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Raising Your Girl Like a Boy

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By Julie Zhuo (Director of Product Design, Facebook)

For as long as I can remember, my parents have told me that they raised me like a boy.

As soon as I could grasp that the way to raise a child was a thing that -- like interior decor -- parents could choose, I knew this about my parents' intentions.

My parents would look at each other, flash a knowing smile, and declare "oh, we raised Julie like a boy" the way they might declare that they recycled, or drove a hybrid car, or volunteered at the local shelter. This fact was always stated with an air of pride and in the presence of guests. It annoyed me to no end. How could they be so smug?

After all, this was what created the nightmarish trauma of third grade, when my mom gave me a short, boy-cropped haircut to wear to school. (Don't be fooled -- that style may look cute now on the likes of Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, but at eight years old, little boys and girls do not look nearly distinct enough to warrant the same haircut.)

More irritating was the fact that if my parents were so proud of the fact that they raised me like a boy, didn't it insinuate somehow that boys were better, or at least the boy-way of doing things was better? I got Legos instead of Barbies for Christmas. Video games were encouraged but dress-up was frowned upon. I begged for ballet lessons at the age of seven, to which my parents eventually acquiesced, but only under the condition that I also take swimming classes.

This insistence on participating in "boy" activities was one of the great perplexities of my life, until the era of the Great Teenage Rebellion. Then, of course, I decided that I would be the one to choose what I liked and didn't. And you know what? I liked celebrity gossip. I liked dressing up and shopping for clothes. Hell, I even liked teddy bears (so much so I've been told my dog resembles one.)

Girls will be girls, some will say. So much for my parents' overeager and perhaps misguided attempts to change what many will claim is nature.

These days, you'd never mistake me for a boy. Except for the fact that I still love Legos. And video games. Especially Starcraft. I went to college to study Computer Science, which I then taught, which I then used to get an engineering job at a fast-growing startup. I love technology, and I love to build things. These days, that's what I wake up and do.

It still grates at me that my parents consider their parenting strategy to be "raise your girl like a boy." But looking back, it's less their methods I have issue with than the fact that so many wonderful toys and hobbies and activities are considered 'boy-like' by our society. It disappoints me that traditional notions of gender still play such a big role in marketing and expectations and how we treat our little girls versus boys.

I am reminded of my parents every time I read articles on career and gender, for instance, a study on how daughters are influencing their dads to let go of their traditional ideas of gender roles (perhaps my dad was just channeling to the extreme?) Or Sheryl Sandberg's upcoming book about how the "ambition gap" between genders is why there are so few women represented in the upper ranks of leadership. Samantha Ettus goes one step further to identify some reasons why this gap exists. There's even been backlash against the supposed "bad lessons" learned from Disney princesses.

I don't have a daughter yet, but someday I might. And while I'm sure I won't be trying to actually make her look like a boy, I'll want for her all the opportunities that everyone - men and women alike -- ought to have, with no notion of what is or isn't appropriate for her gender.

We'll read books and play video games and I'll ask her how she wants to change the world when she grows up. And if she says she wants to be a princess, I'll kindly explain that princess isn't really a viable profession in this day and age, but president still is.

And who knows? Maybe by then, that'll be the norm.

Maybe by then, that'll be considered the girl-way to raise a girl.

Julie Zhuo was a speaker at the 2013 Women 2.0 Conference.

About the guest blogger: Julie Zhuo is Director of Product Design on News Feed and new mobile initiatives at Facebook. She is an inventor of Facebook Platform and Facebook Connect, and designed many of the social plugins for third-party sites, including the Like button. She has been at Facebook since 2006. Julie holds a B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University. She writes regularly about design and technology. Follow her on Twitter at @joulee.