Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported on a troubling study. The study, conducted by the University of Colorado, was looking to examine the longer-term impact of #MeToo, the campaign to expose sexual harassment, abuse, and predation which has overwhelmingly focused on harm by men towards women. While finding that women reported an overall decline in workplace sexual harassment, it also found that there was a growing uptick in plain old sexism.
You know, "women can't drive" sorts of things.
I'm not naive enough to believe that sexism was something we'd closed the door on; it's something every woman lives with, the frustrating background radiation of our lives. The belief that femininity is weak and superficial while masculinity is strong and deep has implications that play out every day; I cannot tell you how many times a service clerk has called me "sweetie" while calling my husband "sir," or how often I was presumed to be my business partner's secretary or assistant. While it's true that sexism can play out as overt as the assertion that women are fundamentally less capable than men, in most cases, it's far more subtle: the devaluing of women, our experiences, our abilities, and our insights purely on the grounds of who and what we are.
There is actually quite a great deal of overlap between harassment and sexism on the misogyny Venn diagram, because both of them are ultimately about power over women. It boils down to strategies of dominance, and the dots that the University of Colorado study are connecting lead to the conclusion that the degree to which men feel less free to sexually objectify women correlates to finding other ways to do the same work of maintaining a feeling of superiority and control: keeping the womenfolk in line.
I'm not going to assert that this is deliberate; sexism is so often a sort of passive reality, the ocean in which we all swim. But I also want to remind everyone that sexism is far from harmless; it does much the same work as harassment, preventing women from ever forgetting that we exist in public life at the pleasure of the men around us. I think about every time I was expected to perform secretarial work when I was a junior trader (which, you may have observed, is not how you spell "secretary") by men with less experience than me. I think about a young woman I know who ended up walking away from a once-in-a-lifetime job due to the incessant dismissal of her abilities and input. I think about women being cut out of decision-making processes, denied promotions because "this is really more of a man's thing." I think about how motherhood reduces women's lifetime earnings potential while fatherhood raises it.
Women, as a class, get a real bum deal.
That shouldn't be controversial. It's not a secret. And yet I see this sort of thing is dismissed as harmless time and time again, as though it all doesn't add up to the slow demolition of as many women as it can. A while back, I spoke with Goldman Sachs about its new diversity plan, and what struck me about it was just how many factors it had identified that restrict the number of women who are able to advance in their careers there, as well as how frequently women just… leave. It's a vicious cycle, to be sure, but it's one driven by the fundamental assumption that women are less capable than men and that, all things being equal, it'd be better to promote a man.
Let's not ignore for a moment the stark emotional damage hearing "you're just a girl" or even "you're really smart for a girl" for an entire lifetime can (and demonstrably does) wreak, preventing scores of women from even entertaining the notion of pursuing careers in business, science, or medicine. Hostile workplaces create conditions where employees simply can't perform; anxiety, stress, fear, and self-doubt all get between a hard worker and a job well done. When we are told what we cannot do, told who we cannot be, are dismissed, belittled, denigrated, it has the knock-on effect of what's called in the social sciences "stereotype threat." Essentially, the anxiety surrounding fulfilling a stereotype makes it self-fulfilling.
We've seen it play out in laboratory settings; in one study, women who were reminded of sexist assumptions that women are bad at math performed meaningfully worse at a math test than those who weren't. Sexist environments, in other words, create what they promise: a world where women don't measure up. But that's something imposed on us from the outside, and it's the reason why the women who manage to overcome the crushing weight of these assumptions are so lauded: because they've done something remarkable, something that very few men ever have to do.
The threat to women doesn't go away with Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK, and sexist remarks aren't harmless jokes. They are a stumbling block placed, deliberately or not, in the way of every single woman who sets out to make her own way in the world. It's harder to fight, and harder to see, but just as invidious.
It's something I believe we can beat. The last few years have foisted women's issues and feminism to the forefront of public conversation, educating millions about problems like these and the ways individuals contribute to them. That's a groundswell that has the potential of creating lasting change. But not if we don't keep it going. I believe we're stronger than sexism, that millions of voices can't be ignored, and that lasting change is possible.
We just have to keep trying.
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"Sh*t!" my daughter exclaimed as she dropped her iPad to the floor. A little bit of context; my daughter Victoria absolutely loves her iPad. And as I watched her bemoan the possible destruction of her favorite device, I thought to myself, "If I were in her position, I'd probably say the exact same thing."
In the Rastegar family, a word is only a bad word if used improperly. This is a concept that has almost become a family motto. Because in our household, we do things a little differently. To put it frankly, our practices are a little unconventional. Completely safe, one hundred percent responsible- but sure, a little unconventional.
