Can girls be doctors? Preschool art project says “no.” (Reader story)

Why are we still teaching our children that DOCTOR = MALE in 2014? There’s no good reason.

A guest post by reader Julie Danahy Hebeisen

My friend Julie is a non-profit event planner in the Boston area and a married first-time mother to 2-year-old Vivian, and a regular reader of this blog. When she told me that pulled an infuriating “art project” out of her daughter’s preschool backpack, I invited her to write about her experience. Here’s Julie’s story. 

I have a couple of friends who are medical doctors. Those friends are female. Their strength and intellect has always impressed me, not because they are female, but because the work they do is awe inspiring.

At 2.7 years old, my daughter began the transition into preschool. She is a sponge, eyes wide open.

When she was born, they plopped her on my chest (ready, set, LIFE!) and she quite literally locked eyes with me in a penetrating stare, as if to say, “Ok Mom, it’s on!” I was not the only one that noticed; the nurses had a laugh. That moment was a not-so-quiet indicator of the kind of child she would grow to be: wildly observant, challenging, and completely open to learning from the world around her.

Yesterday, as I do three days per week, I opened her knapsack to reap the treasures of the day. Sometimes a notice, a dirty shirt, a half-eaten something, but also ART! The art projects are my favorite–a little window into what she is learning, and how her mind embraces it creatively. Most days, I smooth out the wrinkles and find a spot for it on the fridge or the on the door to her play cave.

Today was different.

Today, I pulled out a mystery.

I knew the lesson for the week was about going to visit the doctor, but it puzzled me. The objective appeared to be take a white lab coat, and adhere the doctor’s tools of the trade; stethoscope, pen in pocket, name tag (Doctor Vivian), and then, drumroll please…a neck tie!

A neck tie?

The project took a nose dive for me, fast. There was her little name, next to a boldly male indicator. The message was this: your male classmates will be doctors, but this exercise for you is one of fantasy. She was being taught that being a doctor is a male profession. Her school environment is typically pretty progressive, but I worry about small messages like this one piling up in the early learning years and becoming reinforced truths.

I can reassure myself and remember: She has seen Doc McStuffins on television, so some of her playtime includes routine check-ups of myself and her father. Her own pediatrician is female, so she knows in reality, women are medical doctors.

But there is a little extra credibility in the lessons that happen at school. She will happily correct the way we do things at home in favor of adopting her school’s way. “Sit on your bottom please, Vivian.” And she will happily tell me, “Tell me to sit Criss Cross Applesauce, that is the right way!”

I wondered what she had taken away from doctor art project, so I had a casual conversation about it with her. It went like this:

That's-a-boy-doctorMe: Wow, today you were a doctor!

V: That’s not me, Mama!

Me: Are you sure? I see a nametag that reads, “Vivian.”

V: That is a boy doctor!

She had worked hard to place the tools appropriately on the cut-out, so I left the moment and congratulated her on a nice piece of artwork… a nice piece that would not make it to our posted hall of fame. It went straight in the trash.

I am not one to over analyze every moment. I don’t need a name for every social ill, or a constant cause to rally against, but I care pretty seriously that my daughter sees her world as approachable. I want her to feel she can stand shoulder to shoulder with her peers, male or female. I want her to feel, at a base minimum, that all professions are there for her choosing. Same way I want her to feel that all clothes, toys and play are safe for her to try on and enjoy.

My daughter is smarter than I am, so I am not terrified that this moment changed her. But it stopped me in my tracks. It was the cold water in the face I needed to remind me to stay closer to the ground and catch the messages from her level. I am privileged to be able to counter the negative messages she receives with my own messages about fairness and opportunity.

As I obsess, kindly fast forward 25 years, and listen to the faint echo in the hallway, “Paging Dr. Vivian.” Sounds about right.

Note: I asked Julie if she could share a photo of Vivian’s art project, and she said: “GONE! Sorry, I never even thought to keep it. I was very pleased with its new home in the can!” Ha, I completely understand. 


Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be kind in your comments.  It takes bravery to publicly publish a personal story. Remember that she isn’t a professional writer, and as a parent, she is developing a critical conscience on these issues without a clear guidebook or any obvious answers. Therefore, unnecessarily harsh comments attacking the author of this reader story will be removed or edited.


Looking for tips on raising empowered girls in a princess world? Check out Rebecca Hains's critically acclaimed book, "The Princess Problem."

Learn how to raise empowered girls in a princess world: The Princess Problem by Rebecca Hains.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at



9 Comments on “Can girls be doctors? Preschool art project says “no.” (Reader story)

  1. I admit to being surprised to hear a neck-tie described as “a boldly male indicator”. While I usually see ties worn overwhelmingly by men rather than women, I attended a primary school with a uniform which included ties for both male and female pupils (though with the traditional trousers/skirt divide intact) so ties have never really struck me as a gendered accessory.

    • That’s really interesting. Did you attend primary school in the U.S.? I don’t recall seeing primary school uniforms here that require ties for male and female pupils alike. Could this be a regional association, perhaps?

      • There are some private schools that have ties for both females and males, but it’s rare. More often than not, it’s bows for females and ties for men. I went to a private Catholic school that did allow girls to choose between a skirt jumper (if you were in the younger grades)/skirt or trousers. I could also choose between wearing the required vest and bow or wear just one of the school sweaters.

      • I attended primary school in the Republic of Ireland. In my school, boys and girls alike had cream shirts, green jumpers, and ties.

  2. I appreciate the comment that it’s important to see yourself reflected in teaching tools. The same is true for so many aspects in life. My kindergartner made the decision that she wanted to be a boy because girls had to be “fancy” and boys could run around. I explained that boys and girls could do all sorts of things but her reading books at school tell a different story. Even clothes like graphic tees tell her she has to like butterflies when she would rather have a dragon. I think true parity will only take hold when we accept fancy boys and girls who like to run. Then a necktie will just be an accessory, like a watch.

  3. thank you because i didn’t believe my om when my mom said i had to do a body check-up with a doctor, and i thought i would have a fema;e doctor.

%d bloggers like this: