I've been reading Iris Bohnet's What Works, and it's got me wondering, would I have chosen a career in communications if not for gender discrimination?
What Works is about gender discrimination in the workplace and steps that can be taken to avoid it. I'm less than halfway through, but what I've read so far is pretty disheartening. Gender discrimination is ingrained in us. It starts from the moment we're born, when we're immersed in a society that assumes boys and girls have different innate skills, and follows us through our lives.
For example, boys are expected to excel in math and science, while girls are expected to excel in reading and writing. Even when girls overcome expectations and choose to pursue careers in math or science, the stereotype lurks in the background and casts a shadow on their pursuits. One experiment found, when presented with a male and female candidate with the exact same qualifications, faculty in a university science department rated the man as much more competent and were more likely to hire him for a laboratory manager position. Even when the female candidate had higher qualifications, the faculty were still more likely to hire the man. Like I said, disheartening.
As a kid, I did just as well in math and science as any other subject. In fact, in high school I did better on my Calculus AP tests than I did on my English Language or Literature tests. And in middle school, I definitely preferred learning about genetics and lighting Bunsen burners to discussing Beowulf. Even so, I don't recall ever being praised for my math skills. I only recall being praised for my writing and art. Is it possible I chose to pursue a career in communications because I was praised for and encouraged to develop the skills that are necessary in that field, and because my parents enrolled me in extracurricular art classes and bought me all the books I could read? Would I have gone into engineering or computer science if I'd been complimented on my math skills and signed up for robotics club? Or did my parents buy me books and send me to art class simply because they saw that was what I wanted?
Until I started reading What Works, I assumed the latter. It seems I've always loved making things and creating worlds and characters. In second grade, my teacher was showing us step by step how to draw a whale. I burst out crying in the middle of the lesson, and my teacher assumed it was because she was moving too quickly. Actually, I was crying because I didn't want to draw the same whale everyone else was drawing. I wanted the freedom to draw a dolphin or an orca, and I didn't want anyone to show me step by step how to do it. Even seven-year-old Laura prized creativity over everything else. But isn't creativity, making things and imagining new worlds, equally necessary in a research lab or mechanic's shop as a communicator's office?
That's not to say my parents or teachers forced me onto the career path I'm on. Not at all. My dad majored in business and wound up in the tool industry; my mom double-majored in computer science and mathematics and wrote computer programs until she left work to be a stay-at-home mom. They would support me no matter what field I chose. Case and point, my sister will soon be a combat systems officer for the U.S. Air Force. And my teachers- well, one of my teachers recommended me for an internship at an investment consulting firm, and I worked for that firm off and on for three years. I had ample opportunity to be an investment analyst.
So, the scary thing is, if gender discrimination chose my career path for me, it was likely my own embedded gender discrimination. I never pictured myself with a wrench or test tube in hand, or my fingers on a keyboard, inputting numbers into a spreadsheet, possibly because I didn't picture a woman with those tools. Instead, I pictured myself with a pencil, scribbling stories in a café; with scissors and glue, putting together an interior design sample board; with thread and needle, sewing an avant-garde masterpiece. When I took Harvard's Gender-Science Implicit Association Test, my results showed a strong bias for pairing men with science and women with liberal arts.
To be honest, I'm still not convinced gender discrimination led me to the work I do. And the thing is, whether gender discrimination affected my direction or not, I don't regret the job I have or the skills I've chosen to cultivate. Sure, I'd make more money as an investment analyst or an actuary or a doctor. I might even have loved to build things with microchips or power tools. But I know I love what I'm doing now, using words and graphic design to spread a message of social justice. And that love means more to me than money and what-ifs.
Then again, maybe that's the insidiousness of gender discrimination.