And that's because my husband Ari and I have always felt akin in one major life philosophy; we want to live our lives our way. We have dedicated ourselves to a lifetime of questioning the world around us. And it's that philosophy that has led us to some unbelievable discoveries, especially when it comes to parenting.
Ari was an English major. And if there's one thing that can be said about English majors, it's that they can be big-time sticklers for the rules. But Ari also thinks outside of the box. And here's where these two characteristics meet. Ari was always allowed to curse as a child, but only if the word fit an appropriate and relevant context. This idea came from Ari's father (his mother would have never taken to this concept), and I think this strange practice really molded him into the person he is today.
But it wasn't long after we met that I discovered this fun piece of Ari Rastegar history, and I got to drop a pretty awesome truth bomb on Ari. My parents let me do the same exact thing…
Not only was I allowed to curse as a child, but I was also given a fair amount of freedom to do as I wanted. And the results of this may surprise you. You see, despite the lack of heavy regulating and disciplining from my parents, I was the model child. Straight A's, always came home for curfew, really never got into any significant trouble- that was me. Not trying to toot my own horn here, but it's important for the argument. And don't get the wrong impression, it's not like I walked around cursing like a sailor.
Perhaps I was allowed to curse whenever I wanted, but that didn't mean I did.
And this is where we get to the amazing power of this parenting philosophy. In my experience, by allowing my own children to curse, I have found that their ability to self-regulate has developed in an outstanding fashion. Over the past few years, Victoria and Kingston have built an unbelievable amount of discipline. And that's because our decision to allow them to curse does not come without significant ground rules. Cursing must occur under a precise and suitable context, it must be done around appropriate company, and the privilege cannot be overused. By following these guidelines, Victoria and Kingston are cultivating an understanding of moderation, and at a very early age are building a social awareness about when and where certain types of language are appropriate. And ultimately, Victoria and Kingston are displaying the same phenomenon present during my childhood. Their actual instances of cursing are extremely low.
And beneath this parenting strategy is a deeper philosophy. Ari and I first and foremost look at parenting as educators. It is not our job to dictate who our children will be, how they shall behave, and what their future should look like.
We are not dictators; we are not imposing our will on them. They are autonomous beings. Their future is in their hands, and theirs alone.
Rather, we view it as our mission to show our children what the many possibilities of the world are and prepare them for the litany of experiences and challenges they will face as they develop into adulthood. Now, when Victoria and Kingston come across any roadblocks, they have not only the tools but the confidence to handle these tensions with pride, independence, and knowledge.
And we have found that cursing is an amazing place to begin this relationship as educators. By allowing our children to curse, and gently guiding them towards the appropriate use of this privilege, we are setting a groundwork of communication that will eventually pay dividends as our children grow curious of less benign temptations; sex, drugs, alcohol. There is no fear, no need to slink behind our backs, but rather an open door where any and all communication is rewarded with gentle attention and helpful wisdom.
The home is a sacred place, and honesty and communication must be its foundation. Children often lack an ability to communicate their exact feelings. Whether out of discomfort, fear, or the emotional messiness of adolescence, children can often be less than transparent. Building a place of refuge where our children feel safe enough to disclose their innermost feelings and troubles is, therefore, an utmost priority in shepherding their future. Ari and I have come across instances where our children may have been less than truthful with a teacher, or authority figure simply because they did not feel comfortable disclosing what was really going on. But with us, they know that honesty is not only appreciated but rewarded and incentivized. This allows us to protect them at every turn, guard them against destructive situations, and help guide and problem solve, fully equipped with the facts of their situation.
And as crazy as it all sounds- I really believe in my heart that the catalogue of positive outcomes described above truly does stem from our decision to allow Victoria and Kingston to curse freely.
I know this won't sit well with every parent out there. And like so many things in life, I don't advocate this approach for all situations. In our context, this decision has more than paid itself off. In another, it may exacerbate pre-existing challenges and prove to be only a detriment to your own family's goals.
As the leader of your household, this is something that you and you alone must decide upon with intentionality and wisdom.
Ultimately, Ari and I want to be the kind of people our children genuinely want to be around. Were we not their parents, I would hope that Victoria and Kingston would organically find us interesting, warm, kind, funny, all the things we aspire to be for them each and every day.
We've let our children fly free, and fly they have. They are amazing people. One day, when they leave the confines of our home, they will become amazing adults. And hopefully, some of the little life lessons and eccentric parenting practices we imparted upon them will serve as a support for their future happiness and success.