EqualiSea

The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Where are the women in the Mansion?

Washington State, Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

Understanding the decline in the number of female Governors.

The Washington State Governor's Mansion in Olympia, WA.  Photo by Harvey Barrison is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Washington State Governor's Mansion in Olympia, WA.  Photo by Harvey Barrison is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As of today, only 37 women have ever served as U.S. Governors, compared to more than 2,000 men.   

Tuesday night I had a chance to see two of them in Seattle: Former Governor of Washington Christine Gregoire (2005-2013) and former Governor of Oregon Barbara Roberts (1991-1995), in an event hosted by the Women's Funding Alliance

As I walked into the room and found a chair, I was excited to hear about the progress women have been making as governors.  But also being a realist, I knew not to get my hopes too high—given that the number of women in other political offices, such as congress, has been increasing at a pace so slow it hardly seems to be moving at all. 

The percentage of female governors must be at least increasing at that snail’s pace, right? RIGHT?

My naïve hopes were dashed right off the bat.  It turns out that female representation in governorships hasn’t just flatlined—it’s actually fallen in recent years.  The record stands at 9 women simultaneously serving as governor (in both 2004 and 2009), which has dropped to the 6 women currently serving.  Put another way, only about 11% of our current governors are female, which is 33% less than 12 years ago.   Those stats aren’t great. At all. 

What is going on? Why aren’t there more women in the mansion? 
The Governors shed some light on the situation:

Women in or running for public office increasingly face harassment, outright sexist language, and threats.  

As Gov. Roberts put it, “things that people used to think but not say, they’re saying now.” What had been a tough but relatively respectful environment for women is becoming an openly hostile one.  And the strain of operating in that kind of environment is likely a main reason why fewer women are willing to throw their hat in the ring.  Both women stated their dismay at recent escalation of this hostility, made glaringly obvious in the current Presidential election.  Instead, argued Gov. Gregoire, “let’s talk about the issues…and how we solve them… and get over this disrespect and demeaning nature that we’re seeing in politics today.” 

A local example of this was seen recently with the misogynistic backlash that the female Seattle City Council members received (as Samantha Bee hilariously explains below). 

 

Women are more reluctant than men to put their family through the stress of campaigning.

Running for office can be extremely tough not only on the candidate, but also on their family.  As Gov. Gregoire stated: “It is easier to be the candidate and have these lies told about you than it is to be the loved one of the candidate.  And women I think really struggle with ‘I don’t want to put my family through the ugliness of a campaign, the expected lies and comments and remarks that will be made.’”  It’s one thing to take abuse yourself, it’s another thing to make your family face that, and women seem to be less willing to ask their family to go through it.

Internalized gender bias persists—even in women

A third piece of the puzzle is understanding the mental barriers a woman has to overcome to believe that she is capable of leadership.  Our culture conditions us all—men and women alike—to believe that men are more capable leaders.  This is reflected in the fact that a woman must be asked many times to run for public office before she actually will

It takes a lot of work to recognize that internalized bias, and then to overcome it.  Gov. Gregoire shared the story of how her daughter thought she wasn’t qualified to run for Port Commissioner—until she looked at the resumes of the current commissioner and realized she was possibly the most qualified.  Multiple times throughout the evening, both Governors emphasized the need for women to believe in themselves.  As part of the solution, Gov. Roberts called for more documentation of women in leadership roles, because “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” She then proceeded to whip out a copy of her autobiography from behind her chair, with a grin. 

Male allies need to step up

Though this was only a minor point in the discussion, I’d like to emphasize its importance here.  We cannot ask women to do all of this work.  We also need to work on leveling the playing field—and that means those who hold power in the playing field need to step up. As Gov. Gregoire put it, the situation “isn’t going to advance…until men join.” It is both the right thing to do, and it will also result in better policy.  In fact, this applies to all types of diversity, both Governors argued: “diversity has got to be key…it (leadership) should look like the nation that we serve.” 

And last time I checked, our nation wasn’t 89% male. 

How a Pakistani-American girl superhero is saving her world--and ours.

Gender Equality Overall, SeattleMartha BurwellComment

Kamala Khan is a teenage Pakistani-American living in Jersey City, and she’s out to save the world. 

