Telling a child the uncomfortable truth about gender inequality

How do you explain the uncomfortable truth about gender inequality to a child?

The night after the Democratic party chose Hillary Clinton as its presidential nominee, I tried to describe the historic nature of it all to my nearly-4-year-old daughter as I tucked her in.

I started strong, gleefully announcing that, for the first time, a major political party was putting forth a woman as its choice to lead the country. But I soon faltered. To explain the significance of that moment meant acknowledging an uncomfortable truth I wasn’t quite ready for her to hear: that women have long been — and often still are — considered lesser than men in areas outside the home: less capable, less valuable, less powerful, less intelligent.

I know she’s already gotten some version of that message during her short time in the world; she once told my husband that he had to play the doctor and she the nurse given their respective genders (he quickly debunked that notion). But I was still reluctant to explicitly state it — as if she somehow might skirt that reality if I don’t mention it. And I didn’t have any good, age-appropriate answers ready for the questions such a conversation would raise, namely the “why?”

Why indeed.

Sexism, like racism, is rooted in ignorance, ego, complacency and exploitation. And it has remarkable staying power, given the absence of evidence to support it. But how do you explain to a preschooler that minds and traditions are hard to change, and civilization is slow? That time and advocacy have yet to swing the pendulum in women’s favor — away from the cave days when physical differences defined our roles toward an era when women’s contributions are equally valued (and maybe, eventually, preferred)?

How do you explain to your American daughter, in particular, that while we may have it bad in some respects, women and girls in other countries are much worse off? Like Pakistan, where hundreds of women are sacrificed in so-called “honor killings” each year. Or Liberia, which still practices genital mutilation on girls. Or Saudi Arabia, where women can now vote (as of last year) but still aren’t allowed to drive or open a bank account.

Of course, women and girls all over the world have already accomplished great things. They’ve ushered slaves to freedom, served as spies, pitched a Little League World Series winning game and stood up to the Taliban. Think of the achievements of Helen Keller, Margaret Mead, Mother Teresa; more recently Oprah Winfrey, Taylor Swift, Sonia Sotomayor. And yes, Hillary Clinton. You may not like her politics, but we should respect her for the barriers she’s broken.

In the U.S., we like to collectively think of ourselves as No. 1, but in terms of closing the gender gap, we’re actually 28th out of 145, according to the World Economic Forum, which last year ranked America behind Nicaragua, Rwanda and the Philippines, among other countries.

Women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, yet only 4 percent of the CEOs at S&P 500 companies. We are generally paid between 17 and 21 percent less than men, and we hold fewer than 20 percent of the seats in Congress. We are less likely to be considered for work promotions and more likely to be overlooked in meetings.

Clinton was overlooked at her own nomination: Multiple newspapers — including the Wall Street Journal and The Sun’s sister paper the Orlando Sentinel — initially ran photos of her husband on their front pages in reporting the event, instead of her. (To be fair, Clinton wasn’t at the convention that night, though other papers managed to run photos of the nominee appearing by video or of her female supporters.) That kind of thing continues to happen because we’re not talking enough about why it shouldn’t.

And so, I stumbled through an impromptu speech on the challenges women face in this country, as well as the strides America is making in eliminating them, that Wednesday night. It was awkward and unpleasant, but, I realized, necessary. Like most problems, gender discrimination won’t go away by ignoring it; we must recognize it, name it and confront it until it no longer exists.

Just maybe not at bedtime.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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