As a gender expert, I spend nearly all my time speaking, teaching and writing on gender-related topics. These topics include the impact of gender on leadership, career advancement, emotional intelligence, biases, gender roles, and gender perceptions. In essence, I’m interested in knowing what factors impact gender beliefs, how gender affects how we think about ourselves and others, how we behave and present ourselves, and what we achieve in our work and lives.
Socialization, defined as the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society, impacts both men and women. It starts very early with the pink or blue blankets we’re wrapped in at birth. It’s what our parents, teachers, coaches, and friends teach us, and what we absorb from the cartoons, books, magazines, and movies we watch. It is a powerful, driving force that puts enormous pressure on us to conform to societal beliefs.
However, family culture, based on our race or ethnicity, is equally powerful and starts just as early. In many cultures, women are expected to be responsible for things that men are not. And, there are more pressures put on girls and women to look and behave in certain ways. It’s generally expected that older siblings should take care of younger siblings. But, many Asian, Indian, Hispanic and Latino cultures believe that girls (even if the youngest) should take care of the males in the family.
Based on my research and book, The Power of Perception, I created a “Women and Leadership” course that I teach at two business schools in California. Over the course of three years, I’ve taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students. One of the assignments I give is to write a gender reflection paper. It asks students to reflect on the influences that have shaped their gender identity and gender roles. These include family, friends, neighborhood, schools, customs, religion, race, ethnicity, media, and their work.
Time and time again, a family’s culture shows as one of the biggest influences of our gender beliefs and gender roles – and seems to be ubiquitous across most races and ethnicities. For example, my students represent Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Guatemalan, and Filipino cultures. All these have shared expectations regarding gender roles and the value of girls and women at home and in society.
One student of mine described her 90-year-old Indian grandmother having to cook and clean up after four adult men in the household, even though she had trouble getting around herself. A Mexican student expressed that she was expected to cook all meals and do laundry for her brothers who were never taught these skills. Her brothers were told they didn’t need to learn these skills because “that’s girls work”. A Korean student detailed her desire to play sports when she was young. She begged her parents over and over, but her parents only allowed piano because that was “more suitable for girls”.
Another student who is Filipino-American shared that in high school she and her brother were supposed to prioritize schoolwork over things such as going out with friends or being in romantic relationships. She took this seriously because she was taught to follow expectations and not question her parents. No matter how many times her brother prioritized other parts of his life over school, he was forgiven. She remembers her parents saying that his behavior was due to him “being a boy”. These cultural expectations affected her communication skills. She now has difficulty speaking up for herself, especially in group settings when conflict or disagreements occur. She tends to avoid them by going along with the majority.
It’s often acceptable for boys to bend the rules whereas girls are expected to follow the rules. This double standard in how we treat boys and girls can restrict girls from speaking their minds, trying new things, and fighting for what they want. In addition, an inability to disappoint parents can cause girls to become people-pleasers and followers.
The bottom line is that strong cultural and family influences can impact the personality, success and dreams of young women.
What Can We Do?
You may have experiences like these yourself – even today. Where do these strong cultural beliefs come from? Likely they were passed down to you from your parents and other relatives because that’s what they were taught to believe. Ask yourself these questions: Do you hold the same beliefs about gender that your parents do? If you’re a parent, what cultural beliefs, expectations and values are you passing on to your daughters? Are these the same as your sons? Are you trying to ensure equity in the responsibilities you teach your children?
Gender roles at home can and should be blurred. We should be teaching all our children to cook, clean, do laundry, and fix things around the house – essential life skills for any adult. We should also be aware of cultural inconsistencies in how we treat girls and boys and the messages we are sending our daughters. And, we need to challenge cultural expectations that women should be responsible for things that men are not. Women are equally capable as men to be successful and happy in life. Our childhood upbringing and culture should reflect that.
To contact Dr. Shawn Andrews, learn more and access free resources, go to drshawnandrews.com.
Article originally posted on Forbes.com on April 6, 2020.