This summer, I went over to the home of some family friends. I was put in charge of supervising Gretchen, their energetic eight-year-old daughter. Giddy with excitement to start school again, she tore open her first-grade yearbook to show me her best friends—all 25 of them.
With the confidence any college freshman lacks, Gretchen told me what each of her friends would do when he or she grows up: Jackson would be a football player, Annie would be a teacher, and Lanie would be a chef. Gretchen pointed to the next three boys on the list.
“They’ll be doctors,” she told me. I asked if the next little girl would be a doctor too.
My eight-year-old acquaintance snickered, assuring me that Kailin would be a nurse. I asked if any of her female classmates would become doctors. Gretchen rolled her eyes and pointed to a little girl with a short haircut named Riley. When I asked if any of the boys would become nurses she burst out laughing as if I had told her an incredibly humorous joke.
“Boys can’t be nurses.”
Gretchen can’t be the only one in her class with the idea; maybe her whole class thinks that boys become doctors and girls become nurses. But where did this idea come from? Parents? Television? School?
These kids are trained to stereotype themselves based on gender, and the lessons don’t stop after grade school. My younger sister’s high school health teachers claim that women’s brains are like spaghetti and men’s are like waffles. They teach that sex is syrup and men can compartmentalize, while women cannot.
Maybe this only occurs in my home state of Nebraska, but the blatant generalization seems not only exaggerated, but also inaccurate in many cases. I’m sure the waffle-spaghetti ratio of individual brains varies from person to person.
However, I’m not treading in any new territory; people understand that gender-based stereotypes exist. I could write entire dissertations on the subject and how it affects inequality between the sexes. It’s been said over and over again, yet it’s 2014 and an eight-year-old still believes men and women can’t follow the same career paths.
Maybe sexist media, poor parenting, or even traditionalist education aren’t to blame for the lack of change; perhaps the people are at fault. As young adults, we have the mental capacity to see that stereotypes are flaccid and when we fall victim to the fabricated pattern of male vs. female, we give them strength.
I sometimes find myself embarrassed when I tell other girls I want to pursue a major in hard science, and I admittedly pick outfits to look more feminine. My male friends speak in lower pitches when talking to potential mates, and every day I see intelligent women acting dumb to attract attention from men.
It’s time for us to step back and ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” If the answer is along the lines of “because I am a woman/man,” then something is wrong. We must show that the conditioned ideas of what men and women should be have no power when we choose to ignore them. We have the ability to choose between spaghetti and waffles. Let’s lead by example and create a world where little boys can dream of becoming nurses and little girls can dream of becoming doctors.