Our Well-Meaning Feminist Failure
Everywhere I turn these days, I seem to see another product marketed with the angle that "girls can be just as tough as boys". From pink toy crossbows, to engineering toys made especially for girls, it feels like I'm being bombarded with this message that we need to know that girls can be as strong/smart/capable/tough as boys. I know a lot of people see this as a victory for female empowerment, but I can't help myself from thinking that we're going about this all wrong.
First off, we should be telling little girls (and women for that matter) to be whoever they want to be. We shouldn't tell them to like science because it's a male-dominated field, we should tell them to like science because science is awesome, if that's something that's interesting to them. And if they like princess dresses, awesome, like those too. Glitter is amazing.
But that's not even the real issue I have with this idea of girls being as tough as boys. The real issue I have is that we somehow feel that women will become equal to men by making women more like men. That is an absurd idea. And we don't even realize we're doing it.
I get so frustrated the number of times I'm in Women Leadership/Training/Networking events and I get lessons on "how to get your voice heard in meetings" or "how to network like a man" or "how to 'lean in'". In all of these meetings I'm receiving the same message we're sending to our little girls which is: in order to succeed, you need to figure out how to be as tough/loud/strong/bossy/[insert adjective here] as a man. The problem with this message is that it assumes the flawed fact that male attributes will make you successful in life (or business). But what about attributes that are traditionally assigned to women? Without getting too stereotypical, what about traits like cooperation, nurturing, and empathy? Why do we not view these as successful characteristics, and most importantly, why are we not actively teaching them to boys?
I have yet to go to a training seminar where someone says that in order to get ahead, you need to be more empathetic or nurture your teammates more. And there is no national initiative to push young men into fields of nursing and teaching in the same way that we're pushing women into the sciences. Why aren't we encouraging men and boys to be nurturing and empathetic in the same way we're encouraging girls and women to be bossy and tough? I want to read a best seller entitled Lean Out which encourages men to take on more empathetic and cooperative traits and stay at home with their families more.
For every ten stories I hear about some "tough girl" encouragement, I hear maybe one about a little boy who was encouraged to take a dance class, or play with dolls, or do anything even remotely effeminate. There is still very much a stigma associated with little boys taking on girls' traits, whereas the reverse isn't true. Frozen, Brave, the Hunger Games, and Tangled are praised for being extremely progressive movies for young girls. But aside from Billy Eliot, I haven't seen a movie that goes the other way, and certainly not one marketed to little boys.
My mother once told me once that my father really wanted to have a daughter so that he could raise her into a feminist. And I think he succeeded admirably. There wasn't anything I didn't think I could do (probably to a fault) and I never felt pushed in any direction toward careers or toys or roles. I used to think that I wanted to have a daughter for the same reason, so I could raise her to be a feminist. But now I realize that maybe teaching a son these values is just as important, maybe more so. Maybe my little guy can start the 4th wave of feminism, where we all agree to call it gender-equality instead of feminism, and realize this is an issue that both men and women need to address.
I'm not saying that we've won the battle for equal rights for women, so mother's of daughters, keep encouraging your daughters to pursue whatever they would like to do, whether it's dance or math or computers or nursing or baking or debate or fairy princesses. But to all the mother's of sons out there, let's also teach our sons to pursue whatever they would like to do as well, including female-dominated fields. Because the only way we're going to fully narrow the gender gap, is to close it from both sides.