When are you getting married? When are you having kids? Are you dating anyone special? For women in their 20s and beyond, these are the standard questions we’re bombarded with at family gatherings.
Yet when we’re little girls, we’re asked an entirely different set of questions. What do you want to be when you grow up? What are your goals? What’s your favorite subject in school?
As Dr Anna Fels writes in her book, Necessary Dreams, “Women today have more leeway in pursuing their own goals, but doing so is socially condoned only if they have first satisfied the needs of all their constituents – husbands, children and elderly parents.”
While structural discrimination and policy shortfalls keep ‘empowered girls’ from becoming equally empowered women, so too due these conflicting cultural and social pressures.
For example, in a set of 2017 studies, researchers found that young female professionals would play down their ambitions around men if they were not in a serious relationship. Single women reported higher salary expectations and a greater willingness to travel and work long hours when they thought their preferences would be kept confidential. But when they thought their ambitions would be made public, single women cut their salary expectations by $18,000, their willingness to travel by seven days each month and their willingness to work by four hours each week.
In the other study, women were given a choice between a more flexible, lower-paying job and a more demanding higher-paying job. When placed in groups with single men, single women were more likely to choose the more flexible, lower paying option.
In conclusion, the researchers call out the power of social norms and what is traditionally ‘expected’ from a wife or husband in shaping our behaviors and ambitions. “Norms and behavior in the marriage market hinder the closure of the gender gap in the labor market,” conclude the researchers of another study with similar findings.
In this context, it’s hard to brush off incessant questions about marital and motherhood prospects around the Thanksgiving dinner table as harmless, as they reinforce the idea that a woman's primary value is based on her capacity to fulfill traditional ideals of how women “should behave.”
"Even as women have been able to access opportunities, a relationship to a man still represents the safest source of social approval, as opposed to obtaining social affirmation through mastery or a skill or expertise," writes Fels.
So while we may have come a long way in the way we speak to girls, maybe it’s time we stop talking to women like we’re still in the 1950s.
For more on the way "traditional" gender roles and expectations reinforce gender inequality check out:
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