Why raising my son’s made me question what female empowerment is doing to boys

My son Fin is four. He loves reading, endlessly plays with Lego and has developed a sudden and surprising obsession with bats.

Needless to say, I adore him — and am trying to raise him, like the good feminist I am, to empathise with others, articulate his emotions without fear or repression and to play with pink prams if he wants to.

It recently occurred to me, however, that if I had a daughter I might be more concerned with passing on different messages.

Just as my own mother repeatedly told me throughout my youth, I would be advising my daughter of the importance of being independent, becoming educated, earning her own money and not relying on anyone. I would be encouraging her to be strong.

But I’m not teaching my son any of those sorts of things. Why? I suppose I’ve always thought it was a given that males will grow up to be strong and independent, self-sufficient and confident, no matter what messages they receive in childhood.

Michelle Kennedy (pictured with her son) says she is trying to raise her son Fin, four, to be a good feminist and to empathise with others, as well as encouraging him to articulate his emotions without fear

Only recently have I started to feel decidedly uncomfortable with my own preconceptions about gender.

While I passionately believe that, after years of discrimination, women and young girls deserve a chance to shine and to be cheered on to achieve whatever their heart desires, I can’t help feeling that in the process, we’re in danger of swinging too far the other way. In empowering girls, we’re also disempowering our boys.

So keen have I been to bring my son up to appreciate female achievement and to know that women can be strong, that I’ve been reading him a collection of children’s books called Little People, Big Dreams.

Sumptuously illustrated hardbacks, they take the life stories of famous women in history — artist Frida Kahlo, authors Agatha Christie and Maya Angelou, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and others — and retell them in a child-friendly way.

Fin enjoys them because they’re great stories about people who change things, and is too young yet to notice that these books are all about women.

But while reading them to him before bed, I’ve been feeling a little odd. While I know that regular history books have long been criticised for ignoring women and being too male-centric, I’m not sure the answer is to present our children with girls-only books.

The CEO of Peanut, an app for like-minded mothers, said it recently occurred to her that if she had a daughter she might be more concerned with passing on different messages 

The CEO of Peanut, an app for like-minded mothers, said it recently occurred to her that if she had a daughter she might be more concerned with passing on different messages 

Doesn’t that only succeed in perpetuating the original problem — but for boys, rather than girls? Are we just reinforcing gender stereotypes, albeit in the other direction?

The Little People collection has been such a success that it’s spawned many copycat books, which devotedly tell the stories of great women of science, sport, politics and more. They are in the same spirit as so many deserving schemes that aim to inspire girls to reach for the stars, be it professionally or intellectually.

And my feminist heart applauds the intentions of such initiatives. Yet as a mother of a young son, I can’t help but worry.

While we’re all happy to talk about our desire for ‘strong women’ in society these days, I’m ashamed to admit that I somehow feel disconcerted to hear someone discuss a ‘strong man’.

Because, if I’m honest, when hearing the words ‘strong man’ I subconsciously think of negative connotations — things like misogyny or bullying. But when I hear the words ‘strong woman’, I think of victory over oppression.

So engrained has this divide become that any display of male strength seems almost discouraged. And when I imagine Fin growing up, that doesn’t sit well with me.

Michelle said recently she has started to feel uncomfortable with her own preconceptions about gender 

Michelle said recently she has started to feel uncomfortable with her own preconceptions about gender 

Why? Well, it seems we already have a lost generation of boys, a whole underclass of disenfranchised young men who don’t know where they’re going in life or what their purpose is. Surely every mother wants her son to appreciate that women can be strong and successful — but no one wants a situation where young boys simply don’t know what it is to be a strong and successful man, either.

Other mothers are similarly unnerved about their sons’ futures in this new landscape. Recently, someone told me of a picture she’d seen on Instagram — a woman, posing with her young son and daughter. The smiling mother and daughter are wearing t-shirts declaring ‘The Future is Female’. Meanwhile, her son looks decidedly lost and perplexed, perhaps uneasy at the thought of a future where he is seemingly obsolete.

Shouldn’t the future be about change? Or ideas? Not one gender over another?

I suppose you could say I was raised to believe the future was, indeed, female. From a young age, my mother made sure that I knew I could be anything I wanted to be, I just had to work for it — albeit harder than the boys in my class.

Otherwise, my childhood was entirely average — I grew up in East Anglia, went to a local comprehensive and my best friends from school, both male and female, are still my best friends today.

Gender roles in our house were pretty distinct: my father, an electrician, left for work at 4.30am most mornings and my mother only ever worked part-time, around school hours. As for careers advice, well, in common with most children whose parents worked hard in manual jobs, there was a limited awareness of what options I had.

Michelle suggests that we’re in danger of swinging too far the other way, and that in empowering girls, we’re also disempowering our boys 

Michelle suggests that we’re in danger of swinging too far the other way, and that in empowering girls, we’re also disempowering our boys 

I was told I could be a doctor, lawyer or accountant. I was a fan of the U.S. drama Ally McBeal at the time, starring Calista Flockhart as a lawyer, so I went with lawyer. When I qualified, the first partner I worked for happened to be not only the youngest partner at the firm, but also a woman. She was astute and inspirational, and I wanted to be like her — and with her example, never felt my gender would hold me back.

That changed when I started working as a lawyer for a technology firm, where I was often the only woman in the room. I was frequently talked over, and in one tax structuring meeting, was asked to fetch the sugar (yes, really).

It only made me work harder, and I became deputy CEO, next to the male founder.

Motherhood changed me — not least professionally, because it inspired me to set up my app Peanut, a social network that connects like-minded women who happen to be mothers.

