Are We Lying To Our Daughters?

We tell them they can be anything they want to be. But do we really believe that? Why don’t we just say, truthfully, the cards are stacked against you because you are a girl?

We teach our children to study hard, apply themselves, make an effort, and have faith that they will mostly succeed on the merits of their talents and abilities. But do we really believe that?

Do we really think that they will be judged fairly, and held to the same standard? Specifically, do we expect our sons and our daughters to have the same shot and receive equal opportunities from their schools, their employers, and the public and private institutions with which they will interact throughout their lives?

Don’t we know better?

Consider a few relevant facts:

Women with college degrees earn about as much as men with a high school diploma.

Women are less than 20% of the US Congress, and less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs.

Women’s average annual earnings have never approached the same average annual earnings of men, even though the labor force is almost equally comprised of men and women.

Women’s poverty rates are higher than men’s poverty rates in the US and around the world.

The fact of the matter is that our daughters will not achieve the same degree of professional success or financial security than our sons, even when our daughters earn more educational degrees than our sons.

We behave as if the playing field is level. We teach our children that their success is causally related to their effort and ability. We raise them to expect that merit is rewarded, and that it is rewarded fairly. Yet all the evidence we have available says that this is not so.

Why does it matter if there is a conflict between what we lead them to expect, and what they will surely encounter as they move out into the world? Because when they fail to achieve their goals, or find their merit is not, in fact, the only factor in play, they will assume that they are inadequate, the fault is theirs, and that they do not merit the same achievement and accomplishment as others of similar, or lesser ability, have attained.

I am persuaded that much of what women describe as “guilt” and shame and lack of confidence stems from this conflict. Our constant apologizing, our willingness to back down, comes from our experience as women who were told that if we simply tried hard enough, and were good enough, we would get what we deserve. Since we didn’t, we assume the defect lies within ourselves.

Men and women are not treated the same, and are not held to the same standard. Even with the same education, background, and training, our children will not be treated fairly. Merit alone is not at all a predictor of success.

Some examples from recent articles:

  • “More than 60 percent of U.S. accountants and auditors are women, yet women comprise only about 18 percent of equity partners at the large firms, according to a 2010 study by Public Accounting Report.” Deloitte is first of “Big 4” firms to name a female CEO, The Washington Post, 2/12/2015
  • “While women have made strides in cracking the glass ceiling, they still account for a small fraction of chief executives at public companies. Only 23 women lead companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Yet at least a quarter of them have fallen into the cross hairs of activist investors.” Do Activist Investors Target Female C.E.O.s?  The New York Times, 2/9/2015
  • “In math, the girls outscored the boys in the exam graded anonymously, but the boys outscored the girls when graded by teachers who knew their names.” How Elementary School Teachers’ Biases Can Discourage Girls From Math and Science, The New York Times, 2/6/2015
  • “In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal. When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player. The reverse is also true. When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’” Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee, The New York Times, 2/6/2015

Surely we should tell our children that women’s salaries vary greatly from men’s in most work sectors, that women and men are not treated the same at work because they are not viewed similarly by society, and that leadership qualities in women can and do impair women’s agency in their own interest.

Also, they should know motherhood may likely negatively impact their economic mobility, depress their ability to generate income, and increase the likelihood of their becoming economically dependent on another. We should tell them that this is not a function of motherhood itself, but because of the discrimination women suffer stemming from motherhood, because of the lack of public policies facilitating working while caregiving, and the very low regard in which caring for others is held within our value system.

Why don’t we just say, truthfully, the cards are stacked against you because you are a girl, and even if you never become a mother, society will always regard you as a potential mother because you are female? You will not live to see the day when the US Congress is half men and half women, you will not live to see the day that women’s poverty drops to the same level as men’s poverty, and you will not live to see the day that a pre-school teacher makes as much as plumber, a pet groomer, or a parking lot attendant.

We owe them the truth. And we must work like hell to change it.

Valerie Young is a public policy analyst for Mom-mentum, a non-profit organization providing leadership, education, and advocacy to support mothers in meeting today’s personal and professional challenges. Formerly an attorney, Valerie now blogs about the effect of family carework on a woman’s economic security and advocates women’s empowerment at Your (Wo)Man in Washington, and covers policy news for Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

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