Why Feminism Is Good For Our Sons

I often wonder what it does to a child if they’re told they can’t play with what interests them because of their gender and/or race?

I believe we are all harmed if we discourage a child from exploring their interests. I feel we’re potentially discouraging the contributions they could make as adults which might benefit us all.

When my sister and I were young we used to play with my older brother’s toys. He is five years older so by the time I wanted to play he had outgrown them. My parents were all for it. Recycling for the win!

Much has changed since I was a little girl. We’ve made great strides in teaching our girls they are not bound by what is traditionally considered girl things. However, I think we often forget to teach our boys similar lessons around traditional boy activities.

We’re still fighting similar battles to the ones when I was a kid. How do make sure future generations won’t?

I believe the current efforts to engage young girls in STEM is invaluable. I’m a 51-year-old woman with both my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Electrical Engineering. I remember in Junior High when my parents had to come to school while I was putting together my schedule. They met with my guidance counselor and insisted that I be allowed to take the math and science classes required to be an engineer.

My dad was a civil engineer and he hoped all three of his children–my brother, sister, and I–would follow him into an Engineering profession. We all did. He was a huge proponent of women in STEM and that influenced my brother as well as my sister and me.

When I finally decided to have kids (a story in itself), I was determined that if I had a daughter she would not be bound by gender expectations. My first born, instead of being the daughter I, for some reason, envisioned having, was a boy. Having a son inspired me to look at gendered stereotypes from a different angle. How do I raise a young man who values strong women? Two years later my daughter was born.

By that time, I’d come to believe that gendered expectations was a far more complex issue than I first believed.

My kids are teenagers now and both are on the STEM track. My son wants to be a physicist. My daughter is thinking of following me into electrical engineering, but may end up in pure math. She has an innate talent for it that the rest of the family only wish we had.

When they were little, we ended up at a co-op preschool, which meant parent participation in the form of a work day. This gave me an opportunity to observe how groups of boys and girls played both together and separately. It was fascinating to watch. On the top level, many acted as the stereotypes would suggest. However once I looked closer I saw so many more commonalities between the genders.

Many of the girls, and some of the boys, loved to dress in the sparkly pink and purple clothes. There was a lot of cosplay around princesses and other fantasy characters as one would expect. However, what I didn’t expect was how those dressed in the princess clothes played. They didn’t dress up and then demurely sip tea from the tea set, I can tell you that.

My daughter was one of those who loved to wear the sparkly princess clothing. I’d roll my eyes at my husband but supported her in her fascination.

One day I was called in because my daughter violated the understandable no weapons rule. Excuse me? What could she have possibly done? She’s always wearing a princess costume. I soon found out.

My daughter, dressed in her Sleeping Beauty pink frilly costume, had picked up a wand and turned to a young boy standing next to her and challenged him to a duel. Apparently this caused a mad rush for wands and chaos broke out. I explained why she shouldn’t do this at school. I don’t know if she understood at the time. However she didn’t do it again. That incident though made me further reevaluate my thoughts around breaking barriers around gendered stereotypes.

GeekMom Cristen Pantano’s article about her Lego Friends experience resonated deeply for me and I wish it was published when my daughter was little. I used to bemoan the glitter because I didn’t like wearing it. I didn’t want to buy dolls even though I had dolls when I was little. What I forgot was how I played with the dolls. I often took them apart and interchanged body parts. My dad thought I’d be the doctor in the family. Sorry. No.

I asked myself, does wearing something sparkly and pink or playing with a doll mean you can’t solve a differential equation? Of course not. Yet society behaves as if it does.

Too often we believe that the child needs to play with “right” toys in order to succeed rather than understand that the medium is not the message. The goal, in my opinion, isn’t that a child shouldn’t pretend to be a princess, it is that the princess shouldn’t hope for somebody else to save her. Use that wand, sister, and fight your way out of the castle!

That said, there are a lot of girls who have no interest in the pink costume and want to wear the Spider-Man costume. I don’t think anyone should stand in her way. I think we can take this argument further and acknowledge just as there are little girls who have no interest in the sparkly pink there are boys who love it. I feel the idea persists that if a boy likes “girl” things he is not masculine. As if somehow one’s manhood depends on picking up the GI Joe instead of the Barbie.

Gendered toys and activities are, I believe, as harmful for our sons as they are for our daughters. I think society is on the right track in understanding we should allow our girls to play with whatever they want. Yet I think we continue the stereotypes around boys and their interests.

