How do people's backgrounds affect their life chances? Why have differences between some social groups narrowed but disparities within them widened?
These are among the challenging questions a professor of social policy has been asked to examine by Harriet Harman, the Minister for Women and Equality.
John Hills, director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, has been appointed chair of a panel of academic experts who are aiming to provide the Government with an authoritative analysis of British society's inequalities.
The team, which also includes academics from the universities of Essex, Loughborough, Oxford, Bristol and Edinburgh, as well as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have just over a year to gather and analyse data from the past decade to explain the trends that have emerged, mapping out where social divisions have widened and narrowed over time.
"The exercise is to produce the best available information on, and the best possible picture of, the relationship between some 'classic' social divides - gender, disability, ethnicity, age, social class, location - and how those relate to people's circumstances in terms of their incomes, employment, earnings, wealth and educational achievement," Professor Hills said.
The National Equality Panel will look at how these factors interrelate and, ultimately, what impact they have on people's lives.
Professor Hills said patterns that need to be examined included evidence that women who work part time are seeing no progress on the gender pay gap, that some ethnic minority groups earn less than other groups once their qualifications are taken into account, and that white British and Irish boys have the lowest levels of educational achievement.
"Social class rigidity is as great as ever but doesn't seem to have increased. At the same time, the links between the incomes of children and their parents seem to have strengthened when you compare children who were born in 1958 with children who were born in 1970," he said.
Higher education will be one of the many topics the panel will consider.
It is not the first time Professor Hills has carried out research commissioned by the Government. In February last year, he published an independent report for the Government on the future of social housing.
The final report on inequality will be submitted to ministers in November 2009.