Studies show bias has a long-term impact and is difficult to change in adulthood. While we should continue to invest in reducing it, we can have a greater impact by intervening in childhood before bias has a chance to set in. The way we collectively raise children, along with the role models we show them, will make a difference in the future they create, and most importantly, in the values they hold as they take their place in society. Role modeling from childhood could be an effective way to cultivate more egalitarian attitudes that last a lifetime.
We want our children to be happy, reach their potential, and live fulfilling lives. Increasingly, and especially in today’s awareness of inequality, we also aspire for them to be part of a fair and equal society. As an executive coach, diversity adviser, and working parent, I am fascinated by how bias develops early in life.
Approximately $8 billion a year is spent on training to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace in the U.S. alone, and yet the bias persists. Iris Bohnet observed in What Works that “de-biasing” unconscious bias is particularly difficult to achieve. She cites a 30-year study of mid-sized companies in the U.S., which showed that significant investments in unconscious bias training had not resulted in greater levels of diversity. This suggests that bias has a long-term impact and is difficult to change in adulthood, and while we should continue to invest in reducing it, we can have a greater impact by intervening during childhood before bias has a chance to set in.
The way we collectively raise children, along with the role models we show them, will make a difference in the future they create, and most importantly, in the values they hold as they take their place in society.
The Impact of Role Models
Current estimates suggest that gender equality is likely to take 108 years to achieve, unless we change our approach. An important opportunity lies in our ability to influence the attitudes of boys, who are still likelier to be in positions of power when they grow up. A recent study spanning 29 countries, showed that for boys, role models at home can heavily influence egalitarian attitudes as adults.
The study further found that the mother’s impact as a role model had a different impact on boys versus girls. For girls, female role models played an important part in increased career participation and attainment, but crucially, they were able to gain this influence from a variety of female role models — not always necessarily from their own mothers. Boys were more heavily influenced in career achievement by male role models but gained more egalitarian attitudes as a result of working mothers. Boys raised by working mothers were more likely to appreciate women’s achievements and to marry women who work. Interestingly, boys were not heavily influenced by female role models other than their own mothers.
Another study focused on “indirect messages” from parental behavior, which were found to have a significant impact on children’s expectations of their ambitions and achievements, as well as their perceptions of what others could achieve. When it comes to egalitarian attitudes, it’s not good enough to say to children “do as I say, not as I do.” So what can we do? Here are three ways to influence more egalitarian attitudes in our children:
1. Avoid perpetuating gender stereotypes at home
In 2019, the International Labour Organization found that women across 75 countries do more than three-quarters of unpaid care. This inequality is exacerbated in the pandemic, with discouraging reports that a disproportionate amount of housework and home-schooling appear to be impacting women.
A considered approach creates an environment where children can see egalitarian role modeling. This is a good time to be intentional and openly discuss the division of household and childcare labor. It is easy to assume the attitudes of both partners but sometimes the conversation can be surprising. This can be an emotionally loaded topic, especially as there may be different perceptions of how much work each partner is doing. For example, the New York Times noted that men perceive that they are doing 45% of home-schooling during the pandemic, whereas their spouses perceived that the same men were doing only 3%. So open the conversation in a neutral tone, making it not only about childcare but also about more traditionally “male” activities, such as children’s sports, yard work, or technology glitches at home.
This applies to children’s chores, too. Do the boys take out the trash and the girls load the dishwasher? Does that mirror the gender roles of the parents?
It’s also a good time to question what “good enough” will be in the household. There is a lot of social pressure on women to maintain a “clean” house and they are often judged for this whereas men are not. With few visitors during a pandemic, this is a good time to check whether we, particularly women, need to value ourselves in this way and to consciously decide that some work simply does not need to be done as well or as often.
Finally, consider the toys and books in your home. Do the books you read show male and female characters? Are all of the dinosaurs male and all of the ponies female? Are all of the “strong” characters male? Do only female characters express emotion?
2. Talk with your kids about gender hierarchies in schools
Equality in the home environment can also balance against inequality in the school environment. In the U.S., roughly three-quarters of teachers are female according to the National Education Association. But only half of elementary school principals are women, and this percentage drops down to just one-third in high school, reflecting the glass ceiling in education. It’s not only in the U.S.: in nearly every OECD country, we find that primary school teachers, who are lower paid, are more likely to be women than are more highly paid secondary school teachers, with female teachers representing less than 50% in tertiary education. Children are being educated in an environment where the majority of teachers are women, but the majority of those in leadership roles and in more highly paid roles are men.
3. Encourage “non-traditional” subjects for all children
Parents’ close involvement with home schooling right now, creates an opportunity to encourage children’s interest in different subjects. Some ideas include: finding YouTube videos on relevant subjects (such as science experiments) to watch together, asking more about schoolwork on those subjects; researching role models of both genders online; and consciously praising achievement on those subjects more than on others.
A 2019 study in the UK showed that twice as many boys as girls have had a career in technology suggested to them; that twice as many boys cite STEM as their best subject; and 70% of jobs at risk of automation are performed by women.
The same study noted that 78% of older teenagers and young adults were unable to name a famous female working in technology. Building greater awareness of role models in our society has an impact on the aspirations of girls and the attitudes of boys toward women’s equality and achievement.
Mothers can inspire their daughters to achieve and mothers have a unique influence on their sons’ attitudes to gender equality. Taking steps to be egalitarian role models, reducing and renegotiating household labor, and being mindful of gender bias in children’s books and toys can all make a difference. While it may feel challenging to add to the already dramatic changes that many of us have experienced during the pandemic, any small steps we take to support greater equality in the next generation will help create a better, more productive, more fair society.