© morrowlight/Dollar Photo Club
“Look, Mommy, there’s a squirrel over there!” my 3-year-old squealed five minutes into our walk at a local park.
“Yes, I see him!” I replied enthusiastically. “It looks like he’s gathering some of the acorns by that tree.”
“Do you think he’s a cute squirrel, Mommy?”
“Yes, I do. Do you?”
“Yeah, I think he’s really cute.”
Did you notice anything strange about that conversation I had with my child?
But what if I changed it to this?
“Look, Mommy, there’s a squirrel over there!”
“Yes, I see her! It looks like she’s gathering some of the acorns by that tree.”
“Do you think she’s a cute squirrel, Mommy?”
“Yes, I do. Do you?”
“Yeah, I think she’s really cute.”
Now do you notice something?
Despite the fact that there was about a 50/50 chance that the squirrel we were observing was a female, I unconsciously referred to it as a male. And when I did, it didn’t seem strange to you at all; you probably didn’t even think about its sex.
But if I called it a she instead of a he? Suddenly you notice. Suddenly you’re thinking about the sex of the squirrel.
We do this all the time. When faced with androgynous-looking beings of indeterminate sex—such as animals—we just…automatically call them males.
There’s an important term for this phenomenon, actually: androcentrism.
Androcentrism occurs when we (often unconsciously) treat males and masculinity as the norm and anything else as “other” or different. As feminist scholars Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee (2015) explain, androcentrism is “confusion of maleness with humanity, putting men at the center and relegating women to outsiders in society.”
It’s why phrases like “for the benefit of all mankind” exist (when what we really mean is humankind—but when you point that out, the reaction is often “eh, same difference”).
It’s why the default symbols for “man” and “human being” on signs are usually the same, but the image for “woman” looks different.
And it’s why calling a squirrel a “he” seems totally normal, but calling it a “she” takes everyone by surprise.
Now that I’m a parent, and especially a parent of a daughter, I’m noticing just how far-reaching androcentrism is, and especially how androcentric children’s books, movies, and characters are.
Almost always, the default is a boy.
The animals at the zoo, the animal characters in the books, the stuffed animals we give names to—all are usually boys. We only think “girl” in the presence of clear feminine markers like jewelry or dresses.
As this dad explained, “What is the difference between Mickey and Minnie Mouse? Mickey is the default; Minnie is Mickey with eyelashes and a bow in her hair.”
The problem isn’t limited to animals, of course. It’s also present when we refer to a person who could plausibly be male or female, but automatically (and unconsciously) choose male every. single. time.
Ohhhh, your teddy bear isn’t feeling well? Let’s call the doctor; he’ll know what to do.
When an astronaut is in space, he floats all around because there’s no gravity.
Who’s the head chef at this restaurant? His food is delicious!
Now some of you are probably thinking this is no big deal, right?
Some of you are probably thinking I’m making a big fuss over nothing, that I’m being overly sensitive about a harmless couple of words.
But here’s the truth: The way we speak reflects the way we think—and the way we teach our kids.
Parents, our habitual use of male pronouns for almost everything and everyone, with the exception of only princesses and stuffed animals with long eyelashes to bat, is actually a very serious problem.
We are sending a devastating and dangerous message to our children, and especially to our daughters.
We are (subtly and unintentionally) teaching them that boys are the center and girls are on the outskirts.
Boys are the leaders and girls are the supporting characters.
Boys are the sun, and girls revolve around them.
Boys are the norm, and girls are just a deviation from them.
We don’t really believe that, do we? So then why do our actions—our language, our books, our characters—seem like we do?
© katarinagondova/Dollar Photo Club
The impact of all this androcentrism is a generation of girls at risk of assuming their choices, ideas, and big dreams come behind those of their male counterparts—or worse, a generation of girls who don’t even dream the big dreams in the first place because they were oh-so-subtly taught that the big dreams are for the main characters: the boys.
Because let me be clear: If we use male-centric language 99% of the time, it doesn’t matter if every now and then we tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be.
They will have already absorbed our (unintentional) limitations on them—and that message will be far stronger and more ingrained than what a couple of empowering parent speeches can undo.
So what do we do? How do we send our daughters the message we truly want them to hear?
I believe we have to start with ourselves, with our own language.
We have to start paying attention to how we talk about the animals our children see in the backyard or the stuffed animals on their beds. We have to challenge the idea that, without the presence of clear feminine markers like pink dresses or red puckered-up lips, they are all male by default.
Now don’t be surprised if you get some pushback when you do this.
Writer Eeni B. Bella spent months training herself to say “she” habitually instead of “he,” and she’s written about the fascinating responses she’s gotten from children.
“Most children are startled, to varying degrees,” she explains. “Other children get surprisingly upset with me for saying ‘she.’ Annoyed, almost angry.”
Her blog post on the subject is filled with interesting examples, but this one really stood out to me:
The boy asked me, in reference to a toy dinosaur, “Does he bite?”
I replied, looking thoughtfully at the dinosaur, “Hmm, I don’t know if she bites.”
He looked at me in surprise. “Did you say ‘she’??”
“Yup,” I replied. “Maybe that dinosaur is a girl!”
“No!” he said, laughing.
“Because NO dinosaur is a girl!”
