What are “gender stereotypes,” and why should parents care that they are ingrained in our TV shows and movies? Does it matter if boys are conditioned only to play with things like toy guns, or girls are expected exclusively to play with dolls?
These questions and others drove the conversation on April 6 at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., where the White House Council on Women and Girls convened a day-long conference entitled, Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys: Helping Children Explore, Learn and Dream without Limits.
Conference organizers Jess Weiner (Talk to Jess) and Sarah Hurwitz (Special Assistant to the President, Senior Presidential Speechwriter) were kind enough to invite Dads 4 Change. I was privileged to attend, along with an auditorium full of stake holders who included researchers, media representatives, entrepreneurs, brand representatives, online influencers and thought leaders.
My impressions and takeaways are covered in the brief video below. The short version: We’ve made a lot of progress when it comes to recognizing and navigating gender stereotypes in media and toys, but we still have a lot of work to do.
One of the true pleasures of attending the event was spending time with a few fellow fathers who are equally committed to shifting societal norms when it comes to gender depictions in media and gender expectations in play. I exchanged thoughts and ideas with Brent Almond (Designer Daddy) and Doyin Richards (Daddy Doin’ Work), and I enjoyed seeing and hearing our friend Charlie Capen (How to be a Dad) hold forth on a panel entitled, The Role of Parents, Advocates and Youth-Serving Organizations.
Charlie, a Southern California-based father of two boys, represented the fatherhood community with style (just LOOK at that beard) and thoughtful grace. His experience at the White House impelled him to pay homage to his mother in this HTBAD post: 5 Reasons My Single Mom Helped Me Be a Better Father.
Charlie agreed to answer a few questions from Dads 4 Change, and to share his thoughts on how parents can navigate potentially harmful gender stereotypes:
Dads 4 Change: You’ve been in the public eye for a while and have spoken and appeared at a variety of venues in front of diverse audiences. What was it like to speak at the White House?
Charlie Capen: It was unlike any experience I’ve ever had. The White House has always been this unattainable, aspirational structure off in the distance, and until last month, I’d never even seen the outside of it. The invitation alone was a bucket list moment for me, but speaking inside its walls was ineffable. Yet another moment I’d wished my father were still around to be my partner in crime. He was one of my greatest cheerleaders and teachers.
D4C: What did you consider the significance of the physical location of this conference, a conversation about gender stereotypes that affect kids taking place at the White House?
CC: For the White House to acknowledge and collate these speakers’ ideas signifies a quantum leap in progress. It behooves our leaders to step in and take part in this important conversation because it affects our future on a fundamental level: our children. We cannot make real progress in gender bias and stereotypes without clear resolutions, and support from all levels. It also gave me hope for the future of this discussion. Jess Weiner and Sarah Hurwitz deftly organized the day to cover a lot of ground. It was the perfect place to ignite change. It was a small but powerful group.
D4C: What message did you hope to convey to the media reps, influencers, brand reps and thought leaders in the audience (and by extension, the larger audience beyond the auditorium walls)?
CC: The focus for my talk was introducing fathers as key advocates for gender equality. As part of the parenting equation, you can find willing partners in us but sometimes we aren’t consulted. But sometimes, we need an invitation. Many of the fathers of daughters I know are deeply committed to dismantling these shadowy boundaries of achievement and equality. Moreover, I wanted the attendees to hear about my journey as the son of a single working mother, and father of two boys. That we, my family and I, are engaged in these discussions, too. Fathers are here for this initiative, and it’s especially crucial for dads with boys to have an open discussion.
D4C: What were your takeaways from others who spoke at the conference?
CC: Brands and educators want to provide products and experiences that tell a modern story and appeal broadly. They recognize that there are new definitions for girl and boy culture. But there are still many outdated ways of thinking pervading our lives. The good news is we’re paying more attention to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of these issues. We’re finding new and better ways to dismantle these issues even while the vast landscape is still largely underwhelming and misrepresentative in terms of the gender equality. There is a lot of work to be done, but incredible minds are doing incredible things.
D4C: Where do we go from here?
CC: Dads can be incredible agents for change. If we’re truly going to tear down the walls that men have traditionally built, we should involve dads to support progress, and work with boys to give them a smarter, modernized childhood. I gave some specific tactical advice in my presentation, but the first step is learning and listening. Be open to your child’s gender expression and don’t let your own hesitation be the reason you don’t foster your child’s personal exploration.