The 'Obvious' Career Choices

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

Another reader, Kate, responds to my callout about the cultural norms and pressures that might be affecting the way women make career decisions. She talks about the different kinds of real-life role models that men and women experience growing up:

I’m a landscape architect. My parents are both professors of landscape architecture. My sister is an urban planner. My grandfather was an architect. My parents are both feminists and worked diligently to ensure that my sister and I felt we were capable of achieving anything. They supported us tremendously and encouraged us to follow our dreams.

The problem was that our dreams didn’t stray far from what we knew.

We were surrounded by smart, accomplished, and interesting adults who served as wonderful role models. But almost all of them, family and friends, came from the same worlds of academia and design that my parents came from. We didn’t know any bankers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, or scientists. These professions barely crossed my mind as potential choices as a child or young adult.

And this is where I think gender comes into play. A man raised in my scenario would have had the same feminist upbringing and would have been given access to the same role models in design and academia. However, he would have also had countless examples of other options shown to him as well; men as bankers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, scientists (and many more) abound in the media, children’s books, and textbooks.

These would be presented as viable career options again and again, whereas I didn’t see those options. My parents didn’t hold those positions, the other adults I knew didn’t hold those positions, and I very rarely encountered any women holding those positions. Images of women in these jobs weren’t as prevalent as images of men in these jobs, which I think impacted my perception of what jobs were available to me.

I like what I do. I also like that because it’s similar to what my family members do, we can connect over those shared interests. However, I’m also interested in business. I’m interested in science. I’m interested in law. Sometimes I wonder whether I chose my profession correctly, or whether I was just shuffled into it because it was the obvious choice for me at the time. And because I’m a woman.

When I was very young, I remember wanting to become an astronaut, and at the time I’m not sure that seeing images of only male astronauts deterred me. Though so many of these signals are subliminal, and they come into play when we’re actually choosing what to study and which professions to pursue, rather than when we’re children dreaming of working. (Side note: I thought a lot about this while I was watching the new Ghostbusters movie and Equity.)

John Krumboltz, a professor at Stanford and a “career theorist,” emphasizes that passive learning—such as observing parents, family friends, and other significant role models—has a powerful influence on career decisions. Taking this further, I think that this influence, combined with the thinking that career decisions happen “naturally,” has the potential to perpetuate gendered occupational outcomes. One data project has shown that for some careers, children are more likely to end up in the same profession as their parents.