So what are we teaching our kids? The same things that may be holding women back today. The data suggest that awareness of gender discrimination may be related to unconscious bias against female leaders, and that this may also be true for racial bias.
So what can we do? Weissbourd and Luba Falk Feigenberg, partnerships manager at MCC, came up with five ways for parents to prevent gender bias:
1. Check your own biases
- Practice counteracting stereotypes. Exposing our brains to images that contradict stereotypes can actually decrease our implicit, unconscious biases. Find images that don’t fit traditional gender stereotypes — women doing construction work or men in care-taking roles — and post them in places you view often at home or at work.
- Watch your language. Our language sends messages about our expectations based on gender. When we comment on how pretty girls look or how strong boys are, for example, we send messages about our expectations for kids based on their gender. Consider using words like “firefighter” instead of “fireman,” for example and watch out for statements that start with “all girls” or “all boys.”
- Check in with a friend or family member. Because we all are blind to some of our biases, we need feedback. Talk to close friends and family members about your own gender biases that you might be unaware of. Ask kids to give you feedback if you are modeling stereotypes or expressing bias. Modeling this openness and being willing to admit bias sends a powerful message to kids. It can be tough to receive this kind of feedback, but it’s a key part of responsible, moral parenting.
2. Engage your kids in making your home a bias-free zone
- Mix it up. Proactively start conversations with your kids about how responsibilities get divvied up in your family. Talk about what is fair and balanced, rather than making assumptions about who does what based on gender. Be willing to model behavior that doesn’t fit gender stereotypes.
- Hold one another accountable. Periodically ask your kids whether they think your family practices are gender-biased. Are there different expectations of females and males in the family? If so, why? Then brainstorm solutions with them.
- Tell your story. Share with your kids examples of times when you’ve experienced bias because of your gender. Talk to them about times you’ve felt you’ve been treated unfairly or times that you’ve taken a stand against bias and injustice. Sharing your stories opens the door for them to share theirs.
- Expand their horizons. Provide your kids with books, games, TV shows, movies and art that show people from diverse backgrounds demonstrating non-traditional gender roles. Expose boys and girls to a variety of activities. Don’t just assume that boys will like sports and girls will like ballet. Ask girls to imagine themselves as senators, sports team managers and business leaders and ask boys to imagine themselves as child care directors and dance choreographers. Facilitate children interacting with mixed gender groups and developing cross-gender friendships.
3. Help kids kick stereotypes to the curb
- Ask kids what they think. Kids are excellent at finding unfair images of themselves and others. Create a list together of gender stereotypes you both see or hear. Talk to them about how these stereotypes make them feel. Make the connection clear: “That commercial shows girls not caring about school as much as about how they look. That doesn’t seem fair.”
- Help kids be a first responder. Brainstorm with kids strategies for responding to stereotypes they encounter in their daily interactions. Talk together about the words they can use to speak up, and how those words might be different when talking to a friend or a stranger or a teacher, for example. Practice different responses and conduct role plays that help children find the right words. Help kids identify allies who could help when they are in a difficult interaction.
- Question their lingo. When you hear kids use terms to describe boys or girls that reflect biases, ask them to consider what the words mean and what messages these words might send.
4. Don’t just let “boys be boys.”
- Talk about real honor and strength. Point out to boys the false bravado in demeaning girls and the real courage and strength in defying one’s peers when they devalue girls in general or divide girls into “good girls” and “bad girls.” Talk about commonly used, denigrating words to describe girls and why they’re offensive, even when they’re used “just as a joke.” Brainstorm strategies with boys for talking to their peers about this denigration that won’t cause them to be ridiculed or spurned.
- Allow boys to express their full selves. Encourage them to talk about vulnerabilities and worries, and appreciate them when they do. Encourage and recognize their expressions of empathy, especially for girls and others who are different from them.
- Teach boys to value and stand up for girls and women. Help boys understand their responsibility in counteracting gender bias and stereotypes. Reinforce that being an ally to girls and women means not just avoiding demeaning girls but also speaking up when others do.
5. Build girls’ leadership skills and self-confidence
- Connect girls to leadership opportunities that are meaningful to them. Discuss with girls many types of leadership and explore with them how their interests and passions align with these different types. Show them images of girls and women in a range of leadership positions, such as the lead scientist in the recent Pluto mission.
- Help girls develop specific leadership skills. Give girls chances to practice public speaking, to participate in decision-making processes, to work in teams and to give and receive feedback. Invite them to practice these skills in decisions your family makes, or encourage them to take action on problems they’re concerned about in their schools and communities.
- Talk to girls about their fears. Start conversations with girls about the things they feel hold them back from leadership. Model for them that it’s okay to feel nervous or worried about how they’ll be perceived or the reactions they may get when in leadership roles. Explore with girls various strategies for dealing with disapproval and criticism. Consider with girls how they might engage peers as supporters and allies when they face disapproval.
- Encourage girls to lead in collaboration with diverse groups of girls. Collaboration and teamwork are essential skills for leadership in today’s workplace, helping to develop social awareness, problem-solving abilities, perspective-taking and other key skills. And working in racial and economically diverse groups can enrich girls’ understandings of different cultures, expose girls to a wide range of leadership styles and abilities, and enable girls to draw on various kinds of cultural wisdom about leadership.