Until recently, Kamala Khan lived a perfectly normal life.  But everything changed when she suddenly acquired super powers, and weird things started happening in her neighborhood.  Now she has to battle villains, figure out what's about to take over the earth, and figure out how to use her new powers.  All on top of dealing with the normal teenage stuff like overprotective parents, new feelings, and complex friendships.  Though her friends know her as Kamala, when she puts on her homemade superhero outfit (a modified shalwar kameez) you may call her Ms. Marvel.

While Ms. Marvel is saving her world from villians, she’s also saving our real-life world a little at a time by busting down stereotypes and showing us that a hero can be a girl, a hero can be muslim, a hero can be real and imperfect and a little bit awkward. 

When the first Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel was released in October 2014, it was an instant best seller.  Since then, more episodes have been released, each of which has built on the initial popularity.

Part of this popularity can be attributed to the fact that Kamala takes on real topics that lots of people can relate to.  Topics like what consent and victim-blaming mean, what it’s like being a second-generation immigrant, and how tough it is to resist bacon (‘delicious, delicious infidel meat’).  

We see the exploration of unfamiliar gender roles, where men are allowed to have heart to hearts, and Kamala is more often the one saving the guy, rather than the other way around.   We learn about Pakistani culture through Kamala’s interactions with her family and friends.  We even learn a little bit of a new language through Kamala's conversations and when Captain Marvel (aka Carol Danvers, the original blonde-haired, blue-eyed, big chested Ms. Marvel) appears in a dream-like state to Kamala and recites a poem by a 13th century Sufi poet—in Urdu.   But most of all, we see a teenage girl figuring out that despite all the pressure to try to be someone else, it’s best to just be herself— imperfections included.   

To find out more about how Ms. Marvel has been received, I went to Comics Dungeon, a Seattle comic store that has been a staple for comic lovers since 1992.  I had a chance to ask a few questions to Nicole Lamb, a long-time employee, comic insider, and author of the article series "Hardcore Lady Types," that explores female comic heroes. 

Me: What is your overall opinion of the new Ms. Marvel series with Kamala Khan? 

Nicole: Before the series came out I thought Marvel was forcing a new character and was skeptical how it would be executed. Since it's release it has shown that it's not only an excellent story and with great art, but exactly what the community of comic lovers has needed. This representation in both Kamala being a Pakistani Muslim American, but also a young woman navigating through high school, relationships and parental expectations, hits just what the mainstream industry had been missing.

How have comic readers responded?

They have responded positively, in a “must have more Kamala” kind of way… So there's an acknowledgement that this is hitting specific demographics, like families, women (of all ages), or any gender who like their superhero stories to be fun and endearing. It's a big demographic, it's just not all of it. Overall, Ms. Marvel stays at the top of our sales, near the likes of Saga.

What is one of the most interesting or important aspects of the new Ms. Marvel? 

The most exciting moment I've had with sharing Ms Marvel was when I went to a school in west Seattle to give a presentation about the history of comics. Towards the end I made mention of some of the recent series being released and said there's a Pakistani Muslim American superhero named Ms. Marvel and heard gasps in the crowd. That shock and awe shows me that Khamala's heritage is an important aspect and a sorely needed voice in our country. My hope is that this sets a precedent.  I'd like our future to be filled with great stories that won't create a shock because there will be so much diversity that whoever reads comics can see their reflection in the characters.

What would Kamala say about the current presidential elections?

I think she'd be frustrated that there is such immaturity on a presidential level and mad that there is a perpetual anti-Muslim rhetoric on one side. Perhaps though, on another side, she'd be hopeful there might be a President of integrity. 

What are your thoughts on how Marvel has handled gender and ethnicity in this new series? 

I think they asked the right people to be involved. Because of that, Kamala was able to have a strong voice and strength of character that is consistent throughout. I don't think you have to pair like with like though. For instance, having Brian Michael Bendis write Miles Morales Spider-man has worked even though he is white. If you get people who care about what they're doing and who they are writing (or drawing), you'll get good stories. 

What do you think the next big hit will be?