For example, it’s often said that boys don’t like to read about or watch girl heroines. I think this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Too often when a young boy asks for a Supergirl comic book, he is handed Superman. Meanwhile, if a boy picks up the sparkly purple truck it’s often replaced with a yellow one. What are the subtle messages we are sending? I think it’s enforcing the idea that girl characters aren’t as valuable as boy characters and shiny sparkles are for girls. Who wants to play with that?

This is why over the years I’ve come to believe that it is very important to engage our sons in conversations around gender equality in a similar way we engage our daughters. Otherwise, the attitudes previous generations of women came up against will continue.

The young boy who believes that a girl doesn’t belong in his robotics class grows up not sure women belong in adult male-dominated spaces. In my own experience, I found some men don’t want to listen to what women say even as these women have the knowledge and education to back them up.

When my kids were a lot younger, I was active in the PTA and my skill set was technology. I can’t tell you the defensiveness I experienced when I’d talk about this space in an authoritative manner. I had the knowledge and education to back me up, which was in itself threatening. People without the background or experience would try to present themselves as experts, when in reality they were not. A few times, in meetings, my husband, who is also an engineer, would say exactly what I had just said. It was received very differently. My husband would then ask, “Isn’t that was she just said?” You could hear the silence.

We can draw a straight line from little boys worried about girls in their robotic class to the men who feel threatened by a woman knowing more about a computer. We teach our boys to define their masculinity around these things. We teach our boys that being bested by a girl is much worse than if they lose to a fellow boy. This breeds defensiveness when they grow older and girls come in to their adult club house.

I’ve taught my son not to define himself by if a girl gets a better grade in math or science. I’ve impressed upon him that he can compete with girls as peers and his masculinity need not be threatened. I feel he understands this because I see that he games with not only girls on his team but on the opposing team. His only concern is if people are competent. His sister is. I am not and neither is his father. When he plays opposite girls and they win? His ego isn’t destroyed because he lost to a “bunch of girls.”  Instead, he’s impressed by their skill and understands he was bested by the better players that day.

I’m convinced he’s growing into a man who’ll be able to work with all types of people on projects, with the goal being the final product, not what the person looks like. This is the type of person I hope my daughter works with. I want her to have a more enlightened experience than I did. I don’t want her feeling she has to constantly prove why she is in the room.

This is also why, although I understand the reasoning behind girl-only coding and science clubs, it’s not what I seek out for my daughter. We need to learn together in the same space. I know from first hand experience what it’s like to be the only woman in the room, and it’s not fun. Any time somebody is the odd one out, it is very uncomfortable. It’s intimidating to speak up, especially when you don’t understand something. I never liked to say that I didn’t understand the task because I was afraid people would think I was stupid and I shouldn’t be there.

Instead of separating the genders, we need to make the spaces in classrooms and industry welcoming to all. Spaces where people, no matter the gender or race, are heard and their questions are not dismissed, scoffed at, or devalued. In other words, we need to have a zero tolerance for bullying. I sometimes think that by tolerating the behavior of those who shut down others with a “boys will be boys” attitude, we are doing everyone a disservice.

There are many quiet and introverted boys in classes who are as intimidated by the ones who suck all the oxygen out of the room. I’d rather keep everybody in the same class and ask the intimidating kids why they feel this type of behavior is okay? We need to teach civility. It’s not okay for anybody to dominate the conversation.

We encourage our girls into STEM but then don’t realize some of the sexism they face once they are in it. Reducing the sexism involves changing the proverbial hearts and minds of our boys as well as our girls.

If our boys are taught their value as a man doesn’t hinge on being better than a woman, we will be creating a better and healthier working environment for our daughters. We will also be creating a healthier environment for our sons if we reduce the pressure to prove their masculinity at every turn. Everyone can then focus on what really matters, which is the work at hand.

The conversation has already begun because I see a lot of push back against gendered insults directed at little boys. For example, the well-worn “you run like a girl.”

More and more people are speaking out against taunting young boys for such things as wanting to paint their nails a sparkly purple. Why can’t they? They can. I feel we need to teach everyone that just as that yellow truck belongs to everyone, so does the purple nail polish.

None of us live or work in a vacuum and we all need respect each other for who we are beyond the stereotypes.

I'm a 52 year old mother of two teenagers. I'm also an electrical engineer. I love comic books, single malt whisky, wine and The Grateful Dead.