Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Fathers, Sons, and Sexism

Becoming a father has given this Baha'i blogger much to contemplate. The sheer awesomeness of the responsibility I now have is underscored by selections such as this from the Baha'i Writings, "Every child is potentially the light of the world -- and at the same time its darkness..."(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 130).

There is no task that I will undertake whose successes and failures, victories and defeats will have greater import than being a father. Things I've read and heard in the media recently have got me thinking about my responsibilities as a father raising a son.

The Economist.com had a recent piece about the "revolution" of women having greater representation in the labor force:

"AT A time when the world is short of causes for celebration, here is a candidate: within the next few months women will cross the 50% threshold and become the majority of the American workforce. Women already make up the majority of university graduates in the OECD countries and the majority of professional workers in several rich countries, including the United States. Women run many of the world’s great companies, from PepsiCo in America to Areva in France.

Women’s economic empowerment is arguably the biggest social change of our times. Just a generation ago, women were largely confined to repetitive, menial jobs. They were routinely subjected to casual sexism and were expected to abandon their careers when they married and had children. Today they are running some of the organisations that once treated them as second-class citizens. Millions of women have been given more control over their own lives. And millions of brains have been put to more productive use. Societies that try to resist this trend—most notably the Arab countries, but also Japan and some southern European countries—will pay a heavy price in the form of wasted talent and frustrated citizens.

This revolution has been achieved with only a modicum of friction (see article). Men have, by and large, welcomed women’s invasion of the workplace. Yet even the most positive changes can be incomplete or unsatisfactory. This particular advance comes with two stings. The first is that women are still under-represented at the top of companies. Only 2% of the bosses of America’s largest companies and 5% of their peers in Britain are women. They are also paid significantly less than men on average. The second is that juggling work and child-rearing is difficult. Middle-class couples routinely complain that they have too little time for their children. But the biggest losers are poor children—particularly in places like America and Britain that have combined high levels of female participation in the labour force with a reluctance to spend public money on child care." (Read the whole thing here)

In contrast to the somewhat celebratory tone of this piece, National Public Radio had two segments with a more somber take on women's current place in the world. The first was part of the excellent show On Point and featured commentary and conversation on women and power in light of the recent political campaigns of Governor Palin and Senator Clinton. A focus of discussion was whether there would be a female President of the United States in our lifetime. (You can listen to the program here)

The second was part of the show Here and Now and focused on efforts to reduce prostitution through educating the men who are paying women for sex. (You can listen to the program here)One such school is actually in my own back yard in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was a very interesting segment and featured a former prostitute who now serves as a lecturer at a 'John School', telling her story to raise awareness and perhaps motivate men to change their behavior.

What all of these stories share is the unfinished business of achieving gender equality. As I have said before, men created and continue to sustain this problem and thus have to take responsibility for resolving it. In 'Abdu'l-Baha's words, we have to "own" this problem. It seems to me that an effective way of doing so is through fathers actively raising sons who believe in the equality of women and men and act accordingly in all aspects of their lives. Of equal importance is raising sons who recognize gender equality as a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions and who will join women in working towards such solutions. In reference to the Economist.com article for example, in a sane and just civilization, women would not be forced to choose between motherhood and participating in the labor force. This was a point made in a statement from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States:

"Reverence for, and protection of, motherhood have often been used as justification for keeping women socially and economically disadvantaged. It is this discriminatory and injurious result that must change. Great honor and nobility are rightly conferred on the station of motherhood and the importance of training children. Addressing the high station of motherhood, the Bahá'í Writings state, "O ye loving mothers, know ye that in God's sight, the best of all ways to worship Him is to educate the children and train them in all the perfections of humankind. . . ." [8] The great challenge facing society is to make social and economic provisions for the full and equal participation of women in all aspects of life while simultaneously reinforcing the critical functions of motherhood." (You can read the entire statement here)

Raising sons who will actively champion gender equality is of course easier said than done. Learning how to achieve this aim is something I'm likely to strive for, for many years.

I'd like to hear from the fathers raising sons out there. Do you agree that raising sons who will champion gender equality is important for fathers? If so, how have you gone about it? Anyone else who wants to weigh in on this topic is of course welcome to do so.


  1. Anonymous10:20 AM

    I saw an interesting documentary last night about the number of children who grow up without a father in their home and the effect it has on their lives. It highlighted the seemingly growing number of men who are taking no responsibility at all for the children they father and in some cases fathering children to several women and leaving them all.

    The conclusions they reached was that the involvement of a father in a childs life made normal emotional maturity easier to achieve. The adults interviewed who did not have a father around had struggled and one woman had only stopped wandering a certain area of her town at the age of 26 as she thought that her father may be there although I don't think she knew what he looked like.

    They did not cover any issues of abusive or dysfunctional parents in this programme but the basic principle and the programme mainly focussed on women and girls but there was a bit from young men.

    My own experience of growing up with a caring and present father and older brother allowed me not to suffer from some of the sexism of some of my peers.

    As a young single woman meeting young men I was able not to draw the conclusion that all men were basically good for nothing and after one thing, as my friend did. She grew up without a dad. This is a kind of sexism that happens among a lot of young women and shame on the young men who help them reath those conclusions!

    I do think that the issue of fathers raising daughters is also important if we are talking about gender equality and for any child observing gender equality in the home is a first and most important lesson.


  2. Thanks Pauline for being the first to weigh in. I agree that how daughters are raised is equally important. I just happen to have a son so that's where my mind is at present.

  3. Of all the things in this post, what disturbs me is this line from the Economist article: "And millions of brains have been put to more productive use." Once again the attitude rears its ugly head that working in a job: a) requires more brain-power than raising children, and b) makes a greater contribution to society. This attitude is pervasive in our society and so frustrating to confront as a mother who stays home to care for and educate her children. And any mother who has done both (properly!) can tell you that raising kids well is no brainless, moronic task, and that contributing a new generation of well-adjusted human beings to the world is about as productive as you can get. The same goes for fathers, of course, who are even more likely to face a derogatory attitude if they choose to stay home and take care of their kids full-time.

  4. Shinjinspirit, I hadn't actually caught that line from the Economist article until you pointed it out but I can see what you mean.

  5. Anonymous4:05 PM

    As a grandfather who has been actively involved in raising my 3 sons, 3 grandsons and one grand daughter, I have to say that both parents' active examples during those formative years are crucial for all positive outlooks. This is certainly true of attitudes toward gender equality: our sons all cook well (taught by their Mom), support their spouces' (and coworkers') professional careers, and treat their children with high expectations and love without gender biases. The same is true of many other healthy attitudes our children thankfully exhibit: toward learning, sexual orientation and race and disabilities and age and religion. I don't recall any special agenda or activities we parents undertook to specifically promote gender fairness or international tolerance, etc. We were just present with them, reading stories, encouraging intellectual probing, playing competitive and non-competitive games, promoting love and morality. The kids draw their own applications, sometimes from parents examples and platitudes. Being with our children, openly, lovingly, is our most important gift for every good and responsible lifetime charactoristic. Sharing time and encouragement with our busy spouses so that both parents can participate in the child rearing is one non-sexist key to accomplishing this parenting goal.

  6. Anonymous4:09 PM

    Recent comment from Dave Mesh. (Don't know how best to sign into your "Comment as" selections.)

  7. Dave Mesh, I know the options are a bit confusing. You can just use the "name" option. It asks for a url but you do not have to include one. You can also use the "anonymous" option and sign your name which is something lots of people do.

    Thanks to everyone who has offered thoughts on this important topic.