Ignoring Cultural Norms in the Workforce

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A young female welder adjusts her goggles, Groton, Connecticut, 1943. Photograph by Bernard Hoffman.

A photo posted by History In Pics (@historyphotographed) on

A reader writes:

Those who blame cultural norms and expectations for women choosing different career are incredibly patronizing. They’re basically telling women they are too dumb and brainwashed to make their own decisions.

Theoretically, I agree. But when it comes to the gender gap, it’s about why these rational decisions happen. I think we live in a world where these norms mean that those decisions manifest different costs.

A few readers below have great examples of ignoring culture norms—something trailblazing women and those entering male-dominated professions have probably had experience with. Here’s the first:

My family actively told me I would fail science and math courses. I was told that “girls don’t take Physics” and “You’re just going to fail out of school, so you should just drop out and come home.” I was called dummy and stupid. I was actively discouraged. My father yelled at me because he was angry that I took Organic Chemistry and he could not understand it. He even told me I would die without him. Typical abusive narcissistic parent.

But thanks to my best friend and mentors, I graduated with my science degree, went to law school, and have been practicing law for the past four years. Luckily I’m independent and stubborn, otherwise I see how it’s very easy to cave into the pressure and believe the BS.

Next is a longer personal story from a woman who also didn’t let direct cultural pressures hold her back (the bolding is my own):

I am an ICU physician who works at one of the largest university-run hospitals in the country. Of the 30 or so individuals in my division, approximately one-third are women, and I am the only woman who has clinical duties solely in the ICU.

According to the 2012 Association of American Medical Colleges, only 30 percent of active physicians in the U.S. are women, despite the fact that 46 percent of trainees (physicians in internship, residency, or fellowship) are women. In internal medicine, the broad scope that encompasses my subspecialty, 34 percent of practicing physicians are women. In pulmonary and critical care medicine, my subspecialty, almost 17 percent of practicing physicians are women. That means I am one of only 2100 female ICU physicians in this country, out of an adult female population of over 84.3 million.

I give this background because my experience is more about trying to ignore cultural norms. Statistically speaking, I’ve already succeeded. I am grateful because I understand how improbable this is, and grateful that my community has supported me throughout this endeavor.

My spouse tolerates the “so who wears the pants in the relationship?” jabs (for the record, there are no pants). My parents smile and nod when people exclaim how their daughter chose “such a difficult profession.”

This is not to say that people have not tried to dissuade me. There was the great-aunt who asked why I would go to medical school when I could move back to Asia and teach English. My mother really hoped I would become a geriatrician and open a clinic because she thought the lifestyle would be better. Nearly everyone raised eyebrows when I told them what I wanted to do, usually followed with a “Are you sure?” as if to say that my chosen profession was too hard.

But when the time came for me to decide if I wanted to be in academics or go into private practice, cultural norms still played a role in the position I ultimately chose.

For all the rather self-congratulatory exceptionalism, there were some cultural norms I wanted to participate in. I have already deferred starting a family even beyond the advancing median age of pregnancy, and putting it off for much longer was going to be an expensive proposition. If I were in private practice, how would my partners react if I became pregnant? Would they be willing to pick up even more shifts if I ended up on bedrest or had a prolonged recovery post-delivery? I knew I would certainly take a pay cut if those things happened, since compensation is directly tied into how many patients you see. How many weeks of maternity leave would I be able to negotiate? Would I be considered a “workaholic mother” if I continued to work 90+ hours a week?

There were many more important reasons that drove me to academic medicine than just these considerations, but the secured salary and more flexible working schedule was certainly the icing on the cake. One of my colleagues is pregnant now, and the willingness of everyone to work around her delivery date is a relief. The exchange for this was making about 60 percent of what I could have made in private practice (when accounting for the fact that I work fewer hours, the pay differential is still about 80 percent).

As I said in the beginning, I am entirely grateful for the set of circumstances that led to where I am today. But to say that professional women are protected from cultural norms is only partially true. We have to buck trends to get to where we are. We are still the ones gestating fetuses, giving birth, and lactating; there is no alternative to that. While we have the education to acknowledge cultural norms for what they are, some of us still desire to participate in some of them, and that leads us to choose paths that may be less lucrative. However, the footing is more even up here. I do not pay a “maternity fine” by taking leave to give birth, and my position does not change one bit when I come back.

We have a long way before we achieve something that more closely resembles true wage equality. We can never change the biological fact that women are the ones responsible for gestation and lactation. However, if our society can not just allow, but encourage paternity leave of equal duration to maternity leave, that would be a step in the right direction. If we were able to escape the zero-sum mindset, then we could improve. Until those days come, though, I will tell my future daughters to decide what societal norms are important to them, and ignore the rest.

I think ignoring social norms is undeniably an important part of progress when it comes to the gender gap, but no doubt the ability to do this is contingent on both personality and the degree to which a person’s work and social environment encourages it. As the physician reader noted, her own initiative to pursue her career goals was supported by her family, spouse, and colleagues.

Researchers have supported the view that the way norms affect personal decisions could be having an effect the gender gap. If breaking certain norms are too costly, women can retreat from the workforce. In their paper, Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan, and Emir Kamenica explain one of the ways this works (again, the bolding is my own):

Akerlof and Kranton (2000) define identity as one’s sense of belonging to a social category, coupled with a view about how people who belong to that category should behave. They propose that identity influences economic outcomes because deviating from the prescribed behavior is inherently costly. In one application of this model, the two relevant social categories are man and woman, and these two categories are associated with specific behavioral prescriptions, such as “men work in the labor force and women work in the home” and “a man should earn more than his wife.” If deviating from these prescriptions is costly, gender identity would lead to lower labor participation and lower earnings for women.

Their paper supported the notion that “slow moving identity norms are an important factor that limits further convergence in labor market outcomes. Women are bringing personal glass ceilings from home to the workplace.” So while ignoring norms is definitely an important way forward, it’s also important that these norms are challenged to usher in change, as not all women can shoulder these costs.