What to say when a parent tells your daughter 'you look pretty in that dress.'

Many of us talk the talk when it comes to changing society’s perceptions of what a healthy and respectful relationship should look like and what gender equality means in Australia in 2017.

But do we walk the walk?

Sexism is an everyday reality for women – and often it’s the seemingly small acts that are overlooked, dismissed or ignored.

But you can start the fight against sexism early, by talking to your kids and showing them how to manage the everyday scenarios.

1. The ‘joke’.

What it looks like: A sexist insult disguised as a joke: “It’s just banter…”, “Only joking…” Rather than being challenged to reflect on the impact their ‘jokes’ have on others, the implication is it’s the responsibility of the subject to get over it, stop being so sensitive and develop a sense of humour.

What to do: If you laugh, stay silent or dismiss the remark, kids see that as validation. Instead, question the joke: “What did you mean by that?” Jokes are less funny when they have to be explained, and the sexism in them becomes more apparent. Call it out, even if you miss the initial moment. Make sure the joker and the audience witness your stance so your kids learn it’s okay to call out sexist jokes too.

2. Devaluing contributions.

What it looks like: Dismissing contributions based on gender assumptions, for example, not listening to a woman’s diagnosis of a plumbing problem, or a man’s understanding of childcare. Women in particular experience this devaluation, whether it’s men interrupting or talking over them, “mansplaining”, or having their views or ideas dismissed until a man introduces them.


What to do: Model positive behaviour for your kids. In discussions between genders, ensure all contributions are heard and acknowledged. If you’re watching or listening to a program with your kids in which the speakers aren’t receiving equal airtime or recognition for their input, it’s all right to provide your own commentary: “Why is he getting applause for saying that? She just made that exact point!”

LISTEN: Is there a systemic issue with telling our daughters they’re “beautiful”? Post continues after audio. 

3. Gendered roles.

What it looks like: Assumption of roles or allocation of tasks by perceived suitability based on gender stereotypes, for example, mum does the cooking and dad mows the lawn.

What to do: Again, modelling is incredibly powerful. At home, create a roster: for example, one week mum does the cooking and dad mows the lawn and then the next week dad does the cooking and mum mows the lawn. When you assign chores to the kids, don’t assign different tasks to your sons and daughters – rotate them.

Girls shouldn't feel bad about not sticking to the 'status quo'. (Image: Getty)

If you have a chance to expose your children to someone against a gender stereotype – for example a female electrician, a male nanny – consider doing so to decouple gender from certain roles in their minds.

4. Physical appearance.

What it looks like: Different expectations about how age, appearance and attractiveness determine girls and boys value. For example, girls often receive comments about their appearance rather than their abilities; and boys are not expected to care much about what they wear. It might manifest as judgement by physical attributes: "Check out the... on that."

What to do: If there's a remark about appearance directed at your child, call it out by referencing their abilities or personality; "He chooses his outfits at the shops. He really likes stripes." Be aware of how you praise your child's appearance. For example, instead of saying, "you're so pretty!", consider, "you've chosen such a pretty outfit," which changes the focus to the decision-making process rather than physical appearance.


The digital age also brings new challenges; online pornography reinforces objectification, promotes unrealistic expectations of body shape and size, and blurs lines around sexual consent, leading to unhealthy attitudes towards relationships. If you feel comfortable addressing pornographic content, talk to your child about what they saw and how they felt. It might be worthwhile going 'behind the scenes' and discussing how the porn industry is run.

5. Behavioural expectations.

What it looks like: Explicit or implied behavioural expectations based on gender. For example, girls are expected to be 'nice' (assertive or loud girls are often labelled 'bossy'); rowdiness is expected and tolerated in boys, but crying is unacceptable.

What to do: Adhere to the same set of behavioural expectations for both sons and daughters. Be careful of approval that reinforces stereotype, such as praising a timid girl for tolerating bad behaviour. Don't dismiss bad behaviour using gender as an excuse, for instance, "boys will be boys". Offhand remarks like this mean boys and men are rarely challenged to reflect upon their behaviour or account for stereotypes they perpetuate and the role they play in reinforcing inequality.

6. Addressing gender stereotypes.

How we talk about boys and girls reinforces gender roles and can lead to behaviour that supports inequality. Take care with these sayings.


What you say/What a boy might think.

“Man up” Men need to be tough.
“Stop acting like a girl” I’m too soft.
“Who wears the pants?” I should be dominating.
“Boys don’t cry” I shouldn’t express my emotions.
"She has you under the thumb” She’s in control of me.
“You’re so whipped” I shouldn’t value what my girlfriend wants to do.

What you say/What a girl might think.

“She’s such a bossy boots” I shouldn’t be assertive or a leader.
“She’s a feisty one” I shouldn’t give my opinion / stand up for myself.
“Why are you being so uptight?” I shouldn’t have boundaries.
“She can be a real know-it-all” I shouldn’t say things that make me sound clever.
“She’s a bit of a tomboy” I shouldn’t be myself / I shouldn’t play the sports that I like / I should look more feminine / I shouldn’t dress the way that I like / I am judged on my appearance.
“She’s a little princess” I shouldn’t be myself / I should look less feminine / I shouldn’t dress the way that I like / I am judged on my appearance.

—‘The Excuse Interpreter’ at

Matthew Porter is the Director of Wellbeing at Waverley College, an independent, non-selective Catholic day school for boys with over 100 years’ history as a school that liberates the potential of students from all backgrounds in its Pre-School, Junior School and Senior School.