Career Day at Schools: What Our Young Women and Men Need to Hear about Professional Life
Career and job counseling in high schools and colleges has a history. As late as the 1980’s, schools used career inventories in order to measure interest in professions as a way to help students focus on their futures. The insidious nature of these questionnaires and measurements was that they claimed to be only gauging interest, as if they were innocent bystanders at a car accident. The presumption was that they were merely a relevant list, not an actual influencer that might send clear gender related messages to the participants. In fact, the scales and questionnaires strongly promoted gender restrictiveness, “based on the pervasive and strong influence in our society of gender-role socialization and the continuing existence of occupational sex segregation.”* (See source below)
One of the more frequently used instruments in the 1960s, the Strong Vocational Interest Bank, had a clear gender agenda, with separate scales for men and women, pointing men in the direction of such fields as business management, medicine and engineering where women are suggested to such careers as “Executive Housekeeper.” These scales, Strong not being the only one with this sexist bent, also made clear presumptions concerning learning which, of course, creates a cyclical effect. “...the men’s profile contained a basic interest scale for mathematics while the analogous scale on the women’s form was for numbers. In other words, it was assumed that men do mathematics and women count.”** (See source below)
And, if we are going to have this conversation about the “realia” of the world with young men and women in high school and college, we should also be honest and tell students the reality of what women will experience “out there.”
The scale itself was part of a much larger self fulfilling feedback system, reinforcing the stereotypes and tropes that women and men were experiencing in their educational systems up until that point. The scales were not meant to expand horizons or to create American dreams, they made sure the system maintained its integrity, largely based on prejudicial and misogynistic thinking and perceptions. Again, this is just another example where school becomes the confining funnel rather than the vehicle of freedom for our children.
Until fairly recently, educators also paraded parents and volunteers through elementary and middle school classrooms and into high school career days which provided our students with a genderized picture of their future work life, with men doing the accounting, lawyering, banking, and doctoring and women doing the nursing, homemaking, teaching and hairdressing. Those days are, thankfully, mostly gone as teachers and schools have become much more sensitive to the mental imprint students may retain of gender roles. I find it ironic that educators are acutely aware of this need when portraying the outside world, but spend little time discussing what their classrooms, practices and schools look like in terms of gender bias. It’s as if educators have bought into the unimportance of their own profession and the impact of education -- it’s what happens out there which is really important.
I am also going to go out on a limb and ask when did career counseling become the job of schools? Perhaps with the established plan in United States to consummate the market place with educational goals, a natural consequence was that schools would begin seeing their mission as mental “training” for participation in America’s economic machine, from choices regarding vocational education to advanced and increasingly sophisticated technical careers. My personal experience was that the career conversation was first and foremost a family one, grounded in personal and communal values, rather than how my school would frame the discussion.
And, if we are going to have this conversation about the “realia” of the world with young men and women in high school and college, we should also be honest and tell students the reality of what women will experience “out there.” They will be paid less than men, much less in professions typically aligned with traditional male stereotyping, and even in professions like teaching and nursing. Women will find themselves with better credentials and more accomplished than men, particularly regarding success in school, and still placed in the same competitive pool with men with lesser credentials when applying for the same jobs. Women will be discouraged from seeking employment and training opportunities in many blue collar fields, again traditionally aligned with male categories. Females will be told that they are taking jobs away from men, and they cause a danger to everyone when they attempt to take on these physically demanding careers. We should also be really clear with women and men about what the work place is like for women, what they can expect in terms of attitudes, sexual harassment, and the obstacles they will meet when speaking up for themselves under sometimes intolerable situations.
If we think that schools are truly about preparing students for the real world, both sexes would benefit from seeing and hearing about all of it.
*Betz, N.E. & Fitzgerald, I. (1987). Career psychology of women. Orlando, FL.: Academic Press.
**Reed, D. & Fox, L.H. (2007). Gender equity in testing and assessment. In: Klein, S.S. (2007). Handbook for Achieving Equity Through Education. New York, NY.: Routledge.