This dad is caught between sexism and some hard stereotypes.
Sometimes, women are the worst enemies of gender equality.
Recently, in the space of three weeks, three different women demonstrated sexist stereotypes against women, and each one had something to do with my daughter.
The Music Teacher
I e-mailed a music teacher about violin lessons for my daughter, Beth, who is 8 years old. We agreed to talk by phone at a specific time. I called twice, and both times, she answered the phone and hung up on me. So I emailed her, and said she’d hung up on me, and asked her call me at her convenience. My phone rang almost immediately, and I answered.
“Hello?” She said,
“Hi. I’m looking for Tor.”
I replied, “You’re talking to him.” With shock, she exclaimed, “HIM?! You’re a HIM?”
“Yes, last I checked.” There was a long pause on the other end before she continued. “Sorry about that. I don’t expect fathers to contact me about music lessons. I assumed you were a mother.” I sighed.
“Nope. I’m the dad. Dads care for their daughters too.”
Sure, my name is uncommon in the U.S., and it is regularly mangled into Tom, Thor, Joe, and a few other names. But I was surprised that she got my name right and my gender wrong, all due to a sexist stereotype. Thus, when she heard an unfamiliar male voice on the phone at the appointed time, she assumed I was a salesperson and hung up on me. Now, this teacher came highly recommended, and I understand music at least as a serious hobbyist. We continued to talk about music, and I could tell she knows music and teaching. That’s what I need for my daughter — but perhaps she also needs to see somebody who breaks stereotypes (I shared this encounter with few other dads, and some of them recommended that I avoid this teacher based on this, but we ultimately decided to try her out).
This sexism is common: the assumption that only women can care for their children.
Sadly, she’s not alone: school teachers and nurses have regularly been surprised when I am able to ask and answer questions about my kids. Often, they are very hesitant to talk to me after they find out I’m merely the dad, and keep asking to talk to my wife.
The following week, another woman—a neighbor—heard about Beth’s interest in violin. She can’t play any musical instruments, but she pulled me aside and said, “You know, learning a violin is very hard.”
“Yes, I know,” I said.
“I’ve heard violin teachers give lessons,” she said. “There’s so much to learn about holding the violin correctly, positioning your fingers on the strings, and so on. It’s really going to be a lot for Beth to handle.”
“Yes, it will take some time. I remember learning the piano at this age, and that was a lot of
work,” responded. Then I brought up Luke, my son, who is 11.
“When Luke started learning the trombone a couple of years ago, you didn’t make any comments about how hard it was for him. Why not?”
“Oh, that was different.”
“How so?” I said, suspicious.
“A trombone is pretty hard to play too.”
“It’s just easier for him.”
“It’s just easier for boys!”
Ah, there it was: the idea that girls are weaker, stupider, and/or lazier, compared to boys, while doing similar activities. It’s simply untrue, and my closest proof is my own kids: although different in temperament and interests, they are both hardworking and really smart.
The following week, a guest—another woman, and a relative — was with us when my daughter was opening birthday presents. Beth unwrapped a set of four Estes model rockets, complete with launch pad and engines. Our guest was surprised.
“You bought her rockets?”
“Sure,” I said. She was now confused.
“Did she ask for rockets?”
“No,” I replied.
“But we thought they were cool.” My wife added, “And she really likes science.” The guest was now very confused. She looked over the set of rockets, which were mostly yellow, blue, black, and white.
“Well… couldn’t you at least get a pink rocket?”
“Wow,” I said in surprise. “That’s almost sexist.”
“There is no “almost” about it,” muttered my wife quietly. Now our guest became defensive.
“What’s wrong with making a rocket more girly?” I said, firmly,
“There is absolutely no reason why any toy needs to be made pink just so a girl can use it.” Beth was still there, and held up one of the rockets.
“Look, the tail on this one is sort of pink.”
“Oh good,” I said sarcastically, “it’s safe for girls!”
The guest kept going: “I wonder if Barbie has a model rocket. Do they make a Barbie rocket?”
“WHAT?!” I couldn’t believe my ears. “Is Barbie our standard for appropriate girl’s toys?!”
My wife interrupted to ask Beth a question. “Sweetheart, do you like the rockets?”
Beth nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, they’re really cool!”
“Good,” I said. “That’s all that matters.”
I’ve never understood the sexist idea that toys (and other things) need to be made a specific
color or style in order to be usable by girls. This is nonsense on so many levels. For one thing, people are free to like any colors they want, and my daughter dislikes pink. Another thing: color stereotypes are a product of culture, not nature.
A mere century ago, pink was considered a boy’s color in the U.S., and blue a girl’s color.
All of these fragments of sexism came from women in my daughter’s life. They reinforced the stereotypes that only women look after their children; that girls are weaker or stupider; and that toys need to be made differently in order to be used by different genders.
Clearly, women are not automatically feminists, because gender equality is not a characteristic of a person’s gender. Instead, it is a choice within a person’s perspective. It seems that if a woman doesn’t want other women seeking opportunities and interests that she never sought for herself —either because she herself is not interested, or out of adherence to tradition, or out of competitiveness—then she will reinforce the status quo of gender imbalances.
And as women, they are role models seen by my kids. Fortunately, they are not the only role models in my kid’s lives.
Nonetheless, it sometimes seems that women are the worst enemies of gender equality.
What do you think? Have you encountered women who are sexist against women? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.
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