I’m married and we share parenting equally, but I felt isolated when I had Fin in 2013. My friends either didn’t have children yet, or didn’t live locally. I often felt lonely and bored — and then guilty for feeling this way.

The businesswoman said she's ashamed to admit she feels disconcerted to hear someone discuss a ‘strong man’, because she subconsciously thinks of the negative connotations

The businesswoman said she’s ashamed to admit she feels disconcerted to hear someone discuss a ‘strong man’, because she subconsciously thinks of the negative connotations

If I was desperate for an app like Peanut, other mothers would be too, I reasoned.

But motherhood also forced me to confront preconceptions about gender that had become embedded over the years.

I admit that when I discovered I was having a son, I worried about not having anything in common with him. All the things I loved as a child — drama, ballet — seemed decidedly girly. I felt terribly concerned I didn’t know anything about football.

And then Fin was born and I realised that, just like the male sexists I’d met throughout my life and career, I, too, had quickly reduced my son to a stereotype.

Because he’s not just a predictable boisterous ‘boy’ of cliché. He’s his own person.

Fin was born and I realised that, just like the male sexists I’d met throughout my life and career, I, too, had quickly reduced my son to a stereotype

He’s not like me — not because he is a boy, but because he is an individual. His endearing shyness, his lovely bookishness have nothing to do with his gender. They’re part of his personality.

And yet I, a lifelong champion of equality, still find myself falling back on stereotypes when caring for him.

For example, I admit I have told him more than once ‘big boys don’t cry’. I would never dream of saying the equivalent to a four-year-old girl.

Imagine then, how I felt, when Fin’s nursery teacher told me of an incident when he had somehow become physically entangled with another boy. She offered him a cuddle because he was upset, which he stoically refused — and when told it was OK to be sad, my little four-year-old, red-faced with anguish, permitted one solitary tear to run down his cheek. I felt terrible. Because it seems that while society is trying to allow girls to be all things — strong, independent, emotional, empathetic — we will only permit boys to show aggression or boisterousness.

Yet any mother will tell you her boy can be just as sweet and vulnerable as a girl, and that the complex, wonderful reality of a son challenges any football-obsessed cliché that exists.

Of course, girls still all too often come off badly when it comes to stereotyping. Boys are described as ‘assertive’ and ‘inquisitive’; girls are quickly deemed ‘bossy’ and ‘talkative’.

The young man who says women his age treat him like the enemy

Ravi Kumar, 30, is an office administrator from Milton Keynes.

There are times when I feel like I’m on the enemy side in a war between the sexes that, as a man, I didn’t sign up for.

The women I ask out blatantly try to establish that I’m at least as successful as they are before they’ll consider a date. I’m judged by my earning potential long before my personality becomes a consideration. I have a mother, grandmothers, a sister and a niece: I loathe the idea of any one of them being disadvantaged because of her sex. And yet, my generation seems to be expected to take male inequality on the chin, as though we deserve to be punished for sins committed against women in the past.

It’s well documented that boys are trailing behind girls at school and university. But in my experience, the problem is following us out of the classroom and into the adult world, too.

Men and women don’t seem to know how to talk to each other any more. I’m terrified of inadvertently coming across as sexist by saying the wrong thing.

If I complain, I’m told to suck it up and ‘be a man’. But the fact is, being a man seems to be what’s going against me in the first place. When I do go on dates, women seem more interested in impressing me with their latest promotion than exploring what we have in common.

Recently I went to a speed-dating event and told a girl my ambition was to become an accountant. She said she wouldn’t date an accountant; she was at the stage in her career where she would want someone who ran their own accountancy firm. I felt snubbed. I would happily date a woman less qualified than me, but women seem to want a man to provide for them financially as well as having equal rights.

I feel like I’m not just on the enemy side, but on the losing one, too. After all, successful women simply aren’t interested in a bloke like me these days.

I should know — I was one of those little chatterbox girls.

It’s also inarguable that while things are changing for girls, boys appear to be in limbo.

I recently read a comment from comedian and writer Michael Ian Black which summed up just this situation: ‘The last 50 years redefined womanhood … [but there was] no commensurate movement for men, who are still generally locked into the same rigid, outdated, model of masculinity. Men are adrift … and nobody is talking about it.’

Black’s words really struck a chord with me, as they should any mother. Indeed, with what he says in mind, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the attainment gap between boys and girls is growing ever larger.

A girl born today is 75 per cent more likely than a boy to proceed to higher education. Previously male-dominated professions are becoming distinctly female. Two out of three new GPs are women and, among lawyers, more than three in five trainees are female.

Yes, some of this is certainly down to righting the wrongs of a past where women were restricted to being nurses and secretaries; and yes, there are still industries where there is a lack of diversity — engineering and architecture to name just two.

But overall, has it meant some boys and young men are languishing intellectually and aspirationally? Are the seeds of this sown from the earliest days of primary school, where just 15 per cent of teachers are male?

We mustn’t forget that the true definition of feminism is equality. Yet last year, 71 per cent of female GCSE entries were awarded at least a C grade, compared with just 61.5 per cent of boys. Attempting to address that gap shouldn’t be seen as anti-women.

I’m thrilled so much has changed for women since those days when my mother told me how important it was that I grew up to be independent. We’re still many decades away from true gender parity in the UK. I don’t have all the answers. But I do know men are not the enemy.

I know this for sure because one day my lovely, sweet-natured son will be a man. And I want him to accomplish whatever he wants, not because of his gender, but because of his self-worth.

Interview: Maureen Brookbanks

Michelle Kennedy is the founder and CEO of Peanut, the app that connects like-minded women who happen to be mothers and facilitates conversations women want and need to have. It is free to download on iOS and Android — just search ‘Peanut’ or follow them on Instagram @ peanut.

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