It’s an innocent and fair question to ask someone what they do for a living. After all, we spend a majority of our life at work, and our career can reveal a lot about who we are, what we enjoy, our strengths, and our interests.
But before you ask someone, think hard: did you already guess an idea of the response? Are you typecasting others without realizing it? As I recently stepped back and began to notice how people engage with me on this question, I realized that many of us are, in fact, presuming we know something about other people’s careers before giving them the space to speak for themselves.
I work at a hospital. That is pretty straightforward, and when asked what I do, I usually start with that before I elaborate. Time and time again, people immediately respond by asking me, “Are you a nurse?”
Of course, this is a common profession at a hospital, so in some ways it is not a surprising guess. On the flip side, so is being a doctor — and no one has ever once asked me if I am a doctor. (For the record, I am neither: I do PR and marketing for a hospital).
In a world where we are told we can be anything we want when we grow up, why don’t we seem to assume this of each other? Why do people decide for themselves that I must be a nurse, but never think to ask if I am a doctor? And would a man in my situation receive the same question but with “doctor” where the word “nurse” is?
I began asking friends and family. My brother noted that his clients refer to his female coworker, who works in the same position as he does, as his secretary. My friend, a lawyer in New York, told me that she is always asked if she is a paralegal. A doctor I spoke with said she is still called a nurse even after introducing herself as a doctor.
Clearly this bias extends across industries and professions. This line of thinking — you are a woman and you can be anything, but you probably are not. You are probably not in charge of decisions, money, rules. You are probably not the manager, the boss, the leader — is more widespread than I even expected.
The point is not that one profession is “above another,” but rather that we need to stop holding each other back with our own biases. In essence, women are constantly being told that we fit certain categories. We are great for jobs requiring nurture and support. We are here to help others. Women are good at this, but who’s to say men aren’t, too? And who’s to say that women aren’t as fit to be doctors or lawyers or CEOs, or any professions that people presume to be more dominated by men?
When we are always put into boxes, isn’t it bound to affect us over time? We might not go for that promotion, raise or new opportunity because we get it in our heads that it’s still against the norm. Everyone sees us in a certain way, so maybe it makes most sense to be that way.
These preconceived notions do not develop overnight, nor will they disappear overnight. But out of fairness to each other, we should try to dissolve them. We might need to remind ourselves what we tell kids everyday: we can be anything we want. And next time we ask someone “what they do,” let’s take a hard pause and let them answer before making a guess ourselves.
Susan Griffiths is a writer at heart who does Public Relations, Communications and Marketing for a hospital in Washington, DC.