The Differential Impacts of Sexist Gender Role Expectations

Every once in awhile I do manage to get out to a social sort of event. Recently I was at one such thing. And overhead the following:

Female, mid-40s: When I was in high school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. And I had great SAT scores, high 1400's [out of a then total 1600]. But my high school guidance counselor strongly discouraged me, and told me "those are really more men's kind of jobs." So I gave up thinking about vet school, even though I had the ability.

Male, same age: When I was in high school, I wanted to learn to type. Probably because I just wanted to take what I thought was an easy class, but I kept asking over and over to be allowed to take a typing class. My guidance counselor wouldn't let me register for typing. He told me "you're going to college, you don't need typing. You'll have a secretary to do your typing for you." And then all through college I had to pay people to type my term papers for me, and spend hundreds of dollars on that. My first job out of college, I walk into the office and my boss sits me in front of a computer and says "you'll have to type [complex documents in his industry] on this." Just last week, my current boss saw me pecking away with two fingers and said "I can't believe you can't type."

Sexist gender role expectations are not innocent, and not without effect, even if everybody grows up to have lives that they are more or less happy with. Both of these people have what you would call a nice life. But one of them had her whole life course dramatically changed because of a guidance counselor's sexist beliefs about what jobs belonged to which gender, and another had to spend cash he didn't really have to spare in college, and spends time he doesn't have to spare now on the job, because of another guidance counselor's sexist beliefs about who should learn to type and who would have the typing done for them.

The differential effects of sexism often mean that men are less predisposed to be aware of them - having someone tell you "you don't need to worry about typing" is not quite as dramatic and life-altering as having them tell you "vet school is for the men, little lady". Men do have a lot of privilege to lose in moving to a more equitable system of gender relations, but they also have some things to gain. One of my commenters - I think it was SKM - posted a link on another thread to Men's Lives by Michael Kimmel. It's an interesting looking collection of essays on the intersection of race, class, and gender, focusing on men's lives, of course, as the title indicates. It would be something useful for all the d00dly Zuskateers (is that an oxymoron?) to read and ponder.

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One the things I will always remember as first clues that you live in a sexist society was when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was six. I said I wanted to be a doctor. They said I have to be a nurse because I am a girl.
After that I said I wanted to be a veterinarian and no one batted an eye. Mostly because they knew it wouldn't happen and everyone knows girls like furry animals.
It was 1952.

The big difference of course is that it does change a woman's entire life, while the guy could spend a bit of time learning to type at whatever point he chose to.

By thebewilderness (not verified) on 28 Jun 2010 #permalink

This is why it's important to not get too distracted with "what about the men?" lines of investigation. Yes, men are harmed under patriarchy, but often it's in different ways from how women are harmed. And sometimes you have to narrow your examination of a problem to one particular group to really see how an institution affects that group -- and it may affect that group more profoundly than other groups. White basketball players get a bit of a raw deal in a certain way, too. But that doesn't negate the fact that black men face institutionalized discrimination that far exceeds that faced by white basketball players.

Sexist gender role expectations are not innocent, and not without effect, even if everybody grows up to have lives that they are more or less happy with.

This is so important. Too many people use an "ends justify the means" to discredit concerns about sexism. If everyone's okay NOW, then institutional sexism doesn't matter. Or it only affects certain, weak individuals who deserve what they got because the Token Exceptions made it through.

(Did I graduate from my sometimes exceedingly misogynistic program? Yes. And I was top of my class. That doesn't mean the sexism I faced wasn't a bad thing, nor does it make up for the fact that several women dropped out of the program because it was something they didn't want to deal with. [/anecdata])

It strikes me that an awful lot of 'privilege' consists of "actually having access to the rights everyone should have". Most sadly, although changing some of them might require the privileged giving something up, an awful lot of it could be changed with relatively little pain.

In the two examples above, nobody seems to benefit at all (except maybe an incompetent male veterinarian).

By Snarkyxanf (not verified) on 28 Jun 2010 #permalink

I'm only a few years younger than the guy you overheard, yet nobody batted an eye when as a high schooler I showed up in a non-credit typing class. The difference is that during those few years it became obvious that computers were the wave of the future, so guys (at least those who would be working with computers) needed to learn how to type. It has served me well, because secretaries/administrative assistants have generally been a scarce resource where I have worked.

