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Jun 19 2013

On Being A Bit Of A Stereotype

It’s not exactly a secret that social work is an extremely gendered profession. About 86% of MSW students are women, and the percentage of licensed social workers who are women varies by age from 100% of those who are 25 and under to 75% of those who are 65 and over. This should come as no surprise. Social work requires excellent listening skills, lots of empathy, willingness to work for little money and advancement opportunity–traits and interests that women are socialized to have.

Of course, I have thought it all through and realized that gendered expectations played absolutely no role in my decision to study social work and that I, unlike the rest of these people, am going into it simply because this is Who I Really Am. And frankly, I’m offended that you’d even think that I’m going into this field for bullshit reasons like that. I chose it completely on my own.

Just kidding! It never works like that. Of course gender plays a role.

Ironically, the story starts with me being the exact opposite of who I supposedly needed to be. For most of my childhood, adults were always telling me that I was immature, selfish, insensitive, blunt, and socially inept. That I never put anyone’s needs before my own. That I never appreciated the people in my life enough.

So for a while I didn’t understand how it could be that as a young adult, I’ve suddenly become the opposite of that. When did this miraculous transformation happen? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

Of course, kids change as they grow up, and qualities like selfishness, insensitivity, and, obviously, immaturity are sort of hallmark traits of childhood. Maybe I really was all of these things. Maybe I was even all of these things more than most children were. Hell if I know.

But here’s the thing. Although nobody ever sat me down and was like, “You need to become more sensitive and empathic and self-sacrificing because you are female,” I nevertheless got that message for a number of reasons. First of all, when boys did something insensitive or immature or socially inept to me, I was informed that “boys will be boys.” (This is a dangerous thing to tell children for all sorts of reasons.) Second, I knew plenty of boys, and none of them were ever being exhorted to be more sensitive and to consider others’ needs before their own. (If anything, they were being exhorted to be less sensitive, which is also a problem.)

So it’s quite likely that I’ve become the way I am now partially as a way of compensating for those (perceived or actual) flaws, and that this way of compensating just happens to be perfectly aligned with certain gendered expectations about personality traits and career paths.

Well, now what? Should I abandon my dream job because it’s feminine? Am I a bad feminist unless I force myself to study math or science instead? Should I cultivate a persona of not giving a fuck about people?

Nope!

Sometimes when you realize that you’ve been doing something largely because it’s gendered, you lose the impulse to do it. For instance, even though I still like makeup, I wear it very rarely now that I realize that I only felt expected to spend time and money on it because, well, I’m female. However, realizing that being female probably played a huge role in my career decision hasn’t dampened my passion for it at all. It really depends.

Leaving aside for now the fact that I’ll be able to do more for individual women and for women’s rights as a social worker than I could in most other jobs, to claim that I now need to realign my personality to make it non-gendered would be to, well, miss the point of feminism.

In a previous post about feminist criticism, I wrote:

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

I think a lot of people are reluctant to admit that things like gender roles have played a part in their choices because people like to think that we have Complete Total Free Will. While that’s arguable (just please don’t do it on my blog because I find it so damn boring), I think it’s best to view sociocultural influences as just that–influences, not determinants.

For instance, nobody would think it controversial to assume, say, that they enjoy spicy food because that’s what they were always served at home growing up, rather than because there is some intrinsic aspect of their being that “naturally” prefers spicy food. Nobody would be appalled if you suggested that maybe the reason they can’t stand nasty Chicago winters is because they spent the first 20 years of their life in Florida.

With choices a bit more loaded than what food you eat and what weather you like, though, it gets tricky. Why does anyone prefer any particular occupation? We like to think–unless, that is, we are blatantly choosing a career for its status or earning potential–that occupational choices are indicative of Who We Really Are Deep Down. The first question adults ask each other is often, “What do you do?” A question that we often ask children is, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” Note the particular construction of that question as it’s often asked: What do you want to be, not What do you want to do or What job do you want to have. In some ways, I think, this reflects the fact that we view a person’s job as a reflection of who they are as a person, not necessarily as a reflection of a lot of complicated factors including who they are as a person, what opportunities they had growing up, what they were encouraged to do by friends, family, and communities, how much money they could afford to spend on education, and other factors that are external to your own unique personality traits, skills, and interests.

Of course, on some level, everyone knows this. It’s not like people don’t realize that a lot more goes into choosing an occupation than just personal characteristics. But it’s one thing to admit to yourself that you can’t really be a doctor because you can’t afford the education, and another to admit to yourself that you don’t really want to be a doctor because you have, to some extent, internalized gender stereotypes that make that choice seem…wrong to you.

So, let me reiterate: there is nothing intrinsically “wrong” with being affected by gender roles or with admitting (to yourself or others) that you’ve been affected by gender roles. You are not a bad person if you’re affected by them. It’s not a sign of “weakness” in the sense that strong people resist gender roles and weak people cannot resist gender roles. There are probably many factors influencing one’s willingness and ability to resist them, and I doubt that whatever the hell “strength” even is has much to do with it.

