Here’s how I include my boys on International Women’s Day.

Here’s why International Women’s Day is relevant to parents of boys, too, writes Danielle Dobson.

International Women’s Day (March 8, 2023) presents an important narrative around raising strong girls and encouraging them to be part of a more inclusive future. And as an advocate and consultant working in the field of gender equality, it’s a significant date on my calendar every year.

But as a mum to three boys, it feels like there’s a gap when it comes to the part boys play in rebalancing gender inequality. I’ve noticed it with my own boys, especially as they’ve become teenagers with their own strong thoughts and opinions about the world.

Rather than glossing over International Women’s Day as a mum of boys, here’s how I’m making it relevant to them in 2023 (and beyond), and how other parents can do the same.

Understand their operating system

When I was conducting the research for my book Breaking the Gender Code a few years ago, I wanted to bring my partner, ex-husband, brothers and sons along for the ride. Cue lots of intense and sometimes uncomfortable conversations around the dinner table, as we explored the gender coding that underpins our society, and that teaches us men and women are intrinsically different.

I remember one night, my middle boy, who was aged 10 at the time, burst into tears.

He said, “I feel like the Gender Code is my fault mum.” He was upset about being a boy, after learning about the patriarchal structures embedded in our society. But my other sons took it very differently – one didn’t really see how it was relevant to him, and the other was more reflective on it, seeing it as a story to learn from.

It was a reminder to me that each boy will come to things differently, so it’s important to understand what they already know about gender inequality and connect with them in a way that’s relevant to their experience and knowledge.

Talk about people as individuals

It’s easy to think about ‘women’ as one homogeneous group, but this then makes it easier to stigmatise, generalise and dehumanise.

So helping boys to acknowledge and connect with individuals, helps them understand the value and uniqueness we all bring, regardless of gender. It’s harder to label people into boxes when we see them as individuals, because, as Brene Brown says: “It’s hard to hate people close up.”

By humanising the challenges, triumphs and trip-ups of women in their lives and sharing stories – of their grandmothers, aunts, teachers, coaches and my own, I’m helping my boys to emotionally connect with all the people in their lives. Especially those who support them, nurture them, teach them and build a connective societal web for them to exist in, no matter what gender they are.

Shine the light on misogyny

Lead with curiosity, rather than control. So, question the language used on social media content or YouTube clips, and approach it with a desire to understand. It can be difficult, but by consistently being curious, I’m helping my boys develop a deeper awareness and greater understanding of societal constructs around gender.

Rather than shutting down misogynistic content or asking boys to ‘cancel’ people with these views, bring this content out into the open and use it as an opportunity to help your boys think critically about why this content is problematic and interpreted as disrespectful and harmful.

There will be uncomfortable moments in doing this; however, it’s a chance to discuss challenging thoughts and behaviours with them, rather than just dictating what’s right and wrong and thinking in a binary fashion. It means they can make their own minds up, and feel more grounded in their views and opinions.

A question of belonging

It’s natural for kids to want to belong, but also important for them to start to question the rules of belonging.

Group Think dynamics can lead to a dynamic of ‘us and them’, so many boys feel they can’t be their true selves while still being part of a group. All people, and in particular teenagers, want to be liked and to be part of a group. But if the rules of belonging are based on, for example, hyper-masculinity, then groups can become places of toxicity, rather than places to feel safe.

Encourage your boys to question the rules of belonging, by having open and honest conversations with them.

These ongoing check-ins can happen daily, weekly or monthly, but most importantly, they happen consistently rather than as a one-off. Ask them about the dynamics within their friendship groups, and build an environment of emotional and psychological safety at home, where they are encouraged to question when things don’t feel right.

My top tips for talking to boys about International Women’s Day:

  • Invite them to think about why International Women’s Day exists and is important, without playing the blame game.
  • Talk to them about being part of the solution to bridging gender equality, and share the stories of amazing women in their own lives.
  • Use International Women’s Day as an opportunity to value the contribution of all people as individuals, rather than as gendered stereotypes.
  • Invite debate and conversation around gender and ask questions inviting your boys to talk about their own understanding and experiences.
  • Keep an open mind about your boys and their opinions, but also be open to challenging their opinions and where they might have come from.
  • Talk about societal changes that need to happen (for example, access to childcare and parental leave), in order for the gender gap to be bridged, rather than only focusing on the role of individuals.

Danielle Dobson, who’s an author and business consultant working in the field of gender equality. She’s also a mum to three teenage boys.

Breaking the Gender Code:

How women can use what they already have to get what they actually want by Danielle Dobson. Available directly from Code Conversations

“Danielle has literally written the book about the hidden code that governs our lives – the Gender Code – and has discovered how to unpack it and provide solutions to help people leverage the strengths and skills they already have to define and achieve their own version of success”