Girls are cute but do they have to be so pink?

Watching pretty girls is a harsh reminder of a social divide so entrenched and prevalent we continue to reinforce it. And it hurts everyone — boys and girls.

We are talking about the repercussions of this divide more and more. Sexual harassment in large companies, hollywood, silicon valley and government. The debate around the gender pay gap and how much of it is gender versus time on the job. Outdated gender stereotypes and the lack of gender representation in boards, management, and coding.

This isn’t a new. We have studied gender roles for more than 40 years. We have solid evidence through multiple studies that disney movies reinforce traditional and often negative stereotypes. Yet things don’t really seem to be changing to the extent I would expect. And when I see a pretty girl walk down the street, I wonder why it makes me so uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s my daughter?

Maybe it’s raising a daughter and watching her cartoons full of girls as princesses. One girl robot (in pink) among a team of three male robots. Because only 25% of the world population is female and 100% of them are pink.

Or it’s Paw Patrol which ups the number of cute and fluffy heros living in a strangely happy yet dystopian future world where animals have been enhanced to deal with the complete incompetence of humanity. Even in this horrible future, women in power are incompetent, 20% of heroes are women and… 100% pink.

Seeing my daughter’s heroes makes me uncomfortable. They all fit a consistent profile — pink, heels, happy and cute; even when they are cast in powerful or non-traditional roles they need to be feminine.

Of course, the sheriff in a wild west cartoon can’t leave the pink heels and male horse behind.

It’s uncomfortable being presented with the raw scale of the cartoon/toy industry focused on producing ever more appealing, cute and pink “products”. Each comes with a ready made offering of toys, accessories, games, underwear and makeup kits.

I thought kids were supposed to play with dirt, rocks and sticks.

Maybe it’s me?

Maybe it’s looking back to my own experiences working with women and asking myself what judgements did I make on merit or looks. What actions did I take because maybe I wanted something more. Where did I draw the line? And did I? I certainly remember struggling when I started working with my feelings of attraction to the people that I spent one third of my life with (at work) and wanting to maintain a professional relationship. “The Rock Test” is a great example of how there is almost no meaningful dialog about how men should deal with conflicting feelings. As men we need more Rock Tests and women need to be more comfortable enforcing barriers.

Maybe it’s Hollywood?

Maybe it’s watching movies and seeing yet another powerful female character sexed up as much as possible. Hollywood must be frightened that a normally dressed woman hero won’t appeal. “Sex and only sex sells,” we are told. Yet we aren’t given any alternatives in mass media. There is one celebrated image and set of expectations of a woman.

And this seems to be an image that requires an ever decreasing amount of clothing. When removing more clothing isn’t an option, there is always bodyfit outfits which are pretty much sprayed on.

There is an ongoing competition to somehow find a way to dress professionally while wearing as little as possible.

Seeing it makes me uncomfortable and wondering what role I play makes me even more worried.

Maybe it’s math?

Maybe it’s reading the google engineers unique interpretation of science and gender roles. And then talking with professionals I trust, and finding that they support his inaccurate views. When I question them, I’m told “my views are based on my own experience working with women”.

Sure women are naturally bad at math. That’s why the first computer algorithms and the first programmers were women. Why women got us to the moon and back. And why women dominate analytical professions like finance, human resources and research (yet often are strangely missing in senior management roles).

Maybe it’s the past?

Maybe it’s watching old movies and seeing skinny men and fully covered women represent heros in their own right. It’s hard not to compare and be uncomfortable with stark difference. New movies focus on inhuman capabilities, shapes and sizes. Perception of body image has been connected with increased likelihood of suicide in teen girls.

The past wasn’t a great time for women and turning back the clock won’t help anyone. I’m confused by how our world is supposed to be empowered and progressive yet our gender, racial and age stereotypes are increasingly obvious and problematic. I can understand why some people feel that women are worse off today than the 1970s/80s. While women have increased rights and access within society, they are isolated and objectified like never before in media, on the internet and within social discourse.

Maybe it’s customers?

Maybe it’s talking with a company about how they want to have more women in Partner level roles. “It’s just that. You know,” they explain, “every time someone climbs the ranks, the male Partners aren’t ‘comfortable’ with her”. Your management team is entirely men. Any women joining is going to make you uncomfortable; get over it.

The worst part is the post hoc justifications normally rolled out after the rising female talent resigns in frustration after hitting the glass ceiling over and over again: “she just wasn’t strong enough” “she wasn’t ready to take on the scope of responsibilities” “she didn’t know how to play on the team”. The only thing they aren’t saying is “she wasn’t a man”.

Maybe it’s work?

Maybe it’s watching my own female employees be passed over for promotions and equity grants because they didn’t drink enough with the bosses, didn’t dress “right” or didn’t sleep around. These were the top performers who qualified for that recognition but were continually told that they were “almost there” and just needed to work on “one other area and then that promotion is yours!” The target always moved.

The most frustrating time for me was when I even offered to give a portion of my equity allocation to a top performer if it wasn’t possible to release additional equity grants that year. Only to be told that I wasn’t allowed to do that and that the global top performer for the year would need to “try harder” if she wanted equity. Her male peers and appealing-to-the-eye females were granted equity.

This is especially uncomfortable because it means the system is rigged for everyone. If women can be treated this way, so can men. When “discomfort” with gender differences becomes an acceptable excuse, anything is possible. The treatment of women is horrifying as it is telling of how unequal the world is and how far we have to go.

Maybe it’s everything

Maybe it’s all of these things and more. Maybe it’s mansplaining and neofeminism. Maybe it’s the backlash. Maybe it’s the ideals of the third-wave of feminism, which seem completely lacking in our cartoons, blockbuster movies and advertisements.

Whatever it is, it makes me uncomfortable every time I look at a cute girl. It makes me pause when I see someone who likely spends an hour or more in the morning getting ready and a large portion of their income on “image enhancement”.

It should make every man in society stop and think. If this is what we expect of women, then nothing society is fair.

If we actively stereotype 50% of the global population, anyone (male or female) cannot expect to be treated fairly or equally within any context.

The images that we lock our daughters, wives and female friends, partners and colleagues into every day is uncomfortable because it is a visual, literal reminder that everything in this world is not fair.

Each of us individually cannot change this. We can’t force Disney to stop showing Shimmer and Shine because it enforces a ridiculous view of what roles women play, makes me die a little inside each time I watch it, and gives no functional or meaningful insight to young girls about how to meaningfully solve problems. Oh…. But they are very cute. And one of them is a girl and happens to be blue!

We can do something. We all have a choice how we joke about and treat women verbally, visually and physically. Maybe we should imagine women as the Rock.

Even better, imagine them as normal people. We can treat our daughters as people instead of “princesses”. We cannot change the overall social environment that we are drowning in. We can choose what role we play. And we can actively engage with it.

It’s a choice that parents can choose what TV, clothing and toys we buy for our children. And what we encourage them to play with. It’s inside what we say, the very words we use. “act like a girl” “girls don’t do that” “you are going to have problems with math” “don’t try too hard”. Some of these choices are easier than others.

When we get our daughters to watch Peg + Cat because it has a female lead character who explains math concepts, we can talk with our daughter about how they don’t always need a male sidekick (Cat) or a love interest (Ramone); right?

It’s more than that conversation. It’s the way we as parents treat our children. The people we mix with and the way we treat others. We cannot change the society that we live in. We can decide what role we each play.

Women are left with difficult choices. Our society clearly values women who advertise their assets, have lighter skin tone and “manage their weight”. Keep talking, keep fighting, keep looking for environments, companies, partners and media which treat you as people.

We all have a lot of work to do.

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