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.