My hope is that if we parents start changing the way we speak to and in front of our children, the fact that approximately half of the dinosaurs who roamed this Earth were female won’t seem so darn shocking anymore.
As our language adjusts, so will our mindsets—and those of our daughters.
Because we don’t want to risk teaching our daughters to see themselves as “other”; we don’t want them to subconsciously believe they are offshoots or sideshows to the main event.
We want them to know that their ideas, their stories, and their dreams are 100% worthy of center stage.
18 responses to “The Devastating Way We Are Unintentionally Limiting Our Daughters”
Katie, I wanted to stand up and cheer after reading your article on androcentrism in our speech. I too have a daughter and I’m guilty of this, though she’s only 6 months–it’s important to change my habits now. But not just me–I am going to make sure her caregivers read it, too. They are just as much a part of her life as I. All caregivers should read this piece!
I’m so glad it resonated with you, Eryn! Your daughter is fortunate to have a mom like you who is taking steps now to make sure she is fully supported and empowered. Thanks for your comment!
I agree with this 99%. My one issue: We’re not only limiting our daughters this way. We limit our sons, too, when we teach them that girls and women are “other,” that female ideas and perspectives are less valuable.
Agree wholeheartedly, Amy! An androcentric world view limits EVERYONE.
I’m so guilty of this with my daughter, but I’ve been trying to self-correct. I try to call all her animals “she” that aren’t obviously male, but she has a lot of obviously male ones (Pooh Bear, Stitch, other characters from books…)
I grew up in my mother’s in-home daycare and witnessed a lot of this subtle sexism over the years.
Most recently a four-year-old at daycare was marveling at my daughter, who has reached her language explosion and repeats everything. He followed her around for ten minutes, “Lexi, say monkey!” “Monkey!” and so on, and looked at me, astonished: “HE CAN TALK!”
But the saddest example I remember was from something like ten years ago, when I told 3-year-old Britney that she was my hero. And she looked up at me, sad, and said sincerely, “I can’t be! I’m not a boy yet!” Honestly, it broke my heart then and it breaks it now.
My heart is also breaking over that example. It is tangible proof that even when the sexism is subtle, it makes a HUGE impact on our children. Thank you for sharing. I hope more parents and caregivers make efforts to self-correct their language. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it!
Your example about yoru daughter believing she can’t be a hero is soooo sad!
But I wanted to suggest an alternate view of the boy calling your daughter a ‘he’. All of my kids were unclear on what gender was, that it existed, that pronouns were not interchangeable, etc. They might call a man a she and a boy a he, and they might flip flop it in the very next sentence – Its could have been one of my kids who could care less about gender that mixed it up 🙂
I remember growing up my moms friend was pregnant but didn’t know what she was having. I got yelled at when I kept calling the baby “she” because that “wasn’t how things were done. If you don’t know the gender you use “he”.” When I asked why I was told “because that’s the way it is.” Mom’s friend had a girl btw.
I used to get this all the time when I was working. I’d introduce myself as “Dr Orlena” and then get referred to as a nurse and male nurses would get referred to as “dr”. Even though there are lots of female doctors, it’s still a very male orientated field (especially if you want to combine work and family life.)
I guess this psychological approach would apply in some form or fashion to what has occurred in the American/European media? If you’re none white how do you think that effects the none white psyche? Whatever! It is what it is. Whoever said the world was fair?
Another way that using pronouns affects girls negatively is when men refer to cars and boats as “she.” “She’s a beaut, Carl,” or “She purs like a kitten.” It implies that women are possessions that need to be cared for by men, and can affect the way both sexes relate to one another.
I don’t have kids yet, but even in my current speech, I use it, they, their to refer to something androgynous. I don’t know if it’s a girl or a boy, so I keep it neutral. It’s only fair. 😉
Excellent post! Thanks so much for sharing it.
I found your post interesting. We have a boy and a girl and have found that you have to play this game both ways. We bought our son a stuffed animal fox that came with a baby fox. My mother-in-law came to visit and while playing with my son and the foxes referred to the big fox as “she.” My son immediately corrected her that “Fox is a daddy,” which is what we had told him at the start. Not all nurturers are female! I find this just as important a lesson.
Agreed! Great point and great example!
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So glad I happened across this article because I had been noticing this in my speech lately, though I often self-correct because it bothers ME to possibly be saying the wrong gender (esp. about live animals). I usually say “or she – we don’t know if it’s a boy-squirrel or a girl-squirrel” or something to that effect. I’m sure I do it with hypothetical people, too, though, and haven’t noticed (it’s pretty engrained!) so I will try to check/correct myself on that!
We also speak German in our house and with the gendered words, it opens up a whole new can of worms, ha! At least in that case, there’s a bit more “equality” – afterall, some animals are automatically feminine. 😉
Yes! The way this differs in languages other than English is really interesting and important. Thanks for sharing!
I’ve found with myself it simply depends on what I’m around more of what I call things without a specified gender. For example, I grew up in a house of all girls except for my dad (even our pets were female) and so everything and everyone was a “she”. Now, I’m the only female in our house so everything at home is now a “he” simply because I’m around males more. At work, I’m around women so everyone there is automatically a “she”. I chalk it up to mental laziness of changing my pronouns 🙂
Ha, well that does make sense!