Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How to Talk to (Little) Girls

I have seen several people share an article by Lisa Bloom entitled "How to Talk to Little Girls." It is a fascinating article where Lisa shares her conscious efforts to speak to little girls as if they are more important than their appearances. This seems like an incredibly obvious goal, but when I consider my conversations with two-year-old Sophie Worsham, I realize that I am hard-pressed to talk about anything besides her gorgeous curls, her beautiful "big girl" pearl necklace, or the color of her toe nails. Granted, she's two and a half. But, as Lisa points out, like most children, Sophie loves books. She devours them like candy, and is bright enough to tell me about them. Unfortunately, I have fallen in the little girl conversation trap. Even with my Girls Preparatory School background where we were told we could do and be anything we wanted, all of my sorority training in self-defense and leadership opportunities, and now in an industry where I feel I am making some headway with gender, I fall into the little girl conversation trap. How is this possible? And what does it say about our society when someone as socially aware of potential gender gaps as I am, flubs it up as well? 

Fast forward from Sophie. Our little girl conversations translate into real gender issues when dealing with women. If from a young age, we condition our children to think of girls as pretty, dainty, beautiful, and sexy without conditioning them to think of girls as equal, strong, and capable, then we are embracing a society where women are not equal to men. Because like it or not, "pretty" and "dainty" just don't measure up to "strong" and "capable." I have had two personal encounters in the last week where I have found this to be incredibly true.

The first situation has been at YMCA boot camp. There were eight of us enrolled in the class. After a few days, I measured myself up as in the 50th percentile--let's be honest, I'm pretty competitive, and am aware of where I stand. I would not claim to be the strongest, most athletic, or most coordinated. But, I knew that from working out over the last few years, I could hang right in the middle of the pack. Unfortunately, the other two women who were originally part of the group have fallen by the wayside (one, of which, I measured up to be top 2-3 in the class with her abilities.) This left me and the men. One of the men is an older gentleman, who is clearly not in the best shape of his life. He should be proud of his commitment and that he is trying to work on his fitness level, but at this point, I can run circles around him. Somehow, though, he has decided that he and I are on the same playing field. As the only female left in the group, he considers me inferior in my abilities. In fact, his joke today was that he's next to last in line, but that I'm last. I refrained from pointing out that I'm last because I've been nice to him and didn't want him to look so obviously out of shape. Additionally, the instructor likes for me to go behind him because I don't crowd him. But this guy has spent the last 60 years of his life thinking that women aren't as capable as he is. His manners are plenty nice. He's happy to hold the door for me. But the thought that I could be in better physical shape that he is, blows his mind. 

In a separate situation, there was an employee at Maymead who I went to bat for last week. He is a young kid, had done a decent job, and needed a slight raise. I asked for it, got it, and told him. Instead of being grateful, within two days, he was hanging out in the office saying that everything that needed to be done for the day was finished--at 9:30am. That clearly wasn't true. I sent him back to do something else. Within an hour, he was back in the office, ready to go home. So I sent him to do something else. Rarely do I directly assign tasks, but this guy clearly needed direction--which I gave him. He came back in the office a few more times, the last of which I told him that it was obvious to me that he just needed to leave work. If he had something to take care of, he should have let someone know--but that I didn't have time for excuses and general bull. I told him to leave for the day, handle his personal life, and come back on Thursday. I assumed this is what he did. Until he rolled in on Thursday, took way too long to half-way perform a task, and then left without permission. So I gave him a warning today. I didn't get worked up, I explained what his short-comings were, that it was a warning, but that if he didn't get it together, he would lose his job. Now, if ANY of my male counterparts had done this, they might have gotten a glare, some hesitation, and then the warning sheet would have been signed. I've never seen it work any other way. But at 5'2", I suppose I look like someone who can be argued with. Unfortunately for him, I am not. I told him to sign it or not, but to get back to work; the facts were the facts. This is also a statement that could have been made by a number of men in my work-life, that would have gotten little-to-no reaction. But not me. I'm supposed to be "dainty" and "pretty," without an original thought. So he decided that I was a "damn bitch." Uh-oh. I can tell you that this "dainty" and "pretty" 5'2" lady (or "damn bitch," if you prefer) fired his tail. It's unfortunate for him that this was the situation. 

I'm not making excuses for him, but if he hadn't been raised to think that women can be run over, he might still have a job. If he hadn't decided, somewhere down the line, that he had to accept authority from men but not from women, he would have signed the stupid warning sheet and gone back to work. And if he hadn't grown up thinking that women don't have original thoughts, he wouldn't have tried lying last week, instead of admitting he had an issue that he needed to handle. 

Lisa seems to have hit the nail on the head. But it's really not about baby dolls and princess shoes, and it's not even just about little girls. Little boys understand how adults treat little girls, too. Little boys need the message that their female peers are just as capable and smart as they are. It's important so that grown up men will understand this too.