Nicole Lamb of Comics Dungeon (Photo courtesy of Nicole Lamb)

Nicole Lamb of Comics Dungeon (Photo courtesy of Nicole Lamb)

My thoughts are to main stream companies: you have to diversify your line, have characters of different genders, sexuality, religions, have different types of stories, dark and gritty, fun and light, have all-age tales. Try different things and see what sticks. I see the market as always changing and the demographics are shifting. Ultimately, if you tell a wide variety of stories you'll have a wider fanbase because one size doesn't fit all comics. When Marvel put out Khamala Khan Ms Marvel, they did something no one had done before and it was wildly successful. That's not to say do a cookie cutter version of this. Find voices that are not being heard or written about and tell those stories, such as gay men, transfolk and people of color. I hear time and time again from our community, where are the brown superheros? People want to see themselves in stories, especially those where the characters are being strong and are victorious. 


In closing, I'll mention one of my absolute favorite moments of Ms. Marvel, which takes place in the most recent episode.  The world is about to end, and Kamala's best friend Bruno finally tells her that he has feelings for her. Her response?  She gently says to him: "Being Ms. Marvel--it's filled up my heart and my life in a way that nothing else I've done ever has...I'm not ready to be anything else, to anyone else.  I need to give this everything I've got."  In essence, she's choosing personal development and growth over a cute boy.  This seems like a small thing, but really it's incredibly important.  Far too often, we see teenage girl characters in pop culture defining their worth as relative to a relationship with a boy or man.  It was refreshing to see a young female lead character defining her worth on her own strength and individuality.  And the most important part--she defined it for herself.

Next, I hope she gets to battle some more of our real world villians—racism, sexism, perhaps Donald Trump?  The next volume is due out June 14th.  


This interview has been lightly edited. 

For more posts on gender and diversity, see the "It's All Connected" intersectionality series.  

Ruchika Tulshyan thinks it’s time to turn the tables.

Gender Equality Overall, SeattleMartha BurwellComment

For far too long we’ve been putting the work of achieving gender equality in the workplace on women.


I’ll admit it.  I’ve gone to more than one “how to negotiate” workshop. 

I can do power poses like no one’s business.  Strong eye contact, shoulders back, spine straight.  But also making sure to sit at a slight angle so I don’t look “too aggressive.” Staring at myself awkwardly in the mirror, I’ve practiced comebacks for common arguments as to why I should be paid less.  And I’ve even used cute phrases like “wiggle room” to soften the blow of –-gasp—a woman asking to be paid more!

But the truth is, I can do power poses for the rest of my life and I still won’t be paid the same as my male counterparts.  Because individuals can only get so far within a system that’s constantly pushing back on them.

As Ruchika Tulshyan writes in her new book, The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, “too much of the existing narrative focuses on ‘fixing women’—getting more women to negotiate, assert, demand, be confident and ‘lean in’ to leadership.”

Author Ruchika Tulshyan Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Author Ruchika Tulshyan
Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Instead, if we take a closer look, we see that gender inequality is something that we unintentionally built right into the structures of our businesses.  With the example of negotiation, we know that we have social stigma against women asking for more money.  But we keep salaries secret, we keep requiring employees to negotiate, and we keep penalizing women for it. 

Perhaps we’re ready turn the tables, to evolve our workplaces so that they work for women, as well as men.  Because our old systems were designed for a different time, and a different workforce.  And frankly, we’ve outgrown them.

That doesn’t mean that we have to demolish our way of doing business altogether—but we do need to be open to a steady stream of renovations. 

The good news?  These investments will also benefit the business.

This is what Tulshyan calls “The Diversity Advantage.”  It’s the idea that “diversity isn’t just the right thing to do.  It’s also a financially savvy strategy in today’s hyper-competitive digital marketplace.”

Tulshyan’s 2015 ebook guides the reader through the many deeply-ingrained, but often unintentional, ways that businesses disadvantage women.  Being solution-oriented, it also offers a gold mine of ideas for correcting this, so that the companies may tap into the full potential of the talent of 50% of the population.

Last month, I had the chance to sit down with the Seattle author, and ask her a few questions about some of the themes in her book. 

We started with one of the most-publicized effects of gender inequality in the workplace—the gender pay gap.

