Almost 30 years ago, my brother innocently but assertively attempted to make me aware of “my place” and to check my expectations by asking me, “Why would you want to spend the family money on going to medical school? After all, you are going to be cutting onion in the kitchen once you get married.”
I paid no heed to his remonstrance. I stayed focused on what I expected of myself and went on to complete medical school to become the first woman doctor from our close-knit rural, conservative community in South India.
Thirty years later, a professional American colleague, seasoned in his 70s felt the need to make the comment, “At the start of this project, I was doubtful if this petite little Asian lady would be able to handle the task of building coalitions.” He went on to say that he was surprised that I was able to lead others and accomplish managed results. He made this comment as I was receiving a proclamation from a particular county Board of Commissioners. Despite time, distance and challenge throughout my personal journey, I was still linked to a certain place and a certain set of expectations – yes, even now, here in a southern city in America.
That got me thinking. No matter how I looked at it, I wondered to what extent in both instances if the “woman” or the “Asian woman” in me would always be questioned for her intellectual ability – no matter what or where or from where?
I started questioning myself. Not always good, but I did. Who started these assumptions? Who put us, men and then women into two distinct spheres of capability and expectations? From what authority did this all come? When and why?
Every woman might have her own anecdotes from professional or personal scenarios to which many other women can readily relate. I’m professionally engaged in a variety of ventures and I’ve moved on from practicing medicine. But as a non-practicing physician, I am well aware of the clear physical, anatomical, chemical, even emotional distinction between men and women. And I must say, I’m quite proud to be distinguished as a woman.
What can never escape me is the fact that there are irrefutable psychological similarities between men and women. What we are, what we must become, what we accept to do all rests in our minds.
I too in the past have been guilty of falling into the gender-expectations gap. Over-questioning how I am expected to dress, behave or present myself. Such gender role norms are internalized much earlier in life in every society, ethnic group and culture. Unremitting gender prejudices have existed in some form or another throughout recorded history. Many of us growing up have been made to feel the pressure of acting out to familiar themes as “an ideal housewife.”
“If you behaved this way, it will be hard to find a husband for you.” “A lady has to be polite.” “Men are bound to make mistakes; they are men. But a woman has to forgive in order for the marriage to survive.”
The “knight in shining armor” is not the reality for every woman. Nor should it be the reality for most. Such stereotyping can create unequal and unfair treatment and perhaps ominously over time be digested as normal. It can even potentially threaten self-identity. In a broader context of societal capacity, it closes opportunities and retards personal and professional development.
When a child is born, the first question invariably asked is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Immediately, images and dispositions are framed. We of course would like to wish that the readied journey of stereotyping remains settled with that innocent question, but it doesn’t. It often sets up other expectations and predictions and judgments.
There is good news and hope amid the gender bias gloom. More women are joining the paid workforce, stepping up to run for public office, advancing in economics, technology, science and health care, as entrepreneurs and executives and in other leadership roles along the way.
According to recent national statistics, the intellectual achievements of girls and women in the U.S has matched those of boys and men. While average differences may exist, researchers found no statistical evidence to suggest that men and women should be lumped into two distinct groups.
Yet still, another recent study from NYU reveals that men and women were not given the same opportunities to pursue intellectually challenging work. Further studies produce evidence that it is not always as much about gender as it may be about the depletion of human character and capital and self-imposed limitations.
I for one learned this from my 13-year-old daughter. In a recent conversation, I mentioned to her that I am “Mr. Dad” in the family. She asked me why. I responded saying, “I seem to be the sole breadwinner for this family and am providing the food on the table and the roof over our heads.” She questioned me further as to why that makes me Mr. Dad. I casually responded, “isn’t that what dads are supposed to do?”
Her response struck a chord that might likely resonate throughout my life. She then said, “listen to yourself, you are such an antifeminist.”
My daughter’s response changed my thought process. Up to that point, I firmly thought I was in charge of my own differences and characteristics. I certainly didn’t think that gender difference had created any biased perceptions of my own. And I certainly never saw any distinction between my celebrated femininity and my practiced feminism.
I’m the first to exclaim that both men and women are indeed from earth.
The future is sunny and bright. It is time to put the individual biased gender-stereotypes and perceptions in the past. Be a role model, speak up, confront gender-bias issues and move toward a future in which our individual contributions have the power to challenge norms, change the world and help everyone feel equal and valued as people.
I have acknowledged that I am both Mr. Dad and Ms. Mom. A man can choose to do household chores and a woman can be a breadwinner or both.
As for my brother and my colleague, I have proven them wrong. I do not have to be the ideal housewife to cut onion in the kitchen or a petite Asian lady who should be doubted. I’m that woman like other women, standing and moving in the same crowd.
Nazeera Dawood has a Master's in Public Health from the University of North Carolina and a medical degree from Bangalore University, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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