Unconscious Bias and the Power of Parents

The Power of Parents | Unconscious bias

My morning paper had some news on research that has been conducted in the US. The research based on a 48-hour study of fathers of toddlers (30 girls and 22 boys) show a clear unconscious bias in how the father communicates with his child, depends very much on if the child is a boy or girl. Words like “proud”, “win” or “best” were used when communicating with boys while they spent five times more time speaking emotionally with girls and were 60% more attentive with them. These findings are published in Behavioural Neuroscience. 

This is an area that I constantly flag up in my workshops. As parents, we have huge influence on our children and yet in the most important job we will ever hold we embed unconscious bias and treat them differently.

What does this mean for those toddlers as they grow into young adults. Girls as young as 6 believe that brilliance is a male trait. In another research, also in the US, a group of 96 boys and girls aged 5-7 were read a story about a highly intelligent person and asked to guess the person’s gender. This was followed by showing them pictures of adults and asking them to pick the ones they thought were highly intelligent. Among six year olds, boys chose people of their own gender as “really, really smart” 65% of the time while girls only selected their gender as brilliant 48% of the time.

What about the toys you buy for the children? Or the aspirations you may have for them. How would you react if your daughter said she is interested in car mechanics and your son said he wanted to be a make-up artist? As you read this is your gut instinct ok with the first and not the second. Why?

On a positive note, if fathers are more in touch with their emotions when communicating with their daughters, it is a wonderful thing. But can they do the same with their sons too. We have read a lot about the high suicide rates amongst young men. Suicide, like mental health in general, is a gendered issue. Clearly much work needs to be done before we arrive at a reliable picture of what’s going on here but open honest communication and being in touch with our feelings is crucial.

I remember my toddler son adoring the colour pink. I got him a pair of pink gloves that he wore to his nursery. He was very proud of them. Yet sadly by the time he was 4, other little boys were suggesting that pink is a “girls” colour. He chose to fit in and no longer wear those gloves. I made a decision to continue to challenge these stereotypes and dress both his younger brothers in the same gloves. Sadly, it didn’t work. I still have the gloves 25 years later to remind me that we should constantly challenge our biases and I am proud to say that I do have wonderful, emotional conversations with my 3 sons.

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