The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond


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.

"I mg_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. 


Change the system, not the women, argues Caroline Fredrickson

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

Caroline Fredrickson’s grandmother came to the USA on a boat from Sweden over 100 years ago.  She came alone, with no money, no friends, and no English language skills.  She worked as a scullery maid, “scrubbing pots and pans until her fingers bled.”  She faced sexual harassment, no overtime pay or sick days, extremely long hours, and wage theft. 

Surely, we’ve come a long way since then.  Surely, our workers are treated better, and have more rights. 

Some do.  But definitely not all. 

Caroline Fredrickson is challenging the “Lean In” model.  Last week in downtown Seattle, I attended an American Constitution Society event where she was speaking, and was seated in a sea of lawyers, most of whom were women.

The event centered around Fredrickson’s book, “Under the Bus: How Working Women Are being Run Over,” in which she argues that though having a ‘self help book” (her words) such as Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, has some great ideas, it’s not nearly enough for most women. 

Lean In states that women should speak up for themselves, and that they can also ‘opt-out’ and stay at home if they desire.  But “most women can’t do either of those things” stated Fredrickson. “We need to have a different conversation,” because there are many people whose jobs fall outside of even the most basic labor laws. 

How is this possible?

1.  Labor laws hold a legacy of slavery

Many of our U.S. labor laws were created in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries.   Think of what congress looked like at that time.  Roosevelt was president during the passage of several significant labor bills, and had to negotiate with congress members who adamantly refused to give certain people (read: people of color) equal rights.  Congressional records show US representatives in the 1930s and 40s referring to African-American servants as “God’s gift to the South” that should not be taken away.  A clear legacy of slavery and white entitlement. So Roosevelt negotiated.  And a lot of people got left out of those laws, in particular service industry and farm workers.

2.  Women’s work was not considered “real work” when labor laws were created

Common sentiment in political leadership at the time (which still lingers today) did not consider jobs like housekeeping and childcare "real" work, mainly because white men did not typically have to do that work.  So again, that work was not regulated.  And we see that reflected today in the lack of humane working conditions for jobs such as childcare, housekeeping, and home care workers, in which the majority of workers are women, particularly women of color.

3.  There are significant loopholes for businesses to deny worker rights, such as exemptions for small businesses, part time workers, and contractors.

“In reality,” Fredrickson explained, “the basic safety nets that we think all people have access to are often denied, particularly to people of color and women, because they fall outside the legal definition of employee.” Overtime, protection from harassment, paid sick time, paid leave—in the U.S., these can be denied from a very large percentage of the workforce.  The kicker: they are denied legally, because the Fair Labor Standards Act has significant exemptions. For example, benefits can be denied if an employee works less than 30 hours per week, so a common technique is to have many employees at 29 hours per week. Contractors are also exempt, and the definition is hazy. For example, you may be familiar with the lawsuit earlier this year that Uber and Lyft drivers brought against their employers. And again, people of color and women are impacted the most, because they hold the majority of low-pay, low-status jobs.

4.  The American workplace has not caught up with the rest of the world in treating workers like humans

“The (American) workplace is structured for some kind of robot man…we never really grappled with the idea that people have outside responsibilities.”  In other words, we haven’t built the legal or business infrastructure to support real people.  The USA and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world without some kind of paid parental leave.  Our strongest law is the feeble Family and Medical Leave Act, with 12 weeks of unpaid leave for businesses larger than 50 employees.  In reality, 40% of workers in our country don’t even qualify.  Being unpaid, even if you do qualify, many people can’t afford to take it.  We’re still “treating workers like widgets,” as Fredrickson put it.  And, unsurprisingly, women are the ones who are impacted the most by this, as they still hold a majority of family responsibilities that require time off.

5. Lately, the most progress has been seen at the local level. 

The past several years, it’s been tough to get bills passed in congress.  “We used to dream big,” lamented Fredrickson.  In the mid-20th century, we *almost* passed laws that would provide free childcare to all (!), and better working conditions nation-wide, she explained. But now, action is happening at the local level.  Seattle is pretty awesome in having passed the $15 minimum wage.  Other cities and localities are taking note.  But conservative groups are also paying attention, and responding.

6.  The linchpin: Conservative groups are attempting to block progressive laws by
deciding on state judges.

This was the cumulative moment in Fredrickson’s speech.  This is where it all comes together. 

The Temple of Justice , Home to Washington's State Supreme Court  by  Harvey Barrison   is  licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

The Temple of Justice, Home to Washington's State Supreme Court by Harvey Barrison
 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Imagine it’s time for your state to elect their judges.  Enter wealthy, conservative groups such as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), who want to make sure a judge that will rule more in their favor will be elected.  They throw huge amounts of money into the campaigns they support.  They run smear ads on judges they don’t support.  More progressive judges begin to rule more conservatively, so that they won’t be the target of those ads, and so that they can be elected again.  The elections are held, and it’s clear that money does influence the outcome. 

Those judges then help determine laws that decide the fate of the entire state.  And the most dangerous thing of all—they may pass “preemptive laws” which essentially mandate that local city governments can’t make more progressive laws than the state law.  If Washington State had had a preemptive law on minimum wage, Seattle would never have been able to pass the historical $15 bill, that is now affecting cities worldwide. That’s not to say that progressive interest groups don’t also put money into elections, but recent events have shown that conservative groups are willing to spend huge amounts, and it’s working. 

7. The solution is hazy

I thoroughly enjoyed Fredrickson’s analysis of the legal state of laws that impact workers.  However, I was left unclear of what a solution would be.  Does it mean changing how we elect state judges?  Or refocusing on national laws?  Or something else altogether? I’m not sure.  I look forward to reading the book and I hope that there are also solution ideas for this urgent problem.