Raising a Phoenix: How We Can Start Eliminating the Roots of Gender Bias

2015-09-10-1441889652-5886238-Preston_Smith.pngPreston Smith co-founded Rocketship Education, a nonprofit, national network of public elementary charter schools serving primarily low-income students in neighborhoods where access to excellent schools is limited. He began his career in education as a teacher, later becoming a principal in San Jose, California. Preston graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earned a master's degree in educational leadership and administration from San Jose State University and is an Aspen New Schools Fellow. He lives in San Jose with his wife and two children, who both attend Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep. 

With people like Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington and Marissa Mayer firmly established in the modern business world, we are making significant strides towards gender equality in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And yet, despite what feels like meaningful progress, the fact remains that nine out 10 Silicon Valley executives are men. In order to achieve more gender quality in the workplace, we must address dynamics that start at a young age, and are so deep-seeded and subtle that people often don't even realize they exist.

As an example, I was recently at the grocery store with my young daughter. As we ran through the aisles -- my daughter grabbing strawberries and ice cream while wearing her Elsa dress -- she was in her own little world (like many four year olds).

"Oh, you have a little princess!" one customer commented, and "oh, how beautiful!" said another. "What a pretty dress!" "Wow, you're so cute!" On the drive home, she was charmed. She said she was glad that everyone thinks she looked beautiful in her dress. But I froze.

I am glad people think she's beautiful (she is). But she is also brilliant and giving. She's fierce, with a personality and will that does not yield. Her nickname at preschool, "la general," says it all.

These comments, no matter how well-meaning, have a huge impact on how girls will behave for the rest of their lives.

"Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything," writes Lisa Bloom, author of "Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World." As a father, I see this every day. My son gets comments about how smart he is, how tough he is, how creative he is. While my daughter, nine out of 10 times, gets comments about being cute, pretty or beautiful.

Whether intentional or not, we often teach girls at a young age that their physical attributes, not their ambition or intellect, are what matters most. It makes me wonder if we would have more powerful executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington and Marissa Mayer leading Fortune 100 companies if we didn't engrain this subtle gender bias at such a young age. If we tell little girls that they are, smart, clever, creative and tough, my guess is that we would see more women executives rising to the top as these girls grow older.

Luckily, a simple practice can begin to help us to understand and address our unconscious gender biases: awareness.

Latoya Fernandez, a fifth-grade humanities teacher at one of our Rocketship schools in San Jose, is pushing such awareness with a social empowerment girls group she calls QUEEN HYPE (Quality Urban Equal Education Network Helping Young Pioneers Excel).

"Our girls have a disadvantage in our society. They often lack confidence to seek the same opportunities as males do," she told me when she created the program two years ago.

It's not just educators who must implement social justice into their curriculum. It's the responsibility of all adults to empower girls to see women like them doing great things. It can be as simple as suggesting books for kids (both boys and girls) to read where the female characters are relatable and accomplish big things. What kids see and hear is what they connect with their own reality as they grow into adulthood.

As a father and a leader of a nonprofit network of charter schools, it's important to me to reflect on these ideas. It's also important to integrate these reflections into my own practices as a business leader and a father. I hope that as my daughter grows older, there will be many more business leaders that inspire her. I also hope that she grows up to feel confident, successful and valued because of the person she is, and not just because of her appearance. I encourage other parents and business leaders to reflect on the examples they set for the children in their lives, and the ways subtle gender biases may appear in their day-to-day activities.