Raising Boys As We Fight For Gender Equality

We’re at the tail-end of Women’s Month in South Africa, that one month in the year when government and organisations bring on the women empowerment rhetoric. My mother taught me to ‘practice what you preach’. Sadly, not everyone got that memo.

Last night’s webinar, a Women’s Month series hosted by Towela from my ‘mommy network’, was about work-life integration. Lots of pearls of wisdom from a group of beautiful, smart women. It’s less about ‘balance’ and more about making it work, pun intended, for you.

Have you noticed that men never multitask?

In our pursuit of equality, women have been playing by patriarchal rules for so long that we struggle to see beyond the madness. We reach burnout trying to be all things to all people. Have you noticed that men never multitask? Yet, we will even list it on our CVs as a strength.

Men single-mindedly set a goal and as my favourite brother-in-law says, “give me a target and I’m going to hit it”. There’s no room for leeway. The other thing that men do extremely well is say no. They are masters at creating boundaries.

What do we need to learn from all this? COVID-19 has given women the perfect storm to reset. To change tact. To set priorities. And create those boundaries that will ultimately allow us to flourish on our terms. Ask a women what success means to her and she’s most likely to start with the wellbeing of her family, her children.

That doesn’t mean we’re any less ambitious, we just have a different perspective on the world. And now more than ever it is apparent that this is exactly what the world needs. We have the proof-points; most recently, we’ve seen how women leaders have dealt with COVID-19 better than men.

If you ever doubt the power of patriarchy, consider this; boys are born from women, mainly nurtured by women, and yet still enter manhood enjoying their unwarranted male privilege and often perpetuate it.

We have the greatest influence on those in direct proximity to us.

Every journey starts with one step. Before you climb mountains, before you run. We have the greatest influence on those in direct proximity to us. And that’s where we need to start, in our homes.

I’ve touched on the ‘pink is for girls, blue is for boys’ conundrum which gets ingrained from birth. It’s always intrigued me. In a conversation about this with my reflexologist one day, she mentioned that it wasn’t always like this but couldn’t remember the exact details. Google helped me.

I was surprised to discover that this colour riddle is a creation that stems from the retail sector in the 1980s. Yes. And in a long history of fashion – more detail here – at some point, pink was actually for boys and girls got the blue. There was even a link to eye and hair colour.

We expect men to ‘fall’ into their roles of caring, considerate husbands and nurturing fathers when they were not ‘allowed’ to model these behaviours as little boys.

My youngest son, from his first steps, preferred to walk and run on tiptoes. He did this one day while we were waiting in a queue. An older couple behind us started a conversation.  The woman, “How cute, he looks like a ballerina”. I smiled politely. Her male partner retorted, clearly disgusted by that suggestion, “Ag no man, how can you say that? He must play rugby”. I had to respond, “It really doesn’t matter what he chooses to do”. End of conversation.

The fact is that we, as mothers of boys, have daily opportunities to redress these seemingly innocuous moments where gender stereotypes are entrenched. It doesn’t come easy. When they were very little, I remember having to bite my tongue to contain the “stop crying like a girl!” when they were screeching uncontrollably.  

Once you tune into these gender stereotypes, it gets easier to call them out. It’s not odd to find ‘girly’ stuff around our house which I intentionally buy. A recent purchase was a set of beads – all ‘feminine’ hues – to make jewellery. What better way to improve fine motor skills? They love them. 

And even though the school is progressive, the power of ‘peer pressure’ looms large.

Sadly, I’ve found that as they get older, they struggle a little more with the colour labels as some of their friends at school are still subjected to this in their home environments. And even though the school is progressive, the power of ‘peer pressure’ looms large.

So, whilst we live in a crazy world – every day is truly a surprise, usually an ugly one – there are small ways that women can loosen the far-reaching clutches of patriarchy to create the society we want to live in and leave behind.

In the interests of time, I’m only mentioning one aspect of how we can transform gender stereotypes. Educate yourself and your family, your circle of friends on other ways to effect change by creating communities of influence.

As we deal with the current festering disease of gender-based violence and the fight for gender equality, let us consciously foster gender inclusivity by raising boys who are adequately prepared to be self-confident, responsible and caring men. But not at the expense of women or any other human being or creature.

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