The book states “one of the biggest obstacles to resolving the gender pay gap is denial.”  Yet there is so much evidence on the systemic gender pay gap. Why are people still in denial? 

Right now, a lot of businesses are still run by middle-aged, or older, white men.  And from their point of view, they see that there are more women in the workforce than there were previously.  Which is true, but the problem is that they are concentrated in lower-level jobs.  The higher up you get in leadership, the fewer women there are.  And many leaders don’t look hard enough to see this, or don’t question why, and decide to prioritize other things.  

They also may tend to think that the lack of women in leadership roles is a result of individual choices.  But in reality, this has been disproved time and again.

Or, they assume that they themselves are not sexist, and no one they work with is sexist, so they jump to the conclusion that they’re not doing anything wrong.  They may not understand the implicit biases that we all hold. 

So it really comes down to a lack of knowledge and understanding about the actual situation.  They need to understand that it is a priority that impacts the performance of the entire business.

The book demonstrates how pay secrecy is harmful to reaching pay equality, advocating instead for more pay transparency.  Right now, in Washington state legislature, we have a bill being considered that would make it illegal for employers to punish their employees for discussing wages.  Would this new law be enough?

This is a first step, but it’s not enough. 

We are very uncomfortable talking about money in this culture.  In fact, we’d rather talk about relationships and sex at work than talk about money! 

Until we have a cultural shift in which it becomes less of a taboo to discuss salaries, we’re still not going to see a lot of pay transparency.  Businesses can address this by slowly phasing in transparency, or at the very least taking a comprehensive look at how they are currently paying their employees. 

When it comes to supporting parents, the book states “the most impactful solutions are initiatives and policies that benefit both genders such as paid leave, flexibility, and child care support.”  Why is that the case?

It’s been well documented that creating benefits that are only for women actually harms women, because it treats them like a special population.  So the businesses will start to discriminate against them because they now come with additional expenses.  So instead, those benefits should be for all employees. 

Another reason has to do with millennials, who will soon be the largest demographic in the workforce. Both male and female millennials have shown time and again that they value those types of benefits, demonstrating that businesses must provide them if they want to be able to attract and retain talent.

Lastly, in order to truly make change, we need a cultural shift about who’s doing the caretaking and the homemaking.  Right now, women still shoulder most of that work, and it is a big burden.   We must culturally start allowing, or requiring, men to take on some of that burden.  So making these types of policies accessible to men helps achieve that.

Sponsorship is something the book advocates highly for.  What is sponsorship and how can it be implemented successfully? 

First of all, sponsorship is very different from mentorship. A mentor is generally someone who you meet with occasionally and get guidance from. A sponsor, in contrast, is someone who is in a more senior position that works with you to strategically advance your career, using his or her own reputation and connections to help you move forward.

However, a sponsor may not understand the nuances of gender.   And as more sponsors will be male, simply because there are so many more men in top leadership positions in business, it’s important that we consider gender training with sponsorships. 

For example, in many companies, networking and relationship building among leadership still occurs after hours over dinner and drinks.  This is part of what’s considered the “old boys club.”  But, if a (typically younger) female protégée is invited by her (typically older) male sponsor to these events, it is often perceived very negatively, and it can actually harm her career.  To avoid these types of situations, it’s recommended to create a more formal sponsorship program that includes guidelines and training around gender.  Formal programs also help create accountability by having points at which other leaders check in to see if the sponsor is successfully helping the protégée meet her career advancement goals.    

There are quite a few countries in Europe, and several in Asia, as well as India, that have legally mandated gender quotas for corporate boards.  In the book, it states that quotas do have some effect, but that there are other ways to get more women on boards that are more effective.  What are the recommendations?

Quotas have their ups and down.  On the one hand, they are useful in that they provide accountability.   It’s too easy for a company, without quotas, to say “we tried it and it didn’t work.” A quota requires that they keep trying.  Facebook is a surprising example.  They have only 2 women on their board, and no women of color.  This seems odd, because the most rapidly growing segments of their market are overseas, and they could clearly use diverse leadership to help understand those markets.  Facebook does not utilize quotas.

