It is actually more important for boys to have female role models than for girls to.
A recent study of more than 1,700 students showed that college-aged men consistently underestimate the intellect and abilities of their female peers and over-estimate those of other men. Last year, another study of high school students conducted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education showed even more disturbing findings: When indicating a preference for student leaders, students—all of them—showed the most confidence in young white boys and the least confidence in young white girls. The study included almost 20,000 kids from across the country.
While media has recently been fixated on women voters and their support, or lack of support, for women candidates, very little has been said about young men’s beliefs. Only a smattering of stories mention a persistent bias for male leadership as driving supporters’ behavior. Jackson Katz’s work explaining American presidential campaigns as referendums on competing versions of American manhood, a reality that is intrinsically hostile to Hillary Clinton, is nowhere to be seen. Not only are girls and women not “voting with their vaginas,” but the majority of people, whether implicitly or explicitly, are still voting, to put it in equally crass terms, in favor of a candidate’s penis, especially male voters. But, mum’s the word.
The conservative gender ideas of a large percentage of Millennials, particularly men, are a serious problem for women candidates, both in terms of party affiliation and intra-party competitions.
Consider, for example, gender role expectations. Millennials may be marrying later, but 40% of Millennials are parents and, as parents, neo-traditionalists. A Pew Research study revealed that 35% of Millennial men without kids think women should “take care of the home and children,” compared to only 26% of Gen Xers and 21% of men older than 45. That number jumps to 53% after Millennial men have children. Prior to having children, 24% of Millennial men, who over all tend to have the most gender-equal ideas and aspirations of any generation measured, say they expect to have equal responsibility for childcare. The percentage drops to 8% after the birth of a child.
For women, also likely to describe egalitarian parenting goals, there is no drop. Instead, they consistently express the belief that their spouses will participate equally in care of children, and they reveal the need and desire to work outside of their homes with parity, for money.
However, today, it is primarily working Millennial mothers, like those in earlier generations, who are stepping away from work once children enter the picture. College-educated Millennial women are more likely to fall back on traditional gender roles than working class women, who opt, instead for the harder economic road of self-sufficiency. Either way, Millennial women with toddler children, working or not, spend more than twice the amount of time than Millennial men do on childcare. Just to cap it all off, for good measure, men who are taking advantage of new paternity leave policies are apparently only doing so if their baby is a boy, especially firstborn.
Instead of focusing on men’s attitudes toward gender or toward women as leaders and workers, what we are getting from media is an endlessly dull and predictable stream of cat fighting narratives about intergenerational conflict about Hillary Clinton. It’s a media whose thinking is inherently shaped by sex segregation. What about intergenerational conflict among men? Or cross-gender differences in generational attitudes? Nada.
Because what does matter is that we reinforce sex difference and segregation and make male domination and bias invisible. That, and making sure while we do that we excessively criticize and denigrate the few experienced women and leaders we do have.
In other words, misogyny.
“While some dictionaries consider the word to accurately mean ‘dislike of’ or ‘prejudice against’ women,” wrote the Washington Post’s Esther J. Cepeda in the summer of 2014, in an article that is currently recirculating, “Merriam-Webster defines misogyny as ‘a hatred of women.'” According to the piece, titled, “Too many women ignore their own misogyny,” editors at Merriam-Webster explained, “’hatred’ is broad enough to encompass everything from feelings of dislike to entrenched prejudice and hostility.”
Without delving into the errors of assuming neutrality in the writing of dictionaries, it is a gross misrepresentation to say that misogyny is a matter of individuals or something that women are biologically immune from. Misogyny—political, public, and systemic—is the defining ideology of patriarchal societies and it has been for millennia. It is the basis of oppression of women in male-dominated societies and the whole matrix of domination. It invades girls’ imaginations and ambitions just as it does boys’.
Today still, women, particularly ethnic and racial minority women—regardless of what country they live in—remain in subordinate positions, doing either unpaid or low wage work, in lowest status job sectors, with highly limited access to resources and power.
What does “subordinate positions” look like in terms of leadership the United States? Here’s my standard paragraph, which I will continue to share until it’s no longer true: In the United States, white men make up more than 80% of Congress, 78% of state political executives, 75% of state legislators, 84% of mayors of the top 100 cities, 85% of corporate executive officers, 100% of CEOs of Wall Street firms, 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 73% of tenured professors, 64% of newsroom staffers, 97% of heads of venture capital firms, 90% of tech jobs in Silicon Valley, 97% of owners of television and radio licenses, 87% of police departments and 68% of U.S. Circuit Court Judges. Men have been 100% of our Presidents. If I wrote this list as a novel in which the genders were reversed, reviewers would describe this world as a violent and emasculating feminist tyranny or a frightening male dystopia.
Interestingly, Millennial men are the least likely to think that these numbers are related to bias or discrimination that needs to be addressed systemically. Nearly 75% of Millennial women believe that women aren’t paid fairly for equal work compared to 56% of men. Sixty-eight percent of women think companies should have policies to address discrimination and improve diversity. Fifty-three percent of men agree, but only 46% of white men.
As we are waxing on about liberty and equality, it pays to remember the third leg of the historic stool: fraternity. As long as women’s access to power remains so marginal, women competing on the basis of youth, fertility, and beauty is rational and predictable.
Women don’t instinctively support other women as a function of chromosomes. The very idea of sisterhood in the mainstream, and in the United States, historically white culture, is routinely eviscerated. Liz Wallace and Alison Bechdel’s Test, Katha Pollitt’s Smurfette Principle, and Ariel Levy’s “loophole women” are all ways of analyzing the same phenomenon: the isolation of women from one another in depictions of male-dominated culture.
It’s rare to see women publicly portrayed as working together for the common good. Despite obvious everyday acts of female cooperation and friendship, the bulk of our cultural production continues to render us invisible and inaccessible to one another. One of the only times we are portrayed together with relish is as witches—which groups women in covens and categorizes us, when powerful, as frightening, ugly, otherworldly, unnatural, and dangerous. But how many band of brothers, father-son movies can we make? Apparently an infinite number. From ensemble casts in films, gaming, and animated movies to television talk shows and sports, our brains are bombarded by tens of thousands of images and stories of male fraternity and solidarity, including a vast number of which the lone woman is the source of all evil, competition among men, and societal chaos. This is as true of children’s media as it is of adult entertainment.
This is why the high school students trust men more and why the least likely to support white girls as leaders are other white girls. Black girls, already culturally alienated from the dominant power structure, demonstrate greater confidence, imagination, resilience, and ability. However, it’s harder for them to succeed.
Women are loyal friends and we regularly work and rely on one another, but women have to fight to unlearn these lessons and support each other. Given the incredible dearth of women role models, it makes sense that parents of girls are more likely to support a woman running for President than the parents of boys are. Just seeing a picture of a powerful, non-sexually objectified woman improves a woman’s ability to overcome stereotypes so she can speak more confidently in public.
Boys don’t need male role models they way girls need female ones, because they are so profusely abundant, and, particularly if they are white, they don’t face the same stereotypes about public and professional incompetence. It is actually more important for boys to have female role models than for girls to. Too many boys are way too comfortable assuming their superiority on the basis of their sex and they will grow up to be men who have the power to change legal, corporate, religious, and governmental norms. But will they?
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.