I have never really considered myself a leader. Yes, I have gone out for and won leadership roles at various times in my life, but I never felt a strong call to lead. The moment I became a mom, that changed. Now my days are full of leadership. A heavy burden, and one that I do not take lightly. My son is only two and at this point in his life he believes that the world is all about him (it's also sometimes about mama, daddy or papaw). It is up to me to lead by example, to show him that the world is also about others, about giving to others, about sharing with others, and taking the time to listen to and care for others.
Recently, I filled out a form for his school and one of the questions asked, "What are your hopes and dreams for your child?" I had left the task of filling out the form to the last minute and had to turn it back in that morning so I jotted down some generic things about wanting him to be healthy, successful, educated, a good citizen and a good father. I do want all of those things for him, I do. I want so much more for him than that though. I want him to be compassionate towards others, those that are downtrodden, left out in the cold, homeless, orphaned and in poverty. I want him to be passionate about his beliefs and to follow his heart without listening to the naysayers or those who would tear him down or doubt him. I want him to be generous, giving of his time, funds, and heart to those that he loves and even to those he may not even know. I want him to treat all people with the same regard, no matter their gender, skin color, sexual preference, religious affiliation, or anything else that society continuously tells us divides us. I want him to be exposed to, learn about and embrace other cultures. I hope that he will speak out against injustice.
This month, #NWARKCares is spotlighting women in politics and leadership. It occurred to me while reading about all the ways that we as women can work to improve the appalling statistics, no one mentions training up boys and men to advocate for women in these roles. There is plenty of talk about empowering girls to engage in leadership roles, but not one thing about making sure we are teaching boys that women belong in those leadership roles right alongside them, or even teaching them to think being subordinate to a women in leadership is normal. Now it is very possible that I missed those articles or was not looking in the right places, but I read many and out of those I would think there should have been at least one mention.
About those appalling statistics I mentioned before. Let's just talk about right here in my state. Did you know that even though women are half the population in the state of Arkansas, only 17 percent of the General Assembly in Arkansas is made up of women? Arkansas is one of 24 states that have never had a female governor. According to a 2012 Legislative Report, the poverty rate in Arkansas for female-headed families with children was 47 percent. Not surprisingly then, women continue to make less money than men in Arkansas. All of these statistics were gathered from womenleadarkansas.org, a non-partisan non-profit with a mission to empower women and girls to engage in politics, policy and leadership. I should note that they welcome men to join, as long as they share their belief that women should be better represented in politics, leadership and policy.
In a recent speech at Glamour's Woman of the Year awards, Reese Witherspoon spoke about women being underrepresented not only on screen but in every industry. She drew attention to the fact that ambitious women are stigmatized. “I want everybody to close their eyes and think of a really dirty word.
Now open your eyes. Was any of your words ambition? I didn’t think so.
Why do people have prejudiced opinions about women who accomplish
things? Why is that perceived as a negative? In a study by Georgetown University in 2005, a group of professors asked
candidates to evaluate male efficient versus female efficient in
politicians. Respondents were less likely to vote for power-seeking
women than power-seeking men. They even reported ambitious women as
provoking feelings of disgust," she said. The rest of the speech is full of eyeopening and empowering antidotes like this. If you have the time to watch it, I highly recommend doing so.
So, how do we raise our boys to see ambitious women as women who need support, not derision? Where do we start?
At the age my son is now he plays with trucks and dolls, his play kitchen and his train set. He loves helping with "chores" like washing dishes, sweeping and vacuuming. According to Lise Eliot, author of "Pink Brain, Blue Brain," parents are more likely to encourage girls to freely choose to play with whatever toys they like and to advocate for them to be whatever they want to be. They are not so likely to facilitate the same environment for boys, and are more likely to discourage them from playing with traditionally girl toys. Our own preconceived notions about gender shape what our children will come to believe. Instead of being encouraged to play with toys that teach nurturing, boys are left only with toys that teach strength, physical ability and aggression. It doesn't take long then for them to see what values are held in higher esteem.
-Teach them to value and understand the perspectives of others.
If boys are taught early to value the perspectives of others, including girls and women, they are more likely to continue to value their ideas, perspectives and plights into adulthood.
-Take every opportunity to teach about diversity and equality.
See an ad on TV that objectifies women? Stop at the moment and talk to your son about that issue. It will resonate much more than if you just brought it up out of context.
-Talk to your sons about how women and men are portrayed in movies, TV shows and advertisements.
Reese Witherspoon, Geena Davis and others are working hard to change Hollywood, but the fact is that women are still mostly represented in stereotypical and supporting roles.
-Most importantly, lead by example in the home.
It is so vital that the values you want to instill are modeled at home. Division of household duties, how you and your partner speak to one another, and your actions showing that you value yourself and your partner will inform the your son's own personal beliefs.
Maybe all of this is a lot to put on my son's slight shoulders. Maybe it is a lot to put on the shoulders of parents. Maybe. But isn't it also a lot to put on our sons the burden of always being strong, never being able to express emotions, especially fear, sadness and hurt? Isn't it a lot to ask them to be the sole breadwinner in their families, and to take on the guilt that inevitably follows when they feel they are unsuccessful? Isn't it a lot to put on them the burden of being the ones who are supposed to fight? The thing is, these two years have flown by and I know that in a moment I will turn around and he will be 18. I absolutely must start thinking about this now and begin to teach him that women can and should lead.