The female CEO and the stay-at-home-mother have often been pitted against each other in the media as arch enemies. Popular press likes to publicise the idea of the stay-at-home mother lambasting the female CEOs (or other high-flying career women) for “selfishly pursuing their careers while neglecting their children”, whilst stay-at-home mothers are looked down upon for perpetuating female stereotypes and being “bad role models” for their daughters, basically “letting the side down”. Yet, in my opinion, feminism is about choice in an environment of equal opportunity. The choice to be a CEO or a stay-at-home mother is a personal one, and I feel that either choice is respectable. The trouble is that the “equal opportunity” part is not quite there yet in our society, and to this end, although much has been made about the need for more female CEOs, I actually think that the stay-at-home mother (or a working mother that is heavily involved in parenting) has more to contribute to advancing feminism than the female CEOs (if they are childless or largely delegating parenting).
I watched Emma Watson’s speech for the HeforShe campaign in solidarity, having been a life-long feminist. What interested me was that at one point Emma describes her realisation of gender inequality when she was called “bossy” for “wanting to direct a play she and her siblings put on for her parents, whilst the boys were not”. I am presuming that it was her parents that called her “bossy” (as if it were her siblings, then why didn’t she just tell them where to go), which made me think about our responsibilities as parents in the pursuit of gender equality. Had Emma Watson’s parents; and every other parent in the world fostered and promoted the self-belief, confidence and ability in their daughters, and cared as much about their future academic and employment prospects as they did their sons, then we would not have gender inequality. Of course, Emma got the last laugh, perhaps because she was “bossy”. Good for her.
I attribute any academic successes that I have had 100% to the fact that I did not have a brother. Taiwanese parents of my parents’ generation had a strong preference for sons. My parents had told me that they had hoped especially that I would be a boy, having had 2 daughters already, and were disappointed when they found that I was yet another girl. They had no choice but to put their hopes and aspirations into us girls and foster and promote our abilities as if we were boys, capable of anything. My father spent time teaching my sisters and me computer programming and electronics when we were in primary school. I was never interested, but my sisters went on to study engineering and maths at top universities. Had we had a brother I am sure that things would have been different. Our brother would have been the one encouraged and burdened in equal measure with the pedestal, and we girls would have been left to cultivate a pastime. When I went to study at Cambridge, I was one of a few British Taiwanese children to get there, and it was no surprise to me that the only other female Taiwanese students that were there were ones without brothers. I read somewhere that China is seeing a surge of successful female business women and entrepreneurs and I wonder if this is related to the one-child policy, such that families are now invested in their only child, whatever the gender.
In the West, where the gender preference is less explicit, one can almost believe that the problem does not exist, but when you examine behaviours more closely, you begin to see that gender-based parenting is also pervasive. We can blame media and society at large as much as we want, but the reality is that we are all culpable: from the toys we buy, the behaviour we encourage, the expectations we hold, the activities we choose to do, the assets that we praise and our own day to day behaviour and language.
Even when we think we are being gender neutral, or are trying to be, we are not because gender bias is so subtle. How many parents of boys have actively gone out to a toy store and bought their son a baby doll, a push chair and a bottle? How many parents of girls have done this? From my inspection of the bedrooms of the little boys I know, I would say that very few boys have been bought dolls specifically. The parents will make the justification “Oh, he was never interested in dolls, he’s a boys-boy – so we didn’t bother”. Yet, from my experience of little boys with older sisters whom they look up to and wish to emulate, the majority enjoy playing with baby dolls in the preschool years (before peer pressure). Even more so if actively encouraged, as you would naturally encourage a girl. That’s just one example of many.
How many times have you praised your daughter for looking beautiful or commented on her clothes? How many times have you done this for your son? How many times have you praised your daughter’s social skills, whilst praising your son’s mathematical ability? How many times have you persisted with a 1:1 craft activity with your daughter even though she was bored and you ended up doing it yourself, while saying that your son does not have the patience for it and taking him out to run around in the park instead? When it’s a boy’s birthday party, how many times have you bought Lego as a present, while choosing a craft jewellery kit for a girl? In answer to that last question I can reveal that at a recent joint birthday party for my kids, the total tally on craft activity for Big Sis was 5/20 and 0/20 for Lego; for Lil Bro he scored a whopping 8/20 on the Lego, 0/20 for craft. We are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of the above perpetuations of gender stereotypes; myself included.
