Matthew Heilman shares the moment he realized he was failing his daughter when it comes to gender norms.
The pink vacuum cleaner, the pink stove, the pink stroller, the pink doll, the pink princesses, the pink purse. Pink and girly EVERYTHING! That’s what I saw as I looked around the house.
I’ve been surrounded by it all for two years and I’ve been completely oblivious. For some reason my brain started to put everything in a new way as I watched my daughter pretend to cook on her toy stove. What would she do next? Move on and pretend to vacuum our floors? Take care of her baby-doll? Play princess?
Where are the toys my brother and I played with that inspired us to hypothesize, experiment, create, improve, and destroy? I don’t see any building blocks, planes, trains, automobiles, cardboard boxes, dinosaurs, planets, ramps, and forts.
It suddenly hit me, the reality of what I’ve been unconsciously preparing my two-year-old to excel at in life: a career in home economics. My stomach curled, I became hot and sweaty, and I needed to sit down. Now I needed something else pink: Pepto Bismol.
How could this be? Since I can remember I’ve been interested in STEM, way before it was a cool acronym. I’m a full-time technologist and part-time mad-scientist. The house is littered with computers, tools, and electronics. But somehow my daughter hasn’t been exposed to any of that.
As I reflected on the toys, I realized I’ve thoughtlessly fed into the hyperreality that merchants have created around gender based toys. Boys and girls have separate aisles for toys. The pictures on the containers tell me if the toy is meant for a boy or girl. Sometimes there are clear written guidelines of the intended gender (i.e. Dangerous Chemistry Experiments for Boys).
It became very painful when I dug deeper and realized I have preconceived notions of gender identity that I’ve already forced on my daughter. I remember getting frustrated the first few months of my daughter’s life when a stranger would say, “He’s so cute.” Internally, I’d scream, “SHE’S A GIRL!!!!” My solution was to pierce my daughters’ ears and never leave the house unless she wore something pink. This has evolved into buying her girl toys and all things pink. I wanted a girly-girl because that makes her extremely acceptable and cute to others.
I’ve discovered a small brown spot on an onion. I know as I peel back the layers I’m going to find a lot of bad stuff. This isn’t about toys. The toys are just the catalyst for an awakening about about my deep-seated and preconceived notions of gender.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that women have a hard time in technology or any of the STEM fields. I haven’t even given my own flesh-and-blood a fighting chance to succeed. I need to rethink everything: how my daughter plays, with whom she interacts, how I interact with women, and how I talk about women.
At the end of the day I don’t need my daughter to love STEM but I want to make sure she has enough exposure to know it as an option. This has lit a fire in me to be the change I wish to see, and I implore you — fathers, step-fathers, partners, and all caregivers — take a very hard look at yourself. If you are like the overwhelming majority of men I interact with, you have fallen into the same trap. I’m certain you want to raise strong, independent, courageous, inquisitive, and happy daughters. You are one of the most influential people in your daughter’s life. I challenge you to join me in committing to raising our daughters to be anything they want to be instead of feeding into the idea of what a woman needs to be. Give our daughters the tools to succeed beyond the home.
Matthew Heilman is a loving husband, father, and friend. Matthew is currently the Director of Engineering at Dorado Systems where he is responsible for developing Dorado's strategic direction for technology and leading the implementation and operations of IT services. Matthew holds a B.S. In Computer Science. Matthew serves as the Treasurer for Paws for Courage and a volunteer for TechGirlz.
Follow him on Twitter: @matthewdheilman and Facebook.