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?
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.