Matthew (age 3): “It has to be the mayor.”
Me: “The mayor?”
Sam (age 5): “Yeah, you know, the guy in charge of everyone in the city.”
Me: “You know, women can be mayors too.”
Sam: “Yeah, but they’re usually guys.”
I keep having some iteration of this conversation with my young sons – women can be firefighters, women can be construction workers, women can be machine operators, women can be bus drivers, women can be bosses, women can be doctors. And yet, and yet. When one of them comes home and announces that “girls can’t be machine operators” I realize that they are not the ones making these judgements. They are simply voicing the rules that they have observed empirically: the people on construction sites are men, the firefighters in books and firetrucks are men, the soldiers in movies and books are men, the bus drivers are men. And as much as I assure them that girls can be anything, the empiric evidence is hard to deny. My attempts at putting new norms in place, these “corrections” of their perceptions, may, in the end, largely serve to tell them that the empiric observations, while (mostly) true, are not of the kind that can be discussed out loud. Nothing in life is 100%, so they refine the observations, and yes, most construction workers, and operators, and mayors and CEO’s, and presidents, and politicians, and boardroom members are men.
Raising my kids in Utah, the state where the gap between what women and men make is among the highest in the nation, I feel a special obligation to show them empiric evidence that women can do anything that men can do. That while staying at home and raising your children is hard work and important work, that is not the only important or valuable work women do, or can do. That work is not the defining role for women any more than it is for men. Or perhaps it is, but ought not to be. And while our kids see plenty of moms do most of the drop offs and pick ups at their school, it’s not a coincidence that most of our playdates (perhaps because they’re held on weekends) end up being with couples where the dads are equally, or even more likely, to do school drop offs and pick ups, to participate in class events or take the kids to birthday parties.
It is important to me that my sons learn that women can do anything, not only because it is right, and because they can, or should be able to. But also, because I want my sons to grow up to be the kind of men who can marry strong women, and be secure enough in who they are that they value their wife’s strength, rather than feel threatened by it. The kind of men that I have grown up around, like first, and foremost my father, but also my husband, and many, many more.
As Rosa Brooks put it so well in her injunction not to lean in, but recline, the problem is that without adequate societal support for parents, women will continue to disproportionately drop out of their careers at points in their lives when meeting parenting and work demands is unsustainable. And men will continue to feel emasculated by the woman CEO, leading women to face a false choice between acting less “bossy” to attract dates and shouldering the loneliness that comes with not being “likable,” however great the career success.
Women and men are equal. But empirically they aren’t. The evidence of the world is as plain for me as it is for my children. Not all surgeons are men and not all nurses are women. That is true. But most surgeons are men, and most nurses are women. And while it is important to help each other speak inclusively, it is even more important to work to change the reality, not just the way we talk about it.