To the larger point, yes, the closing off of options was much worse for the woman in that conversation. I assume the guy learned to type eventually and went on to have more or less the career he envisioned, but that was probably one veterinarian gratuitously lost--she might have decided later on that veterinary medicine wasn't for her, but that should have been her decision, not that guidance counselor's.

Where it gets even more harmful is the thousands (millions?) of cases where women who were assured that there would always be a man to take care of them financially suddenly have to take over their personal finances due to divorce or widowhood. My mother fired several stockbrokers before finding one she was comfortable with, and even so she has to recognize when her broker is trying to sell her something that's not necessarily in her interest to buy. She's one of the lucky ones; some of her friends are very worried about outliving their retirement savings.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Jun 2010 #permalink

It's true that the guy in the scenario above was not harmed in the same way the woman was - he was not diverted from his primary career aspirations. And, he is actually a pretty decent person, and one who is able to reflect on his past experiences and be aware that what was said to him was somehow a differential sexist version of the experience the woman related - it was her story that prompted him to share his experience.

But imagine how many guys had something similar said to them, and didn't ever reflect upon its meaning. How many guys got told, in effect, "women will type for you, because that's what women are for, to do dull tasks while men do manly things" and just let that wash over their brains and soak in without a second thought. So part of the differential impact of sexist treatment is that while the career aspirations of women get shredded and crushed, the sexist expectations and beliefs of men get bolstered and built up steadily brick by brick by brick into a solid fortress, until as adults, we women show up in the workplace and have to figure out how to work with guys who can't imagine why we want to get a PhD if we want to have children.

One of my commenters - I think it was SKM - posted a link on another thread to Men's Lives by Michael Kimmel.

Alas, it was not I--though I'm glad for the link; it looks like a good read! Thanks.

Things did change quickly. Most of the vets I know (early '30s to early '40s, both socially and via my cat) are women. That holds true nationally as well: more vets are women than men.
I also had the same experience as Eric with typing in high school.

It was 1952.

@thebewilderness: things haven't changed as much as I would like. Just a couple of years ago, my nephew's kindergarten teacher told him that only boys can be doctors and girls have to be nurses, because that was God's plan. Yeah, we had us a talk after that, I tell you what! It came up because he was bossing his sister during one of their doctor games, telling her she had to be nurse. Guess how fast I put a stop to that.

Weirdest part: his pediatrician is a woman.

I guess the take home message is that kids accept the direct statements of authority figures over their own experiences.

Vet school students are, I think, majority female now, and have been for some time, but if I remember my data correctly, large animal vets continue to be a male-dominated subset, and vet school faculty continue to be disproportionately male, especially as one moves up the tenure ladder and into administrative positions. This is why the vet school at K-State was eager to be a partner in K-State's ADVANCE project.

I had typing in high school. I don't recall the sex ratio in the class. As a professor, My first question to a prospective student (regardless of gender) had been "Can you type?" Back in the late 60's there were 'keyboarding' courses offered at the university level, but they soon disappeared at my university. I finally gave up because there were no convenient way for a student to take a typing course.

Amusing story. A colleague wrote a Gonzo dissertation (@1965) He is still publishing quality papers derived from his dissertation work. He recently used my computer with difficulty because the letters are worn off the keys. He admitted he was a hunt and peck typist and said that was why it was taking him so long to finish his dissertation.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 28 Jun 2010 #permalink

I can vouch for Zuska's assertions w/r/t veterinary medicine and academic medicine.

Interestingly, the lack of competitive male applicants is often treated like a crisis in veterinary medicine, when disciplines with approximately the same proportion of female applicants receive a shrug and a 'women just don't seem to be interested/good enough.' Who would have suspected there'd be a difference?

