Workplace discrimination begins far before anyone enters the sexist corporate world, apparently. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, made headlines at the World Economic Forum recently by claiming there is a “toddler wage gap” and that parents start short-changing their daughters before they are even old enough to count. As Sanders put it, “We assign our chores to our children in the United States, and it can be worse in other parts of the world. . . . The boys are taking out the trash, it takes less time than cleaning the dishes and they get bigger allowances.” Sandberg’s charge is backed up by studies that suggest boys receive higher allowances even when doing fewer chores.
But is this really evidence that parents are unconsciously biased against our daughters?
Not necessarily. Parents may be responding to natural differences in what motivates girls and boys, and children may also have different recollections that skew such studies’ findings. In my house, my daughter truly enjoys helping with food preparation and even setting the table and cleaning up. She doesn’t need me to dangle cash to make her want to help with these chores; moreover, if asked in a survey, she may not even understand that these activities are chores related to an allowance or payment, since the money wasn’t what motivated her. My son—who dreads anything resembling picking up—would be far more likely to remember receiving a dollar for any chore, because that’s what got him through the otherwise unbearably boring task.
Children’s faulty memories aside, parents may offer boys more monetary compensation to make up for differences in motivation and preferences. Is this really evidence of sexism and the beginnings of a life-long wage gap? That seems a stretch: Allowances are pretty minor in terms of the economic support we give our children, and the feedback children receive in the form of positive affirmations seem as likely to help encourage positive attitudes and expectations as the receipt of hard dollars. Moreover, some studies suggest that, especially when money is tight, parents spend more on daughters. Isn’t this total investment at least as important as the small matter or how much they receive in allowance?
Sandberg mistakenly focuses only on the ways that society favors boys over girls. There are other measures on which girls receive better treatment and boys suffer from a form of discrimination. For example, this University of Georgia study found that teachers tend to give girls better grades than boys even when they receive the same test scores. They report, “gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.”
This doesn’t mean teachers are purposely punishing boys: Rather, teachers understandably favor students who show what the researchers characterize as positive engagement in the classroom, which is more prevalent in little girls. This helps explain why girls overall are outperforming boys in terms of academic achievement.
Sandberg cites the fact that mothers tend to “systematically overestimate their sons’ crawling, and underestimate their daughters’,” implying that low expectations for girls’ earliest form of mobility will somehow plague their lifelong chances of upward mobility. Yet this could be seen through a different lens: Parents are aware that society places more value on boys’ athletic prowess so search for signs of our sons’ physical success. Rather than being unfair to girls, this extra pressure on boys could be seen as placing them at a disadvantage and contribute to why boys are far more likely to get injured or suffer an accidental death than girls are.
Differences in how boys and girls behave and how parents treat their sons and daughters is interesting and informative. Parents and teachers ought to be aware of how our expectations may impact how we treat a child, and how natural sex differences may influence children’s behavior. This knowledge can help us better encourage both our sons and daughters to make the most of their strengths and overcome their weakness.
But Sandberg gets it wrong when implying that these differences are an outgrowth of misogyny or sexism against girls, or that they all point in one direction and that boys are always advantaged. In reality, the picture is much more mixed. We should strive to treat our children as individuals rather than as members of a sex, but as we work toward this goal we should recognize that it isn’t just girls who have stereotypes to overcome.