultimate aim of a programme like this is obviously to improve our understanding and knowledge on the one hand and influence change for the good with the understanding on the other. And I wonder if you’re able to say how, I know it’s very difficult, but if you can say how all this important work might feed into the thinking and policies of those seeking to reduce inequalities today, and in the future?

Elina Kilpi-Jakonen  13:32 

At the same time as advancing academic knowledge, we definitely have wanted these research results to be relevant for policymakers and to reach policymakers and indeed, kind of other organisations interested in in these types of inequalities and processes. I mean, on the one hand, there has been really great comparative work on the kind of institutional influences that policies in different countries have and I think that’s a really important thing to draw from in terms of, for example, education policy, or family policies for work life balance and the gender inequality in pay so, so looking at the across national differences and comparing countries and then learning from that. But then also, I mean, there’s been really detailed work into kind of the mechanisms of inequality and more specific interventions for example, and how those influence inequality and and then really digging more deeply into how inequality is reproduced and what we might be able to do about that. So for example, work on on parenting and how that reproduces inequalities among children and and then thinking about well, how we might be able to to provide more equitable parenting for children and what we can do about that. So I think there’s, there’s been work on multiple levels that hopefully we’ll be able for policymakers to draw on in terms of developing these things in the future.

Christine Garrington  15:07 

Thanks to Elina Kilpi-Jakonen, DIAL’s scientific co-ordinator for joining us for the final episode of this fourth series of the DIAL podcast. You can find all the resources that Elina mentioned in this episode on the DIAL website at We hope you enjoyed this episode, which is produced and presented by Chris Garrington of Research Podcasts. And don’t forget to subscribe wherever you find your podcasts to access all our earliest series.