I have a daughter who always wants to pick the best of an available selection of items for herself. If there is a plate of 12 cookies, she will study the plate to determine which cookie is a) the biggest, b) has the most chocolate chips (if chocolate chips are in the equation), and c) the most perfect appearance. Sometimes she takes several minutes to pick the one she will have. You can imagine that in a house with three other people, this causes some friction. Even on other people’s birthdays, I’ve watched her ensure that she is getting the best of the deserts on offer.
I have a pretty deep ambivalence about breaking her of this habit. My husband wants her to stop and to think of others. To take a middle of the road cookie or muffin or desert or whatever. To put others ahead of self.
I get it. I want my kids to think of others. To sacrifice for the good of the community and to be aware of those less fortunate.
But they’re girls. Girls are so often told to accept, to make do, that their needs and wants should come after others. There is a world of men who were raised being awarded by default the best cookie by their adoring mothers and families. Who never question their worth and their status as the best cookie getter.
When I worked in a law firm, the better (more-senior) seat in our shared offices was by the window. One was either a window or a door seat lawyer. Once one graduated to a window seat, it was a demotion to move back to the door. It was an extremely obvious and in your face measure of seniority and value. At one point it was decided that, in an effort to consolidate offices, I should move back to a door seat from a window seat while one of my male colleagues with a year less experience was allowed to remain in his window seat.
And I thought about whether I should say something or if it would make me seem petty. I felt embarrassed that I cared about where I sat. I felt betrayed that I had to. That my male colleague could blithely continue working and rise, while I had to stand up and advocate for myself on something that I knew senior partners would feel I “shouldn’t” care about.
Girls are taught to get along. They’re taught to put others first. They’re taught to care what others think.
To leave the best cookie for others.
It wouldn’t occur to my male colleagues to take any cookie but the one that best met their needs, just like it didn’t occur to them to advocate on my behalf when something obviously based on my gender happened. (For those wondering how I know it was solely based on gender – when I pointed out that only months after they laid off the only female partner in the department, and none of the male partners, they chose the only female senior associate to be the only senior associate sitting in a door seat – they apologized, argued it was an oversight and moved my seat back to a window). I got the same cookie as my less-experienced male colleague, but I had to ask for it.
He was able to rise above AND keep his cookie.
How do we raise girls to ask for what they need. How do we raise girls to argue on their own behalf. I wish kindness was the answer. It isn’t. It’s so hard to balance the need to fight for yourself with being a good person. We settled on telling her to prioritize the needs of her family, but outside to take what she’s earned. To advocate and choose well on her own behalf. But outside this house, women who advocate for what they believe are called shrill. They’re called unlikeable. The message we receive about how to be as women is to be silent and to take what we get. That we have to be nice to succeed.
I want to raise girls with a social conscience. Girls with awareness of their privilege. I want them to be kind. But I also want it to be the case that knowing your worth IS likable and valuable in girls just as it is in boys. That standing up for yourself is considered valuable.