Breaking the bias begins at home
The unique role for dads on International Women’s Day
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I’m a roughhouser. It’s my parenting love language. There’s little I enjoy more than launching my kids into the air, hurling them, sofa-bound, across the living room; or hoisting them by their feet, dangling them precariously and whirling them around like the Tasmanian Devil. When my daughter was younger, around the same age as my son is today, I’d get the odd (in every meaning of the word) comment from a fretful parent: some variation of “you should be careful, playing like that, with her.”
The idea of treating my kids differently based on their sex has always seemed strange. Sure, as they get older there will be gender-specific problems, requiring gender-specific solutions. But even then, surely the approach won’t be dramatically different? I count myself—as you also might—amongst the first generation of parents raising our children outside of traditional gender stereotypes: beyond the pink and blue dichotomy, teaching them new dynamics of gender that we grew up ignorant of.
Today is International Women’s Day. This year we’re being called upon to #breakthebias—a great initiative, sadly propped up by a daft “make a gesture with your hands and post it online” activation that feels like relic from an tragically-unforgotten era of social media marketing.
OK, advertising hat off, fatherhood hat back on. Here’s what the IWD organisers are working towards:
“Imagine a gender equal world.
A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.
A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
A world where difference is valued and celebrated.
We can break the bias in our communities.
We can break the bias in our workplaces.
We can break the bias in our schools, colleges and universities.”
Curiously missing from this utopian vision? Breaking the bias at home.
Your own beliefs on gender will have started forming during childhood. And back then, everything was gender-specific. We watched He-Man whilst they watched My Little Pony. We acted out the eternal battle between good and evil with Optimus Prime and Megatron, whilst they stuffed their hands into the abyss of the couch, searching for a Polly Pocket who had tragically plummeted to her doom. We ran around the playground emulating Cantona, Jordan or Gretzky, whilst they sat in circles with dolls, emulating their own mothers.
Some things, mercifully, have changed. Others haven’t. “It’s a shame it’ll be a girl,” a dad-to-be told me recently. “I was looking forward to playing football together, throwing him around, that sort of stuff.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this. Sadly, it won’t be the last. “Gender disappointment” is “the feeling of sadness when a parent’s desire for a preferred sex is not met” and can create “grief-like” feelings of disappointment and loss. I recall an old parenting book which included a study (which I sadly can’t find today) linking the long-term happiness of a parent to how strongly they desired a child of a certain sex, and the ongoing negative effects—on the parent and the child—when this preference was not met. Chalk another one up for a life of non-attachment, I guess?
“Do we treat you and your brother differently?” I asked Padme, as we brushed our teeth this morning.
“Of course. He does bad things all the time, and I get in trouble for them.”
Elder sibling issues. I feel you. “Well of course you’re going to feel like that. I did too. But do we treat you differently because you’re a girl and he’s a boy?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Phew. We’ve tried to raise our kids free from gender bias. Our son wears hand-me-downs from his older sister. They read the same books, and watch the same shows, when age appropriate. They play with a universe of toys across what might be termed a “traditional” gender spectrum: cuddly bears, Disney princesses, trains, planes and automobiles, DC and Marvel superheroes, together at last, and enough costumes to make it seem like they’re auditioning for Kingdom Hearts. No pink globes in this house, thank you very much. Bodhi spent a solid three months pushing his baby around the house in a stroller. Why wouldn’t he? Walking a baby around the streets is something his dad has done since he was born, why would he think of this as the type of game that only a girl would play?
“Gender-neutral parenting means allowing your children to play with a range of toys and wear the clothes they feel comfortable in. Many parents raise their children this way, whether they refer to it as ‘gender neutral’ or not. In the last few years parents have been increasingly rejecting the stereotypes being sold by big business, encouraging their children to think for themselves.”
— Megan Perryman, Founder of Let Toys Be Toys
As parents we can break the bias by making gender-neutral choices on what our kids wear, watch, and play with. Those are easy fixes. Breaking other habits will take more work, as intentional reprogramming always does. I’m still working on catching myself when praising or encouraging my own kids, avoiding default phrases aligned with gender roles: a world where sons are “smart and strong” and commended for their hard work and effort, whilst daughters are “beautiful and pretty” and praised for their looks, encouraged towards “softer” activities like cooking, arts & crafts.
The words we use at home, seemingly innocent, have great power. The phrase “boys will be boys” can be sourced as early as 1589, and has become ingrained in the lexicon of parenting. It’s a shorthand to excuse the type of behaviour we’d rather not happen—four short words to let an errant boy off the hook, setting a standard for the type of conduct we are willing to accept from our sons—and then we’re somehow surprised when they grow up and it continues in the workplace, where 73% of women report experiencing gender discrimination.