I still give thanx to Mr Greason who taught me typing in about '68. I resented having to take a "girl's class" at the time, but . . . . (I've changed my attitude a bit since then . . . . ;^)

By Don Fearn (not verified) on 28 Jun 2010 #permalink

I am the same age as these people. I have grown up with computers. At 15 (in 1982) my mathematics class was the first in the school to be given an Apple computer to play with: it was basic green text and all we could do is some elementary programming. My father had purchased a popular early Commodore machine some years before that, and I distinctly remember telling him how he really must go in for the new, superior floppy disks. When I was a young scientist I had my own ancient PDP11(?) mainframe, which required half a room and stored data on magnetic tapes. I did a lot of programming in Fortran and Basic (amongst other things).

So like Eric says, everything changed in the early '80s. Men of my father's generation never learned to type. My father made an effort, but found it too difficult. On the other hand, everyone in my generation (at least in the city) understood that computers were the future. I think the boys were the better typists, because women like me were more likely to rebel against the culture by refusing to learn to type (I never took a proper typing course).

I have heard several of my greybeard colleagues complain bitterly that there are no longer secretaries around who do all their typing for them. Bwa ha ha ha ha - should have taken the girly typing class, suckers!

In my high school, there was a strong expectation that all girls would take typing. I resisted that and took a sculpture class instead. But I taught myself the summer before college and it has really come in handy (but I'm still glad I didn't wasted an elective on it!). As I recall, there was also a class that seemed geared to train us to be cashiers.... (And of course, there's no more sculpture in public schools, at least where I live).

I remember the Commodore!!

Did I graduate from my sometimes exceedingly misogynistic program? Yes. And I was top of my class. That doesn't mean the sexism I faced wasn't a bad thing, nor does it make up for the fact that several women dropped out of the program because it was something they didn't want to deal with.


When I was 12, my mother went on a long trip to see her dying brother (remember Laetrile? It really doesn't work), leaving me at home with my dad and three older brothers. It was the summer, so we weren't in school. Dad worked days in the city as an engineer. Before Mom left she instructed me that it would be my job to make dinner, and my job to keep the house clean. Not only that, but I was to strip the beds for my brothers and wash their sheets and remake their beds once a week. I didn't balk at the rest of it, we all had different chores to do, but even to me it seemed a little absurd that I was supposed to do their laundry. I remember pointing out that they were all older than me, and maybe they could wash their own sheets. Her response, which I think captured the tone for all four of us then and into the future, was that you can't expect boys to clean. You just can't. And to this day, no one does. And they don't.
On the flip side, my imperfect knowledge of cooking led to some unusual meals over the next few weeks. I wasn't interested in cooking, and really didn't have the ingredients or expertise, so if I saw a recipe on a soup can or the back of a cereal box, I made it. And they had to eat it too. Campbell's cream of mushroom, grapenuts, cornflakes: all were exotic additions to pot roasts and hamburger.
And then there was the week that the green beans were ready. We had a huge vegetable garden. The kind you have if you intend to can, freeze and preserve enough of everything to get through the winter. So, when the beans were ready, there were a lot of them. I picked them in the morning, and then washed them all and cut them into pieces. Then I had a brainstorm. We had just gotten a food dehydrator (70's flashbacks, anyone?), so I followed the instructions for drying green beans (I had to learn what 'blanch' meant, and then do it). At the end of several days of hard labor, I had a pint jar of little sticks. To her credit, my mother used every single one of them when she got back. She put them in soups, in homeopathic, untastable doses, and snuck a few into other hot dishes, until they were, thankfully, all gone.

I avoided taking typing in high school (the 60's) just so I couldn't possibly let myself get sucked into being a secretary, because although I didn't really know for sure what I wanted to do, I knew it would have to be something different.

The house where I lived, while on sabbatical in Venezuela, had no females except when my wife came down. It was known locally, particularly among females, as "the house where the men wash the dishes."

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 08 Jul 2010 #permalink

I'm in my early 40's and my high school guidance counsellor told me that I was smart enough that I didn't NEED to go to college to find someone to marry. I was a small scrawny kid, but I wish I had the guts back then to have cursed him out. It would have been worth the trip to the principal's office. I didn't listen to him and became a PhD scientist. Still, I think about that sometimes and wonder who else he discouraged from getting a higher education.