I was speaking to a gentleman of the boomer generation recently at an event where I was speaking. We were talking about the state of gender equality and the progress achieved (or lack thereof). He said to me, “Tammy, we have been shaped through tens of thousands of years, right back to the caveman era. Things will not change overnight and they will not change as quickly as we want them to. But this younger generation coming up, they’re different. It will be different.”

That’s a common sentiment I hear when I work with organizations on their gender diversity strategy. This promise that the youth will provide a better future. But are the up and coming generations really going to shift things so dramatically? Are they being raised to think so differently? I beg to differ.
Sure today’s younger generations are growing up in a more global society, are surrounded with greater diversity, and are exposed to a broader definition of what constitutes family. But when it comes to gender roles and hardwired thinking, have things really changed at all?

While I agree with the man’s caveman comment in theory and that change won’t happen as fast we want, I reject that we simply wait to evolve to a better future. I reject that we pin our hopes on future generations to figure it out. And without our guidance, the youth of today will be no further ahead than we are. Caveman behavior is alive and well all around us. And not just with grownups in the boardroom or in politics, but on the playground too.

Take this recent example. I was sitting in a sandwich shop and overheard two young boys talking trivia. They were arguing over who was the first person to take flight. One boy said Amelia Earhart and the other mocked his answer saying, “she was the first woman, but not the first to fly. As if, she’s a chic.” Some may view this as playful banter between boys. I call it reinforcement of gender stereotypes.

Another example sits closer to home. I was about to go on a walk outside with my family when my daughter stated that daddy should walk first. When I asked her why, she matter-of-factly said, “Because he’s the leader.” When I again asked why, she said, “Because he’s a boy.” This from the daughter of a woman who has worked for over a decade helping women rise into senior leadership roles. From a child of two feminist parents; parents who equally engage in child rearing and household management? My daughter? Well yes, because there are seemingly innocuous moments every day that shape perceptions. And we need to pay closer attention to them.

At the age of 7 my daughter could not articulate why she believed what she did. But my questioning must have really stuck with her because wouldn’t you know it, 2 years later she explained out of the blue why she believed daddy was the leader. You see during a camping trip with a number of families we went on a hike over rocks and steep inclines. As we got to the first precarious spot, one of the dad’s told the kids to wait so he could go first (to help the kids down the incline). One of the rambunctious boys raced forward asserting he would go next. From this interaction my daughter rationalized that boys always go first and that boys are the leaders.

Imagine the great conversation we had next after she shared her thinking. We talked about what leadership really is and how it’s not about gender at all. I can’t help but wonder though, how many parents are paying this close attention to how their children’s views of gender are being shaped. I see a bleak future unless each and every one of us notice these innocuous moments in disguise and shape the thinking of our youth. These conversations are everywhere if you just watch for them. Seize a moment. Shape our youth. Secure the future.