I do think that being honest with yourself is important, though, and I think critically examining your own preferences and desires makes you more self-aware and interpersonally effective. And only you can do that for yourself. If I meet a woman who wants to be a model or a man who wants to be a football player, it’s categorically not my place to presume that they’re choosing these paths because of gender roles. I might suspect so, because it’s a fairly likely (partial) explanation, but people know themselves best.

They don’t always know themselves very well, but they still know themselves best.

In a post about women who change their names to their husbands’ after marrying, Kate Harding responds to those who claim that this is still a feminist choice:

Look, you’re a feminist who, in this particular case, made the non-feminist choice. That’s all. I assume it was the right choice for you, or you wouldn’t have done it, and that’s fine! But feminism is not, in fact, all about choosing your choice. It is mostly about recognizing when things are fucked up for women at the societal level, and talking about that, and trying to change it. So sometimes, even when a decision is right for you, you still need to recognize that you made that decision within a social context that overwhelmingly supports your choice, and punishes women who make a different one.

There are parallels between this and my career choice. I recognize that, as a woman, social work is a much easier choice than it would be for a man, or than it would be for a woman to choose engineering or pro sports. (Of course, it’s a very difficult path for other reasons, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) Social work is a profession to which women who wanted to work in mental healthcare have historically been relegated because they were not allowed into professional psychology/psychiatry. That doesn’t make it any less a good choice for me. It’s just something I want to be mindful of.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Good point, Miri, worth thinking about.

    I know I made an explicit choice, when I was 21 and looking for a university to go to, that I wouldn’t go into STEM fields, because I knew by then that transition was coming, and that I just didn’t have the wherewithal to manage dealing with both the inevitable horrific transphobia of 1987 AND the horrific misogyny of STEM in those days (ha! who am I kidding, “those days”).

    So I took an arts degree, despite my 95+ average in the six math/science courses I’d taken in my final year of high school (Grade 13, in those days, Ontario being one of the last jurisdictions to give up the 13th year of public school). Ended up doing linguistics, where I could do a bit of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Science !, and then onward to my current career as a quadrilingual translator/editor/writer. Definitely a more women-populated field, and I’m okay with that – in fact, it’s part of why I chose it.

    Just another way that intersectionality can inform our choices even before we know to call it that.

  2. 2
    Pen

    You’re so right. The real problem is the systematic undervaluation of feminine professions compared to masculine ones. As you said at the start social work requires a ‘willingness to work for little money and advancement opportunity’. It’s as though because women are supposed to be naturally good at it and because they’ve historically been expected to give to other people for free, especially to the young, the elderly, the sick or the poor, that particular job isn’t worth much. Same with a lot of feminine professions: very essential, highly skilled and thoroughly undervalued in terms of remuneration and status. Ugh, it must sound as though I’m trying to put you off! Actually, I just hope you’ll assert the value of what you’re doing any way you can.

    1. 2.1
      Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

      Is there actually anything to be gained from perpetuating the coding of professions as “feminine” or “masculine?”

      1. 2.1.1
        Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

        I don’t think so, but the fact is that that’s how they’re perceived right now. And, as I explained, the traits that were most demanded of me growing up were also the ones that made me particularly suited for this job. So even if social work WEREN’T coded as feminine, the fact would still remain that I’m going into it partially because of the way I was encouraged to conform to gender stereotypes as a child.

        In any case, I think the way to end gender coding of professions isn’t to just pretend that these stereotypes don’t exist; it’s to support those who want to challenge them and also to try to break down the stereotypes at their core (i.e. why do women have to always be affirming and nice? So fucking what if they aren’t?)

  3. 3
    juniperann

    We feminists have succeeded in changing name-changing from something women feel they MUST do to something that women feel they MUST do and feel guilty about. That…did not work as intended.

    1. 3.1
      SuzanneF

      ^THIS.

  4. 4
    SuzanneF

    So, I have a real problem with Kate Harding’s quote – and by “real problem” I mean “my friends and relatives have been treated to several rants over the past few months concerning THAT SPECIFIC QUOTE.” Let it never be said that I can let things go.

    And I agree with her saying “sometimes, even when a decision is right for you, you still need to recognize that you made that decision within a social context that overwhelmingly supports your choice, and punishes women who make a different one.” I think that is indeed correct!

    I just loathe, with a fiery passion, the construction of “Look, you’re a feminist who, in this particular case, made the non-feminist choice”

    NOPE.

    The idea that we can divide all feminists’ (or all women’s) decisions into “feminist” and “non-feminist” and somehow magically determine which actions fall into which camp is… really gross. And wrong-minded. And yes, shaming.

