SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies


Old Traditions...Die Hard!

It was career day in Mrs. C.’s fifth grade class, an event looked forward to by many students who were curious about adult life.  The guest speaker on this particular day was Dr. N. from the local children’s hospital.  His specialized field in medicine was pediatric surgery and he came to discuss his everyday responsibilities with the class.  I remember sitting attentively in the front row leaning forward slightly with my arms resting on the cold desktop trying to absorb every bit of information Dr. N. expelled with his gentle but strong voice, accented by a hint of British.  When the sound of the bell rang, I was excited to go home and tell everyone my career choice was to be a doctor.

I skipped most of the way home, deep in imaginative thought of how successful and rich I would become.  As I stepped through the front door of my second story apartment, the rich smell of oregano tickled by nostrils as my mouth began to water for my mom’s homemade spaghetti and meatballs.  My mom’s friend, D. and her husband, Rick, were seated at the large round dining room table, casually dressed in jeans and t-shirts.  I was invited to sit down with them as my mom brought me some spaghetti and meatballs.  D. asked how my day at school went and I burst out in unrestrained excitement about my new future plans.  Looking at my mom and D., I could tell they were both happy for me.

I was happy for K.’s daughter that she wanted to be a doctor, but I knew she would have a more difficult time succeeding because it is a profession dominated by men.  The thought crossed my mind that she might try to go into nursing instead, but I didn’t want to say anything to influence her. 

   I ate some of my spaghetti and was in the happiest of spirits until Rick asked me a question that left me confused.  He asked, “Being a doctor is a great idea, but have you thought about becoming a nurse?  I’m sure that would suit you very well since you are interested in medicine.”  My exuberant mood was shattered when Rick began to tell me in a matter-of-fact voice that females were nurses and not doctors.  At that moment, I felt confused and angry, jabbing my fork into the thick tangled up spaghetti and letting it twirl endlessly around my fork.  Everything else was quiet as I concentrated on the spaghetti on my plate, afraid to look up in case anyone would see the warm tears beginning to form in my eyes.  I forced a forkful of spaghetti into my mouth.  It felt like rubber as I chewed it, and as I swallowed, it got caught in the lump at the back of my throat, making its way slowly down to my stomach.

       A minute or two of silence prevailed until I looked at Rick and asked, “Why can’t women be doctors too?”  He looked startled by my question but was quick to respond, saying, “Some jobs are just better suited for men than for women.”  Trying to make sense of what he had just said, I ate the rest of my lunch in silence.  Eventually I came to the conclusion that women were disadvantaged compared to men.  In much the same way, I was that forkful of spaghetti, so rich in talent with so much to offer but being passed on like generic rubber with no special qualities into a dark and unsatisfying gender stereotypic job.

   I could tell K's daughter was upset by what my husband had said.  I didn’t say anything to comfort her or relieve the tension because deep down I knew that my husband was right.  Some jobs are just better suited for men than they are for women.  I believed that she could become a doctor if she really tried, but others would not make it easy for her because women are discriminated against in many ways, including in education.   I chose to keep quiet because I believed that it would definitely be in her best interest if she thought about the field of nursing instead.
  Looking back to that day still makes me somewhat angry because it shows how gender is still used as a means of discrimination.  Not being old enough at that time to fully understand the means by which our society operates, I was deeply confused. I grew up in a household where I was told I could do and be anything I wanted to be.  I never felt there were any restrictions placed upon me and the world was my playground.  However, hearing for the first time by Rick that I was better off as a nurse than a doctor made me feel incompetent and inferior compared to the male gender.  I began to doubt my own abilities and wondered if I was smart enough and talented enough to even give it a try.  However, what affected me the most was the fact that I realized for the first time that there were obstacles blocking my way, gender being one of them.  I had dreamed that I could be anything I wanted to be, when in reality, it was all just a dream.  Wanting to become a doctor was great, but marrying one was probably closer to reality.

   From this incident, I learned that being a woman in a man’s world is a tough situation because as a group, women are often oppressed and discriminated against solely based on gender.  As a result, I unconsciously made up my mind that I was going to stay away from any job that is stereotypically “female” and instead make it a point to prove that women can succeed in a man’s work force as long as they don’t let others conform them to gender stereotypes.  Rick in this case was trying to make me conform to the man’s notion of what a woman can and cannot do, despite the fact that society is now more accepting of equal rights for women.  He most likely did not see anything wrong with what he had said even though my reaction was clearly that of hurt and anger. 

   Limiting women from jobs and opportunities is a practice of discrimination that upholds the stereotypic view that men are superior to women.  Many brilliant minds have been cast aside because men and society have belittled the abilities of women.  Thus, the act of gender discrimination is just as damaging and painful as other forms of discrimination.

 Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage