Claire Cain Miller’s recent article in the New York Times about raising a feminist son has attracted a good deal of attention. Without doubt, the article contains much sensible advice: parents should provide boys with positive role models, call out biased stereotypes, and stop conduct that is demeaning, intolerant, or disrespectful. But the article also contains a number of mistaken or misguided ideas. Let’s look at five of them.
Is Raising a “Feminist” Son a Good Idea?
Miller attempts to limit the meaning of “feminist” to “someone who believes in the full equality of men and women.” But the term “feminist” is too fraught with other associations to be confined in this way. Indeed, a large number of Americans do not consider calling someone a feminist to be a compliment, much less an acceptable child-raising objective.
For example, in February of this year, Merriam-Webster reported a spike in the number of people looking up “feminism.” This flurry of activity was promoted by Kellyanne Conway calling for equal pay for women, while also making clear she did not consider herself a feminist. As she said, “It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion, in this context.” Whatever you think of Conway’s values, they highlight the poor judgment on Miller’s part in urging people to raise a “feminist son.” She would have been on stronger footing if she had written about raising an empathic, caring, and unbiased son.
Girls’ Career Choices Are More Limited Than Boys’
Many American parents do, as Miller writes, tell their daughters “they can be anything they want to be.” The problem is that today’s workplaces often put the lie to that promise. Gender bias, sexism, and pervasive stereotypes often prevent women from realizing their career dreams. For example, Miller calls particular attention to girls being told they can become astronauts. Fair enough, but girls, and their parents, need to realize that only about 11% of all astronauts have been women, and it was not until 22 years after the first American men flew in space that a woman did the same.
The Expansion of Women’s Roles Do Not Depend on Men’s Doing the Same
Miller writes, “women’s roles can’t expand if men’s don’t.” This is simply not true. Women can expand their representation as engineers, computer scientists, C-suite executives, combat soldiers, carpenters, plumbers, truck drivers, and construction workers without men’s roles expanding one whit.
Are “Feminine Skills” Really Highly Valued?
Miller argues that because so-called “feminine skills” are so highly valued “in modern-day work,” boys should be encouraged to acquire them. But if feminine skills are so highly valued, why haven’t the proportion of women in senior management at our major corporations increased over the past 10 years? Why haven’t the proportion of women equity partners in our largest law firms increased over the same period? And why has the proportion of women in tech declined?
Miller’s article is ultimately self-contradictory. On the one hand, she argues that “boys need to follow their interests” if they are to reach their full potential. On the other, she urges parents to encourage boys “to play with friends of the opposite sex.” But before puberty, boys and girls self-segregate by sex. Encouraging boys to play with girls during this period would hardly be consistent with allowing them to follow their interests.
We share Miller’s desire to improve how we raise boys as well as girls who believe in the full equality of the sexes. But by providing the advice she does, she takes the focus off the most important fact in this entire gender conversation: it is women and not men whose careers are blocked and made frustrating and unfulfilling because of gender bias. Of course, we need to do a better job of raising boys who turn out to be supportive husbands and interested in entering the caring professions. We must never forget, however, that nothing and no one is holding men back in pursuing whatever career choices they wish, while women are blocked at every turn by the gender bias that pervades our business, professional, and political organizations.