Children learn, listen and reflect who we are.
While waiting for his mother to finish talking to a saleswoman, a 3-year-old boy puts his hands on his hips, grunts, and boldly barks, “This woman drives me crazy!” Shocked, the adults laugh. Perhaps this behavior seems cute. Yet, subtle messages of gender disrespect cause harm to individuals and can manifest havoc in the world. Gender, race or any other factor that suppresses a group contributes to dysfunction in society.
As children watch what adults do, they form their thinking, expression and behavior. “When you come into the world you don’t really have a sense of individuality. You only know your instincts, which tell you to copy your parents,” explains just-turned-16-year-old Jaclyn Patterson, producer of the Student Segment at the California Women’s Conference. Jaclyn explains that her parents created an equal opportunity environment for both her and her brother, and therefore feels free to boldly pursue her ambition. She aims to open the door for children as young as 8 years old to enter the arena of creating gender equality.
We teach children attitudes that carry on into adulthood. Take a look at the world today. Humanity consists of women and men in equal portion, yet leadership is heavily skewed on the masculine side. With little feminine representation, the current world is what it is: Macho Putin egging on a fight, while Obama is being taunted for not having the balls to push back. The childhood playground scenario of “boys will be boys” gets dangerous when played out in powerful positions. We accept the testosterone fighting behavior as normal while half of humanity is not considered in that norm. Put female leadership in the arena and see our true potential. “To be innovative, leadership needs be collaborative and have the tenacity to do the unusual,” proclaims Janet Salazar, CEO and Founder of Impact Leadership 21, an organization hosting collaborative programs for gender equality, adding, “Women need tenacity.” Women need to participate in directing society to stop “the same old same old”. Including feminine capacities in leadership is a practice that should be learned at an early age.
Some countries are more advanced than others in the area of equality, from how they raise children at home and in school to electing women leaders. From whispers to shouts, most world cultures still maintain underlying messages of male supremacy. “The education system is just telling children their perspective and never asks them questions like: what does this mean to you?” says Runa Magnusdottir, a founding and steering committee member of the Association of Transformational Leaders in Europe. Coming from the country with the first democratically elected female president, Icelandic Magnusdottir speaks up for embracing people as they are without prejudice.
Children are exposed to the pollution of bias as they come into the world. “We are teaching about gender and race from the minute babies are born. So the question is: can we be purposeful in teaching for equality?” Lee Anne Bell, professor and director of the department of education at Barnard College, remarks.
Bell explains that “stock stories,” a subgroup’s idea of normal, mold our attitudes towards self and others. Those who look different are seen as less than and often feel alienated. In the classroom, that subconscious bias can push a bright child down the road into incompetency, as he/she is treated according to a preconceived impression. Claude Steele of Stanford University demonstrates this dynamic in his stereotype threat experiments.
We need to evoke mindfulness in what we think, see and do; or else pass the craziness of our current world onto our children. “Acceptance and willingness to realize that people are different – communicate differently, and being open to work together with the best of what we can bring makes for a better world,” Leslie Grossman, CEO coach with Vistage International and co-founder of Women’s Leadership Exchange explains. Working with adults now to change the tide of thinking lays the ground for our next generation to grow unfettered from the binds of discrimination.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr expressed his dream of his children living in a world where a person is only judged by the content of character. Since that time we have placed a man on the moon, and still, mankind, in general, is a step behind in discerning the quality of a person beyond prejudicial gender, race or other perceived bias. “My ultimate goal is to bring about genderless leadership,” Constance J Peak, chief strategists of Impact Leadership 21 boldly states adding, “When you get rid of the hang-ups, you free people up to be creative.”
This adult valor, to step out of customary conflict into mindful alliance, inspires young visionaries such as Jaclyn Patterson to bring those fresh views to the next generation. “Women need to have a physical example; they need to see other women doing the things that they inspire to do,” Michelle Patterson, president of California Women’s Conference and Global Women Foundation states. While Patterson’s words referred to participants in the conference and innovative women around the world, they pertain to her own mother-daughter relationship. Jaclyn naturally steps into leading her young peers as she watches her mother lead a collaboration of 25,000 women and men.
Gender discrimination, or any other form of prohibiting another individual to fulfill his/her potential comes from the attitudes we harbor – whether known or subconscious. Each one of us has a place in creating a better world for the next generation. Who we become, becomes what we teach to our children. A world of fairness, dignity and equality starts from each one of us now, and blossoms into the future through our children.