On Raising Daughters

She wants to be just like me!
This morning, over breakfast, I asked my 4 1/2 year old daughter if she wanted to see something cool. I showed her a news story about Maryam Mirzakhani, the Stanford Mathematician who is first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal. Willa, my daughter, has only a cursory grasp of the world of higher learning, so I explained it to her (and with no disrespect meant to the other 3 laureates) by saying that Mirzakhani is the “best in the world in math,” (immediately followed by a ‘kids say the darnedest things’ moment when Willa replied, “I thought you were.”)

It’s incredibly important to me that Willa and her little sister, Lily, see prominent women in the sciences, but I struggle with trying to achieve a balance between “Of course there are lots of outstanding women scientists (and so it’ll be no problem for you to join their ranks),” and “There are still too few women in science (and I want you to break down some barriers).” I’ve gone with approach #1, because society is going to give them the latter all on its own.

Despite the progressiveness of their parents, Willa and Lily are awash in “traditional” examples of gender roles. Willa’s doctor is a man; the nurses are all women. I work outside of the home, while, for now, my wife, Emily, (an excellent Speech Language Pathologist, by the way) stays at home with Lily. The issue isn’t that we’re setting a bad example with how we’ve set up our home, but rather, that smart kids tend to extrapolate from what they see around them.

Willa doesn’t have to be a scientist, but it’s important that she decide to be a scientist (or a musician, or a shoemaker, or whatever) based on her preferences and abilities, not because she’s internalized the idea that certain roles are for certain genders. While I’m trying not to princess shame her, I’ve looked on with unease as Willa picks Elsa, Ariel, and Sofia the First as her role models. The heart wants what it wants, I suppose. We’ve at very least tried to mitigate things by pointing to bravery and kindness as the defining qualities of princesses, rather than beauty (and in a fair bit of subversion, we give her the option of having princesses marry other princesses in her fairy tales).

To some degree, we end up cherry-picking examples to give Willa a deliberately skewed state of affairs. We focus on Mirzakhani or Emmy Noether, or the occasional female doctor who sees Willa at the doctor’s office. The hope is that in 10 or 20 years, these won’t be the exceptions, but for now, the societal messaging produces awfully lopsided results. The most recent report from the American Institute of Physics, for instance, shows that only 14% of physics and astronomy faculty are women. The numbers are similar for women in undergraduate physics programs. This last year — and only through fairly Herculean efforts — we were thrilled to have an enrollment at Drexel that was slightly less lopsided, about 30% women. We still have a long way to achieve anything like real gender equity in most sciences.*

Right now, I’m operating in a very limited realm. I’m trying to give my daughters a sense of the possibilities in the world around them. This is, in some sense, just a stalling maneuver while I hope for (and try to help) the world to catch up. It’s dismal and disturbing that primitive attitudes prevail among some in my and the older generation. But I’m hoping that every positive example I show to my girls moves us one step closer to the world I’d like them to live in.


* It is a sad thought that both Emily and I were raised on Free to be…You and Me in the 70’s and early 80’s which, of course, preached the same message. Gender equality seemed pretty close at the time, but it’s not obvious that we’ve made that much progress since then.

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