    It is entirely possible to say “Choice X is the one widely supported by a patriarchal society” without saying “Choice X is the non-feminist choice.” Just because a choice is widely supported by a patriarchal society does not make it “non-feminist.” It is also entirely possible to say “my decision to do X was probably influenced by growing up in a patriarchal society” without saying “X is non-feminist.”

    I don’t think one can *actually* determine what a ‘feminist” and “non-feminist” choice is. I don’t think taking your husband’s name is automatically “non-feminist” just like I don’t think keeping your own name is automatically “feminist.’ I don’t think choosing a traditionally feminine profession is automatically “non-feminist,” just like I don’t think choosing a traditionally masculine profession is automatically “feminist.” And I’m not sure how *useful* that construction is anyways. It’s very useful to talk about how choices are influenced, and how patriarchy shapes our desires etc. But unless one’s point is to figure out how “ideologically pure” a given feminist is, how helpful is the “feminist/non-feminist” construction?

    I’ve seen some arguments that making a “non-feminist” decision – one supported by the patriarchy – is bad because it reinforces patriarchal norms. But that’s asking individual women to solve a systemic problem. So not only are women subjected to immense societal pressure, but they’re somehow supposed simultaneously to withstand that pressure and change institutional oppression through their individual decisions?
    And since it’s IMPOSSIBLE for individual women to solve systemic problems, we’re essentially holding them to the same impossible standards that patriarchal society ALREADY demands of women. Not… really all that helpful.

    I mean, I think part of the problem is “non-feminist” and “anti-feminist” are terms thrown around movement feminism that don’t actually mean much. So they’re basically only used to shame/guilt-trip other feminists. Which, coincidentally (not actually a coincidence), puts extra scrutiny and pressure on women.

    I’ve been trying to write a blog post about how useless and destructive I find the term “anti-feminist” and “non-feminist” for months, and I’m still not quite there yet. But I’m basically here:

    - Cultural criticism and deconstruction of institutional oppression/gender roles = great!
    - Self-criticism and self-inquiry about one’s own choices (like this blog post) = great!
    - Prescribing “feminist” and “non-feminist” behaviors for other women, or telling other women what is and what is not an acceptable way to live their lives/feminism = not okay. And basically replicating the way the patriarchy works.

    Sorry about the rant. I’m in agreement with the post in general, I just find Harding’s construction of “feminist”/”non-feminist” choices really… problematic. And frustrating, given that I love Harding’s work in general.

    1. 4.1
      CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

      SuzanneF – I’d actually agree with you, pretty much. I think the argument Harding missed is that keeping the name you were given because of who your father was isn’t really a “more feminist” act than taking the name your prospective husband got because of who his father was.

      For me, I’m always impressed by people who get married and make a new name for their family, all of their family. Both partners change their names, and the kids get the new name.

      There’s no particular reason we have to continue naming practices made up in the days when paternity tests didn’t exist, and children and wives were property of the man who bought or had a (presumed) part in making them.

  5. 5
    Simon

    I knew a woman in Greece who was a flight attendant and was quite frank about it being not only as a result of her love of flying and airplanes…but most importantly her original desire to be a pilot and then realizing the system was stacked against women.

  6. 6
    Lindsay

    Lovely post!

    I’m a bit of a stereotype too — the stereotypical Aspie science nerd. For me, I know my decision to study science in college came from my family: I was the firstborn, and my dad is an engineer with a HUGE case of STEM chauvinism. As I was also good at math and science and really interested in biology, it was obvious to me that I’d study biology of some kind, though I did flutter around a bit within biology. (When I was first applying to college, I said I wanted to major in genetics, but then I took some chemistry classes and fell in love, so I changed my major to biochemistry. And added an English major.)

    I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t been really interested in any field of science. I might’ve been brave enough to get the English major, or English and another humanities major, because I also really liked English going into college. But I don’t know if I would’ve been strong enough to bear my dad’s disapproval. I probably would’ve picked a science major I didn’t hate (like, I could never do computer science, because computers bore me and always have, so that would be out) and tried really hard to make it work.

    I also felt sometimes that my aptitude for math and science were redeeming qualities — that they made it OK for me to also have the weaknesses that come with being autistic. (Obviously I don’t feel that way anymore, but I did when I was entering college.) This feeling might’ve been dampened somewhat by my also being good with language, which is NOT typical of autistic people (indeed, people have told me that before they met me they didn’t know you could be autistic and able to talk), but it was still there, still underlying what I felt were “legitimate” things that I could study in college.

    Gender also played into it, too, in that I was trying for masculinity and the STEM fields are coded masculine. The gender stuff blends into the family stuff, since part of my masculinity was, and is, a desire to be a “son” to my father. (My brother may have had an easier time disappointing him than I did, because his position as The Son is undeniable. But even he has had uncertainty about this … our father is a hard man to disappoint.)

  7. 7
    Lindsay

    Also, I’m so happy to see another person who is bored out of their gourd by Free Will arguments! I thought it was just me, and I was worried it meant I was anti-intellectual or un-philosophical on some level.

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