Parenting Girls in a Male-Dominated Culture

It happened again recently.

I was at Target, spending yet another paycheck on all the glorious things the Bullseye has to offer. My basket was the usual random assortment of items: dry shampoo, wipes, wine, and probably a couple of things for my two older girls.

I made my usual small talk with the cashier. “Has it been crowded?” “I bet Christmas gets nuts.” The usual pleasantries.

As she scanned some Star Wars item I picked out, I heard her say something I’ve heard a hundred times before. “Oh your son is going to love this,” she exclaimed.  “Actually it’s for my daughter, she’s really into Star Wars. Won’t stop talking about it,” I replied with a smirk.

What happened next was some awkward stammering about how she was sorry and how she didn’t mean to assume or offend. I assured her it’s fine and exit the store.

Nothing will turn you into a feminist faster than having daughters.

Before I had daughters, I will reluctantly admit that I bought into the idea of gender differences. I assumed I’d grow up swimming in Barbies, frilly dresses, and more Disney princesses than I could imagine. To some extent, this is still true. If it were legal to leave my youngest daughter in the princess aisle at Target for six hours while my wife and I went on a date, I would. She’d be the happiest child in the city.

Avery, my oldest, couldn’t care less about any of that anymore. On Christmas day she spent 30 minutes explaining the plot of Empire Strikes Back to my father-in-law. She went as Rey for Halloween. She’s crazy about this universe, where there are heroes that look like her. Girls are no longer limited to the “damsel in distress” role. Her heroes look like Wonder Woman, and Rey, and BatGirl.

Recently, my oldest daughter’s school had a bunch of after school classes. Those kind that cost a few bucks, and your kid stays after school once a week for a few weeks. Avery picked the Lego robotics class. She was pumped about the idea of creating something that actually acted like a robot. Want to guess how many other girls were in her class? If you guessed zero, you’d be right.

I’ve heard cries on Twitter from folks concerned that we are trying to hard as a society to do away with gender. To feminize little boys and masculinize little girls.

While I am well aware that there are differences between boys and girls, and those differences should be celebrated, I’m also very in favor of breaking down as many walls as we have to in order to do away with the damaging stereotype that “boys do this, and girls do this”.

You’ve heard these arguments before, I’m sure. It starts before birth. We paint nurseries blue and pink. The aisles of our stores are defined by gender. The boys legos are over here, and the girls pink lego sets are over there.

Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. Take one look at the technology sector (where I happen to work) and you will notice that it overwhelmingly male. Science? Male. Math? Male. Engineering? Male. Those roles that are more creative and domestic tend to be dominated by women, while the ones that are more analytical and data-driven tend to be dominated by men.

My wife taught preschool for over a decade, with her last stint lasting nearly five years. I asked her how many men she remembered working with. She could count them on two hands. Out of over 100 teachers, her center had seven men. My daughter’s elementary school has 48 staff. Six are men. Why is this? Could it be that we are instilling this in our kids from childhood? When we buy our little girls play kitchens, and our little boys legos and microscopes, what message are we sending, whether intentional or not ? Could it be that we are subconsciously teaching our kids that women are the nurturing, caring, sensitive type, and men are the ones that work in professions using concrete facts and logic?

My daughter knows that there are differences between boys and girls. We’ve had this discussion. Those differences are celebrated in our house, as her mom and dad are very different people. She also knows that there is no such thing as a “boy’s toy” or a “girl’s toy.” No such thing as a “boy’s job” or a “girl’s job.” She knows that there are moms and dads that go to work all day, and moms and dads that stay home with their kids. There is no right or wrong way to be, there is only different.

Every day, as a father of girls, I have to take a long, hard look at the subtle ways that I am contributing to the stereotypes. In what ways am I stifling my daughters’ creativity? Am I trying to push superheroes and comic books on my girl who loves princesses, and ballet? Am I trying to push baby dolls and frills on my girl who is crazy about Spiderman and Darth Vader (I’m still not sure she understands that he’s the bad guy, but we’ll save that for another day.)

It’s going to look different for every family, but I’d encourage you to make an effort to be inclusive with your kids. Teach them that girls can excel at things like science & engineering, and that a girl can love Star Wars and request a Ninja Turtle cake for her birthday. Teach them that boys are allowed to paint their nails and play with dolls if they want. I promise you that you’re not ruining your kids. On the contrary, I think you’re turning them into the types of people this world needs most: accepting, loving, empathetic, and open. The world could use a lot more people like that.  People who recognize that the absence or presence of a specific chromosome shouldn’t dictate your career path. People who understand that if we shut girls out of science, technology, engineering, & mathematics, we are only operating at half of our full potential.

Ask yourself what kind of world you want to leave to your children. If a world where anybody can be anything they want is important to you and your family, please, sign your daughters up for a science class, buy them that Darth Vader pinata for their birthday party, or take them on that fly fishing trip.