Several moms in my school were pretty excited when they found out that I had a daughter. They thought that raising a girl would be good for me as a man. I have heard this is often the case. Having a daughter can give men insight into a girl’s experience that they might not otherwise get.
But I have been working with women and girls as a martial arts teacher for almost thirty years and have had the good fortune to learn a lot from them. I began teaching with the assumption that gender would not have a role in how I treated students in general or any expectations I may have of a specific student.
In martial art schools that were at times mostly male, and during a time when the broader culture significantly pre-dated the Me Too movement, I found that not only were my egalitarian views on gender not always shared by other men or the culture at large, but also many women struggled with self-imposed limitations that were the result of lifetimes of gender stereotyping.
So, much of what those moms thought I would learn by having a daughter, I had already been studying and grappling with for decades.
What my daughter has taught me—that I could not fully comprehend in the limited confines of a martial arts school—is how pervasive the stereotype messaging is within our culture. It is this that has increased my concern of how I go about helping her see her gender as an attribute, not as a liability. How does being a girl and becoming a woman inform her self-identity without restricting her aspirations and view of her own potential?
An interesting study was published a few years ago that explored the relationship between parents’ beliefs about gender role stereotypes (specifically who does more paid work outside of the home and who does more domestic work within the home) and those held by their children.
What the researchers found about the roles that parents held was not particularly surprising. Mothers were more likely than fathers to do domestic work inside the home and fathers were more likely than mothers to do paid work outside the home.
It got interesting when they looked at their beliefs around gender-roles. Women were much more likely to self-stereotype than men were. Moms more often associated themselves with “home” than dads associated themselves with “work”. Furthermore, the researchers saw this reflected in their children. Girls were much more likely than boys to view women as responsible for domestic work.
So these associations with gender role stereotypes get instilled early for girls.
The researchers offer some insight into how these stereotypes are transmitted by parents to their children. There was a relationship between the beliefs of the moms and their children. If moms expressed the belief that the role of women is more domestic than men, their children were more likely to share that belief.
This was not the case for dads. The impact that men had on their children didn’t come from their beliefs, but their actions. If both parents express less stereotyping views of gender roles, but have a more traditional division of labor between them (mom stays at home while dad leaves home to work), their children are more likely to hold stereotyping views of gender.
This is especially important for girls because it impacts their professional aspirations. If girls have parents with a traditional division of labor, they are more likely to restrict their ambitions to jobs that are more typically associated with women.
But, if men take on more of the household responsibilities, regardless of their beliefs on gender roles, their daughters are less likely to restrict professional dreams.
My wife and I work to introduce our daughter to female role models. We seek out examples of women who embody heroism (Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai), innovation (Florence Nightingale, Ada Lovelace), achievement (Mae C. Jemison, Grace Hopper) and intellectual accomplishment (Jane Goodall, Marie Cure).
I’ve shown her videos of girls doing cool things like skateboarding and playing drums.
We do not beat her over the head with it by saying, ”Hey, these are women doing great and interesting things. That means you can too.” Instead, we share these examples with her with the understanding that the gender element is obvious and she can associate herself with these girls and women on her own.
More importantly, she is receiving clear proof against stereotyping messages that she will be receiving all her life.
But after reading the research referenced above, I was happy to find that I am offering her an even more impactful influence on her views of gender.
I do most of the cooking for our family. I am the one who typically cleans the kitchen. My wife and I split the labor of cleaning the rest of our home.
Based on this research, that is the best thing that I, as her father, can do for her gender self-image and professional ambitions.
So dads, I challenge you to do more housework!