On the other hand, quotas are not enough.  There also has to be a cultural shift. 

Otherwise you may see something like what happened in Norway, in which the same few women are asked to be on 4, 5, or more boards, and most women still don’t have access.  Lastly, women are much more likely to stay on boards if there is a culture that makes them feel welcome in a leadership position. 

Here in the US, we are culturally quite far away from having legally mandated quotas. In fact, we have a Supreme Court case this year that will question whether affirmative action (which quotas fall under) is even constitutional.  Why is there such a difference between attitudes about quotas in the US, as compared to other countries?

We believe in the US that we have a meritocracy, where anyone who works hard enough will achieve success.  It’s the American Dream.  But that is simply not true for everyone.  That mindset ignores the systematic oppression that is present in our society, and fails to recognize that only some people can participate fully in our “meritocracy,” and those people happen to be mostly white men.  

We are uncomfortable with the fact that our belief in meritocracy may be an illusion, because it challenges the idea that those white men achieved success based solely on their own talent. 

The introduction to the book states “make no mistake: this is no feminist manifesto.  Sure, gender equality is a human rights issue. But engaging women in the workforce is primarily an economic issue.  Diverse leaders drive bottom-line growth and high-level innovation for global corporations.” 
After reading the book, I’d argue that it IS a feminist manifesto, as well as an economic argument.  So I’m curious why this disclaimer was included.

The book was also meant to appeal to men, so that phrase was included to emphasize that the book is first and foremost an economic argument. 

We must have men participate in this movement in order for it to be successful. There isn’t a case in history in which an oppressed group has overcome oppression without the participation of those in power. 

The only exceptions are when extreme violence was used.  In the case of gender equality, men are still largely in power, and they must participate as allies in order for us all to succeed.


Lastly, Ruchika noted that compared to other places she’s lived in (The UK, India and Singapore), in our Seattle culture, we tend to avoid tough topics like this.

But Seattle, we’ve got to talk about it.  And more than that, we’ve got to take responsibility and act on improving gender equality in the workplace.  If the ethical case doesn’t sway you, the business case can’t be ignored. 

You can purchase Ruchika’s book on Forbes.  A paper version will also be available soon. 


Where is RooshV’s opposite?

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

I’m sure many of you saw the headlines last week.  “Pro-rape blogger organizes meetings for men across U.S.—Including Seattle, Everett” “Pro-Rape International Meetup Day” “RooshV Plans ‘Rape Should Be Legal’ Meetups”.  If you haven’t heard, this was a day of meetups around the world planned by Roosh Valizadeh, the owner of the misogynistic blog “Return of Kings.

RooshV is second from right.  IMG_0423 by Joe Loong is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

RooshV is second from right.  IMG_0423 by Joe Loong is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Thankfully, the meetups did not happen, at least officially, because there was an uproar on social media protesting them. 

This uproar was inspiring, and overall, effective.  But it made me think: where is the radical feminism pulling our culture in the opposite direction, to counterbalance the RooshVs of the world? 

First, I’m happy that there are no direct equivalents to RooshV in the feminist world.  His hate-filled doctrines are of a tone and intention that do not belong in any movement. 

But the point stands: when it comes to certain aspects of gender, particularly with women’s sexuality and reproductive health, the scales seem to be tipping in a conservative direction over the past few years.   And those radical voices, as much as we try to discount them, matter a lot

You might be thinking, instead of more radical feminism, wouldn’t it be better to have an increase in more moderates? 

I would love an increase there too, but we can’t do without our radical feminists.

This is because of something called the Overton Window.  This fancy term basically just refers to the range of ideas around a topic that the public will accept.  It changes constantly, being pulled in one direction or another.   

Let me explain. If you’ve seen the movie Selma (which I highly recommend), there’s a scene that portrays this concept well.  Martin Luther King Junior is planning a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, demanding equal voting rights for black Americans.  He has been treading extremely carefully, because he knows this action has the potential to influence national law, and supporters have been facing severe violence.

A few days before the march, Malcolm X shows up.  He wants to give a speech in favor of MLJK’s march.  But Malcolm X does not exactly have a reputation for treading carefully, so when he meets with Coretta Scott King, the decision maker in this case, she initially denies his proposition, because of the risk of damaging their movement. 

