When my son was two years old, he told me that he wanted to get dress-up clothes. So we went to the second-hand store and he picked out a sparkly red sequin top and a long flowy green dress.
When we got home he tried them on and immediately started crying. What’s wrong?” I asked him. “They don’t fit me,” he wailed through tears.
He was right. The adult sizes drowned his 20-pound frame. I hadn’t worried about sizes when he picked them out. I’d imagined we’d pin and tie them as I’d done when I played dress-up as a kid.
What I didn’t realize was that my son and I had different understandings of “dress-up.” I thought dress-up meant putting on costumes and playing pretend. But my son explained, “I want a dress that I can wear to the playground.”
So we walked back to the second hand store and picked out a dress that fit him perfectly. It was a short-sleeve pink dress with white polka dots fitted at the waist with a bow in the back. He wore it gleefully to the playground that day, and dozens of days after that until the polka dots were more gray than white.
Supporting my son in his desire to wear dresses, nail polish, and Mary Janes forced me to confront my own gender biases. It was easy to pat myself on the back when I encouraged him to play with dolls and kitchen toys. That didn't involve other people's judgements. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a little part of me wished that he would have picked out jeans and a t-shirt for his 3rd birthday party instead of the leopard print corduroy dress and bright yellow sandals.
Relatives told me that my son’s grandfather would be rolling in his grave if he could see him in a dress. Others commented that it might be okay to let a boy wear a dress in San Francisco where we lived, but not in other parts of the country. Friends asked me if I was worried that Kiran would be teased by other kids.
Yes, sometimes I did worry that kids and adults could be cruel. But there’s no answer to, “why mama? why can’t I wear that dress?” that doesn’t equate to the only honest, yet deeply dissatisfying answer: because that’s not what people expect.
Research shows that placing rigid gender expectations on young children can be harmful to their long-term physical and emotional well-being. We’re bombarded with pressures to conform to very narrow and binary stereotypes - not just in what we wear, but also in how we act. We send harmful messages that boys should be strong, brave, outgoing, and independent; while girls should be modest, silent, and put others first.
There's little room to explore the gender spectrum - unless we make room. It might be easier on me to encourage my son to fall in line with expected gender roles. I wouldn’t have to worry about what other people think. But he wouldn’t get to be explore. He wouldn’t gain the confidence and courage to forge his own path. And I wouldn’t get to see that deliriously happy grin on his face when he spins around in those dresses.
So what does this have to do with negotiation? Everything.
If you’ve a woman who has ever felt like you shouldn’t ask for a bigger salary because you’re worried that your boss will think you’re too demanding -- consider whether your own gender biases are stopping you.
It's true that you may face sexism. In fact, you probably will. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, agism, and lots of other isms are happening all around us all the time. We won't stop fighting discrimination. But let's look at ourselves too.
So if you’ve been thinking of asking for a promotion, more responsibility, or more money, please don’t let the pressure of gender norms get in your way. Yes, you’re taking a risk by breaking the so-called rules. But breaking the rules could be just what you need to propel your career forward.