When I was a child, like everyone else, I was also constantly changing my answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Self-help books often claim that we are only limited by our imagination and dreams. They say that we can achieve anything we dream if we put in the required effort. The thing is, while we are limited by our dreams, our dreams are often limited by our exposure. This is the reason why career fairs are often conducted in schools to help the students choose their career path and thereby choose their college degree wisely.
Around 10th grade, to figure out what stream I want to pursue in college, I considered my strengths and interests. The problem was I was interested in everything, even history for which I had to spend a lot of time studying. I always got the first rank in English and Computer Science. So I decided to get a degree in literature or computer science. Since I always loved reading books and writing essays, literature was a natural choice, but something inside me kept nagging to turn towards computer science.
Growing up reading a lot of Science Fiction made me drawn towards computer science. One particular book that cemented my choice was Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” (not to be confused with the film that was based on this book). It is a short story collection set in the future featuring a character called Dr. Susan Calvin, who was a robopsychologist. Robopsychology, as defined in the book, is the study of the personalities and behaviour of intelligent machines, particularly, robots. In the stories, Susan Calvin solves problems connected to robots with her knowledge of robotics and psychology.
Similar to how Hermione from the Harry Potter realm proves to be an inspiration for young girls, I was inspired by Susan Calvin. She was the only female lead I had read at the time who did not conform to the stereotypes of women as portrayed in literature. I now know there are other books which have inspiring female leads and even send a strong message, but this was the only one I could get my hands on in my school library and it had a huge impact on me.
I eventually decided to take up my bachelors in Information Technology and pursue robotics in the future. I reckoned that by the time I graduated and even a few years later, there will not be enough robots and enough advancements in AI to pursue a role called “robopsychologist”, but I could still work on robots and that would be good enough. Of course, I realised during college that I loved coding and became a developer, but I owe it to Asimov for inspiring me to take this path.
It is not just our family, friends and teachers who influence our career choices. Media also has a huge impact. When you see people you can relate to on screen, you start thinking that you can do whatever that fictional character can do. To a child, seeing positive representations of themselves can give a spark of inspiration to be something that they never imagined. On the contrary, seeing only stereotyped representations could limit them and make them assume that this is all that they can ever be.
This is why we need a better portrayal of people across all demographics, without being subject to stereotypes. We need fictional characters across all genders, race, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, etc., to be given a positive spotlight and shown as achievers in a field that they are not stereotyped to be in. This way, the future generation will not grow up conforming to the stereotypes expected of them. They could identify and work in the areas they are interested in.