This type of unconscious gender bias has been studied in relation to the lack of advancement of women in academia and the workplace and is thought to be one of the driving factors for lack of women in science. The King’s College London website has some interesting papers on this issue and says:
“Unconscious bias refers to the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences. There is a growing body of research which suggests unconscious biases influence key decisions in the workplace and are responsible for some of the enduring inequalities that are evident today. One example is a study by Moss-Racusin et al (2012) which examined the assessment of applications to science faculties from students applying for the position of laboratory manager. The same application was used 127 times and randomly assigned either a female (64 times) or male (63 times) name. Selectors rated the male applicant as significantly more hireable than the female applicant. They also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the selector did not affect responses.”
My view is that it is not only in the workplace that these unconscious biases are occurring. By virtue of being unconscious they permeate every aspect of our lives, including the parenting of our children. What effect does this have?
In my line of work, “behavioural management” is a parenting technique that uses discriminant encouragement, rewards and praise to shape children’s behaviour. It can be used to get a child to do anything from concentrating longer to eating their greens. If our parenting is guided by unconscious bias that encourages, rewards and praises our children according to gender stereotypes, then we are unconsciously using behavioural management daily to shape our children into gender-based norms. It is only by making bias conscious that we can act in a child-centric rather than gender-centric way when acting and responding to our children.
How does this relate to the title of my post?
A female CEO can improve the lot of women in two ways. Firstly they can inspire and prove to the world that women are capable. However, the reality is that aspiring women will look at the few female CEOs and scrutinize their lives. Do I have the same intellect, ambition, personality? Am I willing to work as hard and sacrifice as much? For the majority of women, the answer will be “No”. Secondly, a female CEO can influence the culture at the top and enact policies that will help women reach the top. However, these policies and helping hands can only be extended to women that have already climbed to the middle and are reaching up to the top, and at the moment, there are insufficient numbers of women in that position. We are forever told that the reasons that there are so few CEOs, MPs, establishment figures, is that there are a dearth of applicants. So, in my view the impact of a female CEO is extremely limited.
OK, but surely the stay-at-home-mother is the antithesis of feminism? I say, NO, a stay-at-home mother that parents in a way that promotes gender equality can produce citizens of the next generation that expect equality. Boys that become men that respect women, value women, understand women and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. Girls that become women that respect men, value men, understand men and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. A stay-at-home mother that enacts child-centric rather than gender-centric parenting can create a new generation of citizens that can change the socio-political landscape. At present, given the billions of stay-at-home mothers worldwide compared to the handful of CEOs, I would have to conclude that the future of feminism depends on stay-at-home mothers practising child-centric parenting. Unbiased parenting by CEOS, stay-at-home mothers and their partners/ husbands has the ability to give our daughters a true choice of stay-at-home mother, CEO or both.
This is not something we need to lobby for; it’s something we can enact now.
Recently Big Sis was cast as Mummy Bear in her class assembly. We were asked to provide at short notice (always at short notice!) a costume. Thankfully, the school were making the masks for the children, so that was not required, and as the school assembly is not such a big deal, it wasn’t so big an ask. I went with Big Sis to her dressing up box to see what we could find. Brown, long sleeve T-shirt, brown tights, pink skirt. Good, good. But these were just normal clothes. How about some dressing up stuff so Mummy Bear can be more of a character?
Here is our conversation:
Me: I know, I know [excited], why doesn’t mummy bear be a doctor and then you can carry this bag and wear this stethoscope around your neck?
Big Sis: But Mummy Bear wears an apron.
Me: She doesn’t have to, she can be a doctor. Or, I know, you can wear this fireman’s costume and Mummy bear can be a fireman.
Big Sis: Mummy bear wears an apron, because she makes the porridge.
Me: Are you sure, maybe Daddy Bear made the porridge. Your daddy makes you porridge and pancakes sometimes.
Big Sis: In the book at school, [insistent] Mummy bear makes the porridge and wears an apron.
Big Sis wore an apron.
This is the most recent in a long line of unsuccessful attempts by me to break the gender stereotypes prevalent in society.
