Growing up, I never noticed gender roles. I didn’t know what feminism was. I knew calling someone a “girl” was an insult. I knew telling someone to “man up” was telling them to be strong or brave. But why? I never understood why. And I guess I just inherently believed what we are all taught growing up — about gender, that is. That girls are weak and boys are strong. Boys are supposed to be smart and successful, girls are supposed to have kids and take care of a family.
And I rejected those stereotypes on instinct. Sure, I was given dolls and kitchen sets on Christmas. But I also had a love for school. I had a love for reading. I excelled at math and science. And that made me different, or so I was told.
Going into college, I remember whenever I told someone I was going to be studying chemical engineering, the majority of their responses commented on my gender. Granted, it was always positive, like, “You go girl, show them boys!” or something of the sort. I would laugh and nod, but it always left a sour taste in my mouth.
I realized it was because most girls are directed towards other careers, without anyone really thinking twice about it. I mean, think about it: we buy young girls dolls and kitchen sets. We teach them to become caregivers. You find most women go into fields that are nurturing or involve children — nurses, teachers, or maids. Meanwhile, we buy boys building blocks and action figures: things that have them use their minds to build, solve problems, and inspire them to go after big dreams. And you see men go into fields that are more challenging and higher-paying; becoming doctors, lawyers, or engineers.
In my second year of college, I couldn’t help but cringe the first time I walked into my Calculus II class and noticed I was one of about six girls among the twenty-five students there. It’s both intimidating and empowering. Intimidating because the thought that I am not smart enough to be in this field because of my gender always slips through my mind in situations like that. Intimidating because I will always feel the need to prove my credibility to my male peers. But it is empowering because I had been conditioned my entire life — subliminally through media, friends, family — that all I should amount to or aspire to be is a mom and a wife. I have taken the gender roles and ignored them, or rather defined them for myself.
There is nothing wrong with women wanting to be mothers and there is nothing wrong with men wanting to go into successful careers, and vice versa. However, there is everything wrong with the way we designate gender to define how people shape their lives and view their own worth. In my experience with being a minority in the field of engineering, I have learned to always define gender roles for myself — or rather, have none at all.