Raising Empowered Girls
Hey dads: Mike Adamick wants to have a talk with you. If you’re willing to dismiss “locker room” talk, debate whether boys are just naturally more gifted at math or sports, or excuse questionable behavior with “boys will be boys,” you’re part of the problem. In fact, even if you disagree with so much of the sexism still ingrained in our society but fail to speak up about it, you’re not off the hook.
In his new book, Raising Empowered Daughters: A Dad-to-Dad Guide (Seal Press, 2019) the Noe Valley writer and former newspaper reporter draws on his experience as a stay-at-home dad to Emme, now 13, as well as considerable research skills, to lay out all the ways that gender inequality is still rampant. It’s evident from the clothes and toys we buy our young children to the media we consume to the pay gap and sexual harassment.
But rather than overwhelm readers with a list of inequities that seem beyond repair, Adamick sounds a hopeful note and offers actionable items that each individual can follow to make changes in his own social circle, with a hoped-for ripple effect beyond it. And Adamick does it in a straight-talking style, sometimes humorous and sometimes profane, that conveys the message that dads (and moms, too) are all in this together to create the world in which we want our daughters to grow up.
Adamick spoke recently with Bay Area Parent. Learn more here.
Why did you write the book?
As a stay-at-home dad, I started to notice biases against girls and what they’re expected to do and not do … and then finally, the 2016 election and the emergence of the Me Too Movement put me over the edge and made me say: I need to do something to talk to fellow dads and urge them to see the way our culture is created and set up, and who that benefits and who it doesn’t. I wanted to help dads see: Here’s the world we enjoy vs. the world our girls enjoy, and it’s just vastly different. I wanted to hit home that it’s not our fault the way it’s set up – a lot of dads experience some defensiveness – but it will be our fault if we don’t do something about it.
Why target just dads?
I didn’t want to “mansplain” sexism to moms. They’ve lived this experience and don’t need me to tell them. That was a thing I was intentional about. I wanted to stay in my lane. I’m a dad. I’m a white guy in America and I have incredible privileges moms do not. I wanted to have a dad-to-dad, a man-to-man conversation: Here’s how our society is structured, how it benefits us and how we can level the playing field. It feels like a conversation dads need to have.
You write about clothes and toys tailored to girls. What’s wrong with that?
With just a simple shopping trip to H&M or Target, you see the window dressing,
the one empowering shirt: Girls can do anything! And that’s great. But when you take a step back and see the options that are available, what’s being sold to girls, most of the stuff has this appearance-laden message: be cute, be sweet, too pretty, fluffy clouds and flower hashtags – on stuff that’s incredibly slimming. Even for toddler girls, there are slim jeans and shirts that don’t even cover their skin. There are dresses and short shorts that don’t have pockets. Kids want to go collect rocks and can’t do that. We’re giving girls these messages. You try climbing a slide in super slim jeans or heels. That’s hard!
And then we see boys’ clothes that are made for movement and the messages are all about sports. From a really early age, we’re bombarding kids with the message that girls are meant to be pretty objects that stand still and boys are sporty, bouncy, moving creatures that are meant to go on to careers in sports and science. This is what society is selling us. … But maybe we can raise a little bit more of a fuss and say we want more options… Maybe we can do a little bit better.
I’ve definitely noticed a shift since I was buying infant and toddler toys to today. I write about my daughter finding a blue skateboard that was labeled “boys skateboard.” It’s just a wheeled toy, and it’s labeled by a giant corporation. We found it so annoying and absurd.
I’ve noticed that Target, especially, has changed that. Instead having a pink section for girls full of dolls and a blue section for boys full of sports and violent superheroes, now it’s just a yellow toy section. I like that.
But we still inhale the code and understand the message that certain things are for girls and certain things are for boys. What’s sold for girls is the parenting stuff…. For boys, it’s things that move and build spatial awareness. The basic message of the book is buy toys that are good for their imagination and playtime and don’t let these coded messages block their play and future path.
But what about the “innate” biological difference between genders you address in the book?
Yes. Obviously there are differences, but those differences are not the Mars vs. Venus construct we’ve been sold since the John Gray books in the ’90s. These differences are incredibly small in terms of how our brains function or our bodies work.… (People) are taking these small differences and exploding them into these bigger cultural tropes, that girls aren’t smart enough to do higher math or big business. … It’s a weird way to justify systemic discrimination and underrepresentation in some fields.
The sexism you write about is so ingrained in society. What can one dad – or one family – do in the face of these vast challenges?
They are vast challenges. I think people think they’re powerless: “I don’t have the power to change culture.” But we can decide what our individual cultures look like, what our social circles look like. We can decide what our society looks like in our everyday lives. … If we allow subtle, tiny sexisms in our circle, then it’s okay. But if we push back and say, “You can’t talk about girls and women like that around me,” it will make a difference. … You change your circle by not allowing stuff to slide so easily.
We do have tremendous power in our social circle. It’s tough. You may lose some friends and family, but I hope those circles start to overlap and change society.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.