The first was just before Big Sis’s third birthday when the nursery decided to have a whole week (!) of fancy dress. This must have been a sadistic joke on the nursery’s behalf as I saw poor children being trundled into nursery for 5 whole days wearing the same Spiderman pyjamas with working parents looking very displeased. I was also a full time working parent at the time and shared the same displeasure, but vowed that we would at least attempt 5 different costumes, however crappy. She was not yet 3 years old, so at that point in time I was still winning the war on polyester Princess dresses. The first day, she went as a cat. We had a foam-cat mask from some party she had been to, and she wore a black long sleeved T-shirt and black leggings. The second day, I had decided that she could go as a Pirate. She had a jumper with a skull and cross bones on, denim shorts and she could put a handkerchief around her head. I managed to coerce her into this outfit. She was not happy. I promised her chocolates when she got home.
Big Sis: I don’t want to be a pirate. They are boys.
Me: No, there are girl pirates as well, pirates aren’t just for boys.
Big Sis: None of the other girls will be pirates.
Me: Well, it’s nice to be something different.
I had got her to the door by now, although she was dragging her heels and not wanting to cross the threshold into the outside world. Eventually, she slumped down across the doorway in tears.
Big Sis: Why can’t I just be a Princess like everyone else?
This was too much for even a feminist like me to bear. I became tearful. Was I really going to force my daughter to do something against her will and want based on my own ideology? I made her go as a pirate but promised that she could go as a Princess the next day, and that was how the war on pink polyester was lost.
The second, was when Big Sis requested a pink stethoscope for her 4th birthday. I went to Toys R Us to purchase said stethoscope only to find that the only pink stethoscopes that they had were attached to a nurse’s uniform. The doctor’s costume was resplendent with blue stethoscope. Hmmm. I literally stood in front of the costumes for hours deliberating in my mind. Should I buy the doctor’s uniform and encourage breaking stereotypes so that she might aspire to be a doctor like me, rather than a nurse, or is it too much hassle to risk tears on her birthday and screams of “I wanted a pink one!”. There were no tears on her birthday.
The third time was when Big Sis and Lil Bro were playing together. Here is the conversation:
Big Sis: You be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse.
Me: Wait, why can’t Lil Bro be the nurse and you be the doctor?
Big Sis and Lil Bro in unison: Because doctors are boys and Nurses are girls!
Me: [in disbelief that this is happening in my own household] No they are not! I am a doctor and I am a woman.
Big Sis and Lil Bro: [look at me silent for a moment as they ponder this puzzling conundrum]
Big Sis: Yes, but he wants to be the doctor and I want to be the nurse. Anyway the nurse’s uniform has a skirt so it is for a girl.
Damn Toys R US! I knew I shouldn’t have bought the pink stethoscope!
I was glad to hear more recently that Toys R Us and other toy retailers are rethinking their gender stereotyped toys. I haven’t been recently to check out if they now sell doctor’s costumes with pink stethoscopes. For my children it is too late. What I worry about is this:
(1) If role models of working mothers and domesticated fathers are clearly available in the home, gender non-stereotyping is being actively pushed at home, how is it still not getting through that women and men can be whatever they choose? I have noticed that media portrayal of genders, at least on CBeebies (which is my children’s main exposure to media up to now) is pretty fair so the easy target of media, is not at fault this time. (Dr Ranj is male, but Nina (“Scientist”) is female and there is a female doctor and male nurse on “Me Too”). So where is this stereotyping coming from?
(2) If my children, who are the next generation, are still growing up with such defined gender stereotypes, where does this leave feminism? Has so little changed in the 30 years between myself and my daughter? Given that my children have already bought into gender stereotypes, will they be able to be stronger than me and insist that their children are brought up gender-stereotype free? Will we have to wait until our grandchildren’s generation to see if gender stereotyping can be beaten?
In my mind, the problem is so pervasive which is why it is so hard to beat. It goes beyond “pink” and “blue”. Every traditional tale and history lesson is encoded gender stereotype. Every advert from Barbie to Iceland (Why doesn’t bloody Dad go to Iceland and get the frozen goods for once?) is encoded gender stereotype. Every word we choose to use is gender stereotyped (ambitious men/ pushy women). My view is that language is a good place to start, as it is the fabric of our culture and society. To this cause I hope that you will appreciate that on this blog, where I mean “parent”, I use the word “parent”, rather than “mother”, which cannot be said for the majority of parenting scientific papers, news articles, websites and media.
There’s also very little pink.