Gender Inequality: Let’s Rewind

From Fast Company’s “Playing With Barbies Stunts Girls’ Career Dreams”

A few days back my friend shared a Facebook pic of his two tousle-haired kids wrestling on the sofa: adorable little sister about to pounce on adorable big brother.

Their expressions were priceless. My friend’s son, four, looked wary, like he knew what was coming.

His daughter? Another story. Only two, yet her eyes glinted with determination. Something in her grin said “I have him.”

The pic, needless to say, was a comment magnet. As I keyed in my message (withdrawing my offer to babysit) this comment popped up.

“OMG!! <daughter’s name> is so pretty! She’s going to need her big brother to protect her. Watch out boys!!”

There’s this video, “Rewind the Future” — from Children’s Hospital of Atlanta’s Strong4Life program — that shows a 30-something guy, overweight, getting rolled into the ER. Heart attack, we hear, over the labored breathing. No surprise. The patient weighs 300 pounds.

“How the hell does that happen?,” the ER doc asks, taking vitals.

And we travel backwards in time. Video games and pizzas, soft drinks and burgers at the drive-through, frosting-slathered birthday cakes, candy from a teacher for a good grade, all the way back to a Happy Meal in a high chair.

Watch it. It’s a powerful story.

Rewind the Future, Children’s Hospital of Atlanta

I thought of that video when I read the comment on my friend’s wall. In the Valley — and everywhere in the world — we pay a price when people are confined by gender-bound roles. We read evidence of diversity’s value to business success, yet accept biases we know are senseless and unfair. We see blatant examples of people falling into limiting, gender-based behaviors. Unconsciously, we fall into them ourselves.

“How the hell does that happen?,” we ask.

Rewind the reel and we see how: little by little over the course of a lifetime. Until we end up here.

Visualize the story: a woman in an meeting room, arms crossed as she learns her co-worker got the promotion she wanted. Her boss says “Maybe next time,” and she walks out of the office, blinking hard.

Rewind. Another meeting. She’s looking around, ready to say something. But she hesitates, holds back.

Rewind. She’s in a meeting, and gets interrupted. A man completes her thought.

Rewind. She’s in business clothes at a restaurant, shaking hands with a few other people. One of them looks her over and she self-consciously adjusts her blouse.

Keep going. She gets looks of judgment as she drops her kids off at school, wearing a business suit, as other moms linger around (“It’s a good thing some of us don’t work,” a neighbor once told me. “Otherwise, who would drive your kids to their field trips?”).

Then, rewinding more, she takes a business call on speakerphone with a car full of kids as she actually does drive to a field trip.

She’s a few rows back in her college classroom, taking careful notes while the guys up front raise their hands. Makeup and fashion angst in high school; standing in a dark auditorium hoping to be asked to dance. Dolls and dream houses before that, pink little dresses, someone saying she shouldn’t do something because “she’s just a girl.”

And then maybe a comment that she’s so pretty she’s going to need her big brother to protect her. That her place in the equation is “Watch out, boys.”

If the woman in my imaginary rewind is the same age as Heart Attack Guy, she’s also at risk. Little by little, constant small actions have shaped her image of herself, and that image is compromising her today.

Speaking as an ambassador for gender equality at the UN, actor Emma Watson recalled some of her rewinds:

“…at eight I was confused at being called “bossy,” because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on for our parents…at 14 I started being sexualized by the press….at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their sports teams because they didn’t want to appear ‘muscly.’”

This problem affects everyone. Regardless of gender, we’ve all been shaped by the messages, overt and covert, we’ve received over the course of our lives.

The messages come from all directions: societal norms, media and advertising, the role models we uphold, random conversations, even well-intended comments from friends and family members shared on a Facebook wall.

Over time this input shapes what we think is expected of us, how we fit in, and the way we make choices in the course of our lives.

Nobody means harm, but the damage is done. Only yesterday a talented, accomplished female exec told me about a new hire, male, who’d been granted four times as much equity as she’d received when she’d signed on. They joined within a month of each other, have similar backgrounds, and are in peer roles within the company.

She realized the difference when her CEO asked her to review his offer letter, “as a favor,” because she has a law degree.

She was shocked. But she didn’t say anything. “I will one of these days,” she said. “First I’ll prove my value. Then I’ll ask for more equity.”

We need to rewind—to recognize and change the patterns we’re creating.

How has other people’s input on who we are and what we’re supposed to be like narrowed us into a subset of who we might actually be?

How can we challenge these lessons and reverse their impact?

That Facebook comment put a two-year old into a dangerous gender box, undermining her future self-sufficiency and hinting that her primary value might be her looks.

Yet it got double-digit “Likes.”

Sure, I hope her brother looks out for her. And she looks out for him. They love playing together, the picture clearly shows. Comment on that, or the fire in her eyes, or the way her brother holds her back even while she pounces.

Let her be her for HER, not for that future “look out boys” approval. If we’re not thinking that way, we’re sending out the wrong message and setting a long-term path that doesn’t serve anyone well.

We can do better. It’s time to rewind.

This post for The Mission is based on a prior Medium article found here.