When choosing college majors or making decisions about professions to pursue, people may tell you, “I just don’t see you doing that” or “You should try xxx instead of yyy.” This can be really frustrating because usually their comments are based on their conditioning of what is “normal” for “someone like you” and therefore is often driven by implicit assumptions about what kinds of people do which kinds of work.

This goes really deep and I encourage you to ponder for a moment your own implicit assumptions about who does what kind of work and how that impacts your own choices about what you want to study or what kind of work you want to do.

It may be hard to wrap your head around this, so let’s start with an exercise.  

I want you to read the following words and then observe the image of the person that immediately appeared in your mind when you read each word. Write down what the image of that person looked like—age, outfit, race, gender, and other characteristics. Write down whatever comes to your mind in a snap. Don’t overthink it.

Ready? Go.

  • Construction worker
  • Babysitter
  • CEO
  • Professor
  • Doctor
  • Nurse

If you’re honest with yourself, images popped into your mind of what the people in those professions look like and they probably looked something like these images below … which are screenshots of a Google search of those names of professions.

While the methodology isn’t rocket science, these images give a pretty good picture of what’s considered “normal” for people who work in those professions. If you’re from the US, these images probably pretty closely reflect the images that popped up in your head. Take a look again at the implicit assumptions about age, gender, uniforms, and other characteristics that are associated with different professions.

There is a lot of research on this—particularly regarding gender and race in the US—because implicit assumptions lead to the structural reinforcement of them. There are implicit assumptions that boys are better at math and science and therefore they are encouraged to study those fields more than girls are (starting around middle school apparently) and that’s why we have more male scientists and mathematicians. There are implicit assumptions that women are “helpers” and therefore are easily accepted as teachers, nurses, assistants, housekeepers, and other “helper” roles. At the heart of all of this are the ways we’ve been conditioned to see what’s “normal” and what is “weird” and how things are “supposed” to be, which makes it difficult for people to think about things in a different way.  

Just ask a male nurse. Or a female religious leader.  

Sometimes people will surprise you, like the time I was speaking to a team at a company in Ireland and we did this exercise together to uncover assumptions and biases in our workplace. When I asked people to explain the images that came to their mind for certain professions, one person mentioned that her image of construction workers were that they were “very hairy” (lol).  Another time, students in the US said that professors were old men with white beards and crazy hair (meanwhile I was their actual professor and some struggled with that because I didn’t fit their stereotype). 

Obviously, this happens with jobs like “marketing manager” or “team leader” or “advertising executive” or “supply chain leader” or “IT professional” or “software developer” or “founder,” too. Each of those jobs elicits an image in our minds of what kind of person we’d expect to see in those kinds of roles. And I often hear that someone feels frustrated because their boss told them, “I just can’t see you in that role” basically because they didn’t match the image in their boss’s brain of what it “should” look like.  

So what happens if you don’t fit the stereotype?

When getting gutsy, one of the things that can be frustrating is how others see you, especially if they try to pigeonhole you into something that isn’t what you want or isn’t consistent with the path you want to pursue. Their comments, encouragements, and criticisms can steer you in a direction that is not consistent with where you want to go, so it takes courage and confidence and the right kind of support to stay on the path that you want for yourself.

It may be easier to pursue the paved path and accept the limits that others put on you. You may even be co-conspiring and putting limits on yourself and deciding to take the road more traveled. But if you see yourself charting a course that is different from the expected and more right for you, then go for it.  

Have courage in yourself. Build your confidence by gaining the tools, talent, and expertise necessary for your chosen path. Get the right kind of support from people who will cheer you on. And then get out there and do it.