With the exception of my year of paid maternity leave with my first son I have never actually been not working and/or studying since I’ve had kids and yet most people see me as just a housewife**. And you can call me overly sensitive or insecure or whatever you want, but I know it affects the way people – even people who care about me – interact with me.
There’s a room in our home (where I’m typing right now) that is set up as an office. It’s a generalized office, not really ‘belonging’ to either of us specifically. But, I run my Doula business from home (from this room, in fact) and I’ve been a part-time student for the last year so I do homework at home. Whenever visitors to our home have reason to reference this room, guess what they call it? “Mr. Fair’s office.” Why? Oh, you know, because he leaves the house every day to earn money and I’m just a housewife, so he must be the only one with important things to do in that room, not me.
We have a special holiday tradition in our family too. It’s called “Who’s going to hang up the phone on us this time?” Here’s how it goes: my Mother-in-law asks everyone when they are available to get together for the holiday. Everyone replies with their work schedules. My work schedule always comes in the form of “My client’s baby is estimated for X date. If it’s born then I can make the 2-hour drive out of town, if not I can’t because that’s my job.” A date is picked to meet everyone else’s work needs – in fact usually the date revolved around my (former) sister-in-law’s cashier job because she’s not a housewife, so her job mattered. The holiday approaches and we repeat the caveat that I can’t come if I’m working and each and every holiday someone in Mr. Fair’s family slams the phone down on us. Why? Oh, you know, because my job doesn’t take me out of the house, so it’s not a real job. I’m really just a housewife with a hobby.
For me, these things are irritating, but they’re not a substantial hardship in my life. I’m well educated and confident in my abilities and intellect. I have a partner who fell in love with me in part because of how smart I am. I had a decent repertoire of smart, confident role models and I’ve always been surrounded by smart and accomplished female peers. In fact, I’m the only one from my group of undergrad roommates who doesn’t go by the title “Dr.”
But gender stereotypes shape people’s lives. My mother’s rural highschool offered girls a 4-year secretarial track or a 5-year nursing track. My mom grew up with the understanding that university was an option for her brothers (one they both exercised) but not for her. It’s entirely possible that such a limitation was not in fact in place but whether de jure, de facto or imaginary her perception of that barrier determined what she aspired to and how she progressed through her education. And she has lived with the consequences of that barrier ever since.
We know from countless studies in countless fields that people, by and large, live up to (or down to) their role models. It’s in part why poverty and domestic violence are cyclical. And we know that it specifically applies to girls’ performance and confidence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects.
When girls see opportunities for themselves in science, technology, engineering and math, they’re more likely to take higher math in high school and more likely to pursue those careers
So if you don’t think that the Children’s Place T-shirt matters, ask yourself this: what kind of role models is a girl seeing if she lives in a house where the parents think that such a message is funny or appropriate to plaster on her? Do you think the girl whose parents put that T-shirt on her is going to see opportunities for herself in STEM careers? Will she end up like me or like my mom?
I have a daughter and a son and it’s hard not to raise them with restrictive gender stereotypes. But giving her options in her life is important and speaking out about these things is the only way to open new opportunities for our daughters. All of our daughters.
Unfortunately, as Annie from PhD in Parenting has discovered more than once, people don’t seem to want new opportunities for their daughters. In fact they think it’s so important that no one tries to change things for their daughters that they tell people who do to get lost.
**N.B. There’s nothing wrong with being a SAHM, I’m using the term ‘just a housewife’ to convey how little value society puts on the role of women in the home, not how much value I put on it. I think SAHM’s rock :)