“Dad, why does that sign say ‘Men Working’? Isn’t that sexist?”
My thirteen-year-old daughter and I are driving to the store, and there is road work ahead.
“Yes,” I sigh.
“Then why does it still exist?”
Good question, I think, as I realize she is ready for The Talk. (No, not that Talk, I mean The Talk about the many ways the world remains gendered to the detriment of women.) I am a stay-at-home dad and now a writer while my wife is a physician, so gender roles in our home are usually fluid and negotiable—unlike in the “real world,” as the sign attests.
Because I want my daughter (and her younger sister) to be able to detect male privilege as much as possible, I start teaching Sexism 101 over the course of several drives. Together we review how our landscape is littered with the remnants of discrimination. As a former English professor, I rehash my fresh“man” composition lecture on nonsexist language. We discuss “Mr.” vs. “Mrs.-Miss-Ms.” as identity markers, and I recall the joke—much less common today, fortunately—about how men would sometimes say women went to college merely for their “MRS degree.” At this point, my daughter connects the gendered dots to her Spanish class, in which she learns the default that if a group of infinite women includes just one man, the masculine forms of language must be used. Talk about “a man’s world,” literally.
As her teen anger rises, I lighten the mood by explaining that some view these dry, potentially boring grammatical topics as so much “s/h/it.” We also laugh about the phrase “women’s work,” which my daughter would have assumed meant long hours of doing surgery and running staff meetings. I review how her own mother managed to overcome many forms of that “Men Working” sign on her way to a medical degree, and how my leadership on the domestic front challenges a sexist worldview as well. We also laugh at the many clichés that our house revises—e.g., on my most challenging days I’ve been known to mumble, “A woman works from sun to sun, but a man’s work is never done.”
In hindsight, I’m partially thankful for that orange sign, for it signaled to my daughter that the world will not always be as gender-neutral as our home. Such a sign serves as a vestigial organ of our social body, like the human appendix that is now only capable of health problems and will one day disappear due to its utter lack of evolutionary value. But until it disappears, we cannot afford to ignore it.
The sign also reminded me that I am one of a growing number of “men working” to reconstruct much of the environment created by other men before us. I visualize uprooting the large orange sign and planting it in the middle of those ill-titled “Mommy and Me” classes where I first met some fellow stay-at-home dads with their babies.
In other words, I am a man working for my daughters to have the same options I had at their age, when I felt free to pursue my own happiness and no signs told me otherwise. While I may have taken the road less traveled, I felt confident the road ahead would be of my own making. May they experience the same freedom to pursue their own happiness, wherever life leads them—or to be more grammatically accurate, wherever they lead life.