These words and phrases become formative scaffolding in the minds of our children, turning into the eventual gender constructs that ensure our daughters will continue to earn less than our sons. This pay gap was expected to take 100 years to eradicate, and according to the World Economic Forum it’s been set back another 36 years—an entire generation—by the pandemic.
What’s taking so long? There are many systemic issues at play, intricately connected. Take one that you’ve experienced many times in your life—the awkward interview question enquiring what you’re currently salary is, and what you’re expecting in your next role. Research has shown that this question does a disservice to women (as well as people of colour and those with disabilities), forced to have pay discrimination follow them throughout their careers. Visible factors like these are compounded by hidden, more insidious ones. You’ve surely seen these too: senior male leaders, somehow impervious to issues brought against them, who have realised you can still be gender-biased in the workplace, you just can’t be seen to be doing it.
Some problems are too entrenched to change, and even harder to eradicate now they’ve retreated into the darkness. They won’t be fixed by well-intentioned photos posted online—although one must not shit on the power of social, as this phenomenal Twitter bot will do more for gender pay disparity than anything else you’ll see, hear, or read today.
As parents—and particularly, as fathers—we have an essential role to play, raising our sons to be better men, and doing the necessary work today to ensure our offspring don’t perpetuate gender stereotypes tomorrow. Social biases in adulthood are resistant to change because of “complex interplay between direct experiences and stereotypes that pervade communities.” But research has continually shown that if identified early they can be easily corrected before they become ossified. Helping kids see the patterns of inequality, and to feel supported to call them out, is something parents are uniquely placed to do.
We’re all trying to raise good humans, and doing our part to create a society that understands there’s more that unites us than divides us, whilst all the research points to the same metanarrative: gender inequality will take generations to change.
But, as parents, generational change is what we signed up for.
Let’s get to work.
3 things to read this week
“Praise Children For What They Do, Not Who They Are” by Lindsay Abrams in The Atlantic. Almost 10 years old, still as painfully relevant as ever. “Boys were being primed from early childhood to do something with their brains and skills and ability to remember to cover their mouths when they sneezed. And while girls, too, were told how smart and clever they were, they were more likely to grow up believing that they couldn't build upon or develop those traits.”
“The Radical Woman behind ‘Goodnight Moon’” by Anna Holmes in The New Yorker. An in-depth profile of the prolific American children’s author Margaret Wise Brown, praising the “the surreal quality of “Goodnight Moon,” which marries elements of the Here and Now movement with the feeling of a hallucinatory reverie.” Full disclosure: I finally succumbed to The New Yorker’s 12 week trial after an online advert caught me at exactly the right time. Expect to see me on the streets of Barcelona rocking the tote bag soon.
“Music for Mourning” by Matthew Schnipper in Deep Voices. I came across this essay via Sam Valenti IV’s excellent Herb Sundays newsletter. I wasn’t prepared for just how powerful a punch it was going to deliver. Many of you have emailed asking when I’m going to cover grief on TNF. It’s a topic I feel incredibly lucky to be unequipped to talk about. Schnipper writes beautifully about attempting to find solace in music after the sudden death of a child. "I spoke with a rabbi who said, during shiva, each person who visits can lessen 1/60th of your grief. Though he wasn’t there, Bill [Callahan] carried his share.”
This week in The New Fatherhood Community
This newsletter will always be free. But subscribers get access to a whole load more. Here’s a flavour of some discussions we’ve been having in the community over the last week.
Suffering from fatherhood burnout? One dad opened up and shared his experience on reaching “the end of his rope.” He wasn’t the only one, kicking off a pile-on of emotional support, including another who helpfully shared his own Dr. Manhattan-like “I am tired of these people” moment.
A discussion around the next entry in our film / book club: after reading “Four Thousand Weeks” last month we’re now rotating into movie land, and the community decided we’ll be spending an hour togeterh discussing Mads Mikkelsen’s tour de force “Another Round” in a few weeks.
It’s community, but at the speed of fatherhood—not another feed to keep an eye on, but a slower moving resource filled with a group of liked-minded dads, supporting each other as we figure out fatherhood on the fly. Access the community and the full archive of members-only essays, for the price of a beer or two coffees a month.
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Everyone in the house is sick this week, apart from me. For a change. Furiously working to get this out before IWD2022 is over now all the sick kids are in bed. So if there are more typos than normal you know why. Anyway, what did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
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