But she changes her mind when Malcolm X says one thing.

“I thought that if the white people understood what the alternative was that they would be more inclined to listen to your husband. And so that’s why I came.”

In other words, Malcolm X was offering to use his radical reputation to pull the Overton Window --what the public would accept--in the direction of civil rights.  This would move MLKJ’s more moderate views towards the center of the window, garnering him more public support.  

A more local example of this concept is Dan Savage, Seattle LGBTQ activist, who explained his role in moving the Overton Window for LGBTQ rights in an interview with Seattle Met last year.  As he put it, “When you’re trying to move the center, you need people at the edges screaming and yelling.  You need the unreasonable people for the reasonable people to move in.  This is my life.”

When it comes to gender in the past few years, particularly with women’s reproductive health, the Overton Window has had a lot of weight put on the conservative end. 

Ted Cruz, presidential candidate who opposes abortion in all cases, even incest and rape. 03072015_TedCruz_001_3x2_1080 by iprimages is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Ted Cruz, presidential candidate who opposes abortion in all cases, even incest and rape. 03072015_TedCruz_001_3x2_1080 by iprimages is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Women’s health clinics being violently attacked and intimidated.  Politicians making misogynist comments with little consequence to their career. False Planned Parenthood smear campaigns (which have been disproved).  Leading 2016 presidential candidates demanding to ban abortion in all cases, even rape and incest. Our government threatening to defund women’s health services.

These actions are extreme.  What’s worrying is that they seem mainstream.  A sure sign that the Overton Window has been pulled sharply in a conservative direction, and away from gender equity.

Can you think of any actions on the other side that are this extreme? Any individuals or groups that are as radical?  It’s quite difficult to draw many to mind. Though the radical feminist movement had quite a large participation rate in the 1960s and 70s, with explicit goals to achieve personal and political equity, that movement has dwindled. This can be seen as a success in some regard, because the things they were fighting for have become normalized.  But certainly not everything. 

We cannot ignore the fact that we're slipping back.  Rights we thought we had firmly won have become eroded.   We’re starting to think that restricting women’s sexuality and reproductive health is normal.

So yes, we need radical feminism.  We need those people at the edges to drag the center forward.  Though we may not always agree with everything they do, as feminists, we cannot, we must not, dismiss them.  Even if we don’t agree with each other 100% of the time, we still must respect and acknowledge their role in the movement towards gender equity.    

What’s the call to action?  I’m not sure yet.  I was hoping you would help me out with that one. 

In part, it’s a call to the media to cover more radical feminism stories.  In fact, to make women’s voices heard more overall. There is much more action around gender equity than we are aware of, because our media chooses not to cover those stories.  And that, in itself, is an act of misogyny.

In part, it’s a call to our political representatives to actually represent us women—not represent what they think we should be. 

In part, it’s a call to us, feminists, to be radical, and to support radical feminism.  We tend to be hard on ourselves, and each other, in the feminist movement, and I think we can work on that. 

In part, it's a call to everyone, to be politically active and demand change that actually works for us. We tend to think we're powerless when it comes to politics and determining laws.  We're not. 

Let’s get our window back, bitches. 

Defined From Birth

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

By Alec Connon
Edited by Martha Burwell

Male preschool teacher Alec Connon discusses how strict gender roles act as a limitation even in early childhood.

"Img_1748" by Cappugino . is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

"Img_1748" by Cappugino . is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“You can’t be a teacher,” said Erin, a widely smiling four year old and my newest pupil.

“Why?” I asked, understandably enough, given that I am in fact a teacher.

“You’re a boy,” she replied, not missing a beat.

In my 6 months working as a male pre-school teacher, comments such as Erin’s have not been rare. “I can’t put on my bedsheets. I’m not a girl,’ said three year old Julian. “You can’t wear a bracelet,” four year old Juliette informed me confidently, “You’re a boy.”

Now it should hardly need explaining why such concrete perceptions of gender and binary gender roles are apparent in kids as young as three: parents’ and teachers’ conscious and unconscious modeling of gender stereotypes, the mass media portrayals of gender-specific roles and the gender-based gendered assignment of colors, toys and clothes all play a role in creating gender specific expectations from a very young age – sometimes even pre-birth.

