In a recent interview, Debora Spar–president of Barnard College and author of the new book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection–stepped forward to make the claim I’ve been saying a long time: To advance women, we need to include men.
That itself is a fantastic topic for discussion, but more so I want to point out something else President Spar said–something that blatantly stands against her ideas of inclusion.
“Young girls grow up with this very confused set of expectations,” Spar says. “They grow up believing that they should be beautiful like princess but that they can also be astronauts and that they should play soccer but never let the boys know how smart they are.
“So I think we’re piling on all these expectations,” Spar continues. “The good news is that girls and women do believe they can do whatever they want; the bad news is that they somehow think they have to be everything and do it all perfectly.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this statement–I wholly believe everything said is great, that each word is full of truth, that the idea of “having it all” should be treated realistically, and also individually, and Spar’s words are wonderful in this regard.
The problem–and indeed, this is always the problem, it seems–is that the argument excludes an equally apparent fact about men: Young boys also grow up with a very confused set of expectations.
Boys grow up believing they should be competitive like the sports heroes they’re taught to idolize, but also that they should be gentle fathers and caring protectors.
Boys grow up believing they should play sports but never let other kids know how smart they are–and if they do, they are bullied for being geeks or nerds.
Boys grow up believing they should be chivalrous and save the damsels in distress, but also that they should recognize women’s independence and treat them with equality.
It’s a lot of pressure for any young person to be possessed of such conflicting expectations. I believe these confusing ideals harm young boys especially, but they also harm young girls just as much: When boys grow up with these conflicts unresolved, they become men who personify these same torn notions that continue perpetuating the patriarchal hold misinformation and unequal opportunity has wrought upon our nation.
I’m not at all saying the set of expectations on young girls isn’t excessive–but I am saying the set of expectations on young boys is flat-out conflicting in every regard. They should do well in school, but doing well is frowned upon in favor of other endeavors. They should be competitors and strive to win, but they should also be cooperative and compassionate.
There is a difference between saying you should be beautiful and an astronaut–because you can be beautiful and an astronaut at the same time–and saying you need to win all the time, but be a team member who cares for those around him: two ideas which can coexist, but only with a certain level of higher thinking and experience that most young people lack–male or female–and that is best learned through having strong role models–strong role models that are often absent for boys these days.
To help bring men into the fold, to start working equally toward that day when we will be equal, we need to combat these expectations both for young girls and young boys. It’s no surprise boys are falling behind girls academically, and this lack of equal education is going to make it harder to achieve the equality we seek–so it’s time we stand up for boys and girls together and give them each the encouragement all children deserve.