A Viral Photo Accidentally Told The Truth About Gender Norms

On Sunday, a Twitter account best known for posting vertigo-inducing images of human organs, TheMedicalShots, posted a picture of what people assumed to be a little girl and a little boy wearing pink and green scrubs. On the back of the pink scrubs were the words "nurse in training," and on the green scrubs, the words "doctor in training." The picture was an instant viral hit, attracting widespread scorn, with Twitter users labeling the picture sexist and asking why "the girl" was "stuck" being the nurse, while "the boy" was automatically gifted the label of future doctor, as Business Insider reported.

As soon as you see the photo (which was accompanied by the mic-drop caption "This is cute, isn't it?"), you know exactly how the internet was going to respond. There's no way of automatically knowing the genders of the children in that photo, or who chose the outfits for each child, but the gender equality alarm bells go off.

That's because even in the year 2019, we are continuing to fail our daughters. When we see a girl with a high pony wearing pink nurse's scrubs next to a boy in green doctor's scrubs, we automatically see a problem, because regardless of all the Doc McStuffins toys and feminist onesies, we know exactly where this is leading.

Registered nurses were the largest healthcare occupation in 2006, according to the United States Department of Labor. Of the 2.5 million nurses, 91 percent were women. Of the 863,000 physicians and surgeons, on the other hand, 61.8 percent were men. The median pay of a doctor or surgeon was $208,000 per year in 2017. The median wage for a registered nurse was $70,000.

But we don't need to know the gender breakdown to know that a nurse's work is somehow viewed as "less than," and pays far less than, a doctor's. We live in a society that looks down its proverbial nose at professions that focus on caregiving, and believes, at its core, that the only people capable of providing that level of care are women. Meanwhile, women who work outside the home are demonized — a recent study reported on by The Times blamed "absent mothers" (they meant mothers who work) for heavier children in a piece about Britain's obesity epidemic.

As women we're a dollar a dozen, so a thankless profession that revolves around the care of others is telegraphed as the only appropriate option that should be made available to us — raise your hand if you were ever told to think about whether or not you'd have kids when choosing a career, that you might choose one more amenable to time off taking care of babies. Little girls are still receiving messages to fulfill this societal standard.

From gendered toys to differences in how we parent boys, to the pontifications of our so-called esteemed politicians, this belief is everywhere. And, usually, it's motherhood we thrust upon our daughters with the same astounding level of shameless certainty. In 1997, now-Vice President Mike Pence wrote a letter to the editor of the Indianapolis Star arguing that working mothers stunted their children's growth. "Sure, you can have it all," he wrote, "but your day-care kids get the short end of the emotional stick." During the Kavnaugh hearings, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said there was a lack of women on the Senate Judiciary Committee because it's too difficult a job. "It's a lot of work," he said. "Don't forget, compared to a lot of committee meetings, we have an executive every Thursday. ... So it's a lot of work. Maybe they don't want to do it."

Anything cerebral, or apparently anything that requires weekly meetings, is simply too much for women to handle, we hear over and over again.

Are we reading too much into the photo? Is an observation of the way the girl is reaching out her hand to meet the boy's, or the way the composition suggests that she complements her male/doctor counterpart too deep a read of just a cute pic? I don't think so. I think it's a perfect snapshot of the way we see girls and boys as similar but different, bound for different futures.

That photo isn't just a picture of two kids playing dress up, but a photographic reminder that women are paid 80.5 cents for every dollar a man makes, mothers make 71 cents for every dollar fathers make, women sleep less than men, working mothers still do most of the caregiving and household chores, and women do 2.6 times the amount of unpaid work that men do. It's a reminder that we're still pressuring our daughters to take on work we've arbitrarily labeled as "feminine," and while that work has value we fail to celebrate it in any substantial, or monetary, way.

It's a reminder that, like mothers, the work nurses do day in and day out is under-appreciated, over-looked, and underpaid. In the U.S., 55 percent of nursing staff work more than 40 hours a week, and 30-70 percent of the nursing staff sleep less than six hours before their shift. And, like mothers, nurses suffer as a result. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Nursing and Practice found that 12 hour shifts negatively impact nurses' health and wellbeing, including "cognitive anxiety, musculo-skeletal disorders, sleep disturbance, and role stress."

In the end, the story behind the photograph doesn't matter: it has taken the temperature on how we perceive women, the inherent worth of the work women do, as well as how we view men and how much value we put into the work men do. If the photo was a Rorschacht test, it's clear from every grimace it inspired that we're continuing to fail every little girl who has ever been gifted a doctor kit, and every little boy who'd rather be a nurse.