“Too quickly kids are placed on either a blue or pink path. And they are expected to follow it” writes author and gender activist, Lori Duran. And my own experience of spending 6 months working in a Seattle preschool only vouches for this claim.

To follow the logic of many pre-schoolers today, a man cannot be allowed to flourish in a role such as a teacher, a man cannot wear a bracelet (even a tattered, old and faded one like my own) and, rather cripplingly, a man cannot even be expected to put on his own bedsheets. The limitations this puts on me as a man are, of course, significant. I will forever have to sleep on a bare mattress, I cannot wear jewelry, and I cannot work in a role such as a preschool teacher where skills such as empathy, patience and compassion are salient.

The fate for women is even worse. A woman must forever be putting on bedsheets for incapable men, she should wear jewelry, and she cannot excel in sports (just last week a five year old informed me that she wasn’t playing with the soccer ball because “that was a boys’ game.”)

A five year old thinking in this way is, of course, a tragedy. It is natural that as life progresses doors will be closed on us forever, opportunities will be lost. Life is funnel-shaped and the list of our potential futures, aspirations and our sense of the achievable only grows ever narrower as we get older. That is perhaps unavoidable, and to an extent there may even be nothing wrong with that. But for us to live in a society where the doors of opportunity are being closed on children as young as three because of how we define gender is, in my humble opinion as someone who is charged with the teaching of our children, a deep and truly grave wrong.

Now, this does not mean I’m advocating to dissolve gender altogether.  People often imagine scenes of gray, uniform androgyny when hearing this argument.  Like some kind of dystopian future where we all wear monotone jumpsuits and have the same haircut.  But in fact, what I’m suggesting is the exact opposite. I’m envisioning a world in which we don’t put such stringent and uniform limitations of gender on our children, and instead, remove some of the restrictions of our expectations and see what amazing, vibrant identities they create for themselves.

Our children are as wonderfully diverse and unique as the infinite variations of colors in a prism, and instead of limiting them to blue or pink, let’s consider that all colors are for everyone.  

But we should note that this needs to work both ways.

As a culture, we’re far more comfortable allowing girls to act and dress like boys. But we must also start allowing our boys to explore and portray traditionally feminine traits. The reasons for this are clear: 79% of all suicides in the US are men who are not culturally allowed to ask for help; our jails are filled with men who were not taught to express their emotions except through anger. We need to make it okay for young boys to do humble things like put on their own bedsheets, to know that they can work in vocations that require empathy and compassion - we need to let them know that it is not unmanly to be caring, loving, and gentle.  That it is not unmanly to ask for help.  And likewise, we need to let our young women know that it is okay for them to be strong and confident, to be fit and funny, to be assertive and to play sports.  

So, as caregivers, teachers, and parents, as siblings, friends and peers, let’s pay attention to when the doors are slamming shut on our young children, and work to prop them open instead. Let’s challenge our own perceptions of gender roles daily, and ask why? Why is this type of clothing only for girls? Why is this game only for boys? Why do we not feel capable of doing a certain type of chore? Let’s stop saying (and, as importantly, showing) limiting things like “boys can’t do this” and “only girls can do this,” for things that clearly any child could do, if given the chance.  

Let’s continue to evolve and develop what it means to be feminine, and what it means to be masculine. Because, quite simply, what it means to be human is far more significant.  

"Children Playing" by Sanshoot is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

"Children Playing" by Sanshoot is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Learn more:

“Dear Parents, let’s talk about kids and gender roles” an article by The Good Men Project

A quick clarification.  When I’m talking about gender, I mean the social construction of what it means to be male, female, or another sex.  The specific biology or anatomy is referred to as the sex of a person. 


About the Author, Alec Connon:

Alec’s first novel, The Activist, is due to be released in summer 2016 by Ringwood Publishing. Alec is also a founder and organizer of Gates Divest, a Seattle organization that is calling on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels.

Alec has also published "Patriarchy and Climate Change" on EqualiSea. 

www.AlecConnon.com