Early 20th-Century Career Counseling for Women: Contemporary Practice and Research Implications.

Author:Alshabani, Nuha

The authors critically examine the development of career counseling for women during the early 20th century. The development of career counseling for women lagged behind career counseling for men. Challenges, such as feminization of occupations, restricted occupational opportunities, and societal norms, stunted the development of career counseling for women. Furthermore, career counseling for women varied based on racial groups. Early writings discussed opportunities specifically geared toward White, college-educated, nonimmigrant women. Although these beginning opportunities provided formal guidance to White women, many other women were excluded from formal career counseling and are not represented in these writings. Implications include training practitioners to recognize their own biases when working with women, how gender bias influences career counseling inventories and career theories, and how counselors can challenge these biases and stereotypes to provide the full range of career opportunities to women. Future research should address the impact of career counseling on women of color.

Keywords: vocational guidance, historical analysis, vocational inventories, women in psychology, career counseling


Women face many obstacles to their career development, including sexist social attitudes, structural barriers in the educational system, gender biases in career interest inventories, psychological factors such as self-efficacy, and family influences and expectations (Einarsdottir & Rounds, 2009; Farmer, 2006; Kanny, Sax, & Riggers-Piehl, 2014; Luzzo & McWhirter, 2001). Over 40 years ago, Fitzgerald and Crites (1979) suggested that career counseling has an essential role in reducing the economic and social disparity between men and women. However, at times, career counseling continues to limit women's career development because of the historical gender bias that persists (Farmer, 2006; Fitzgerald & Crites, 1979; Turner et al., 2008). Fitzgerald and Crites called for career counselors to examine their potential role in hindering and supporting women in their career aspirations and choices. It remains important today to continue to recognize the historical limitations of career counseling in order for the field to expand, rather than limit women's career opportunities. Toward that end, we examine ways in which career counseling limited and expanded career opportunities for women in the early 20th century. What we know about career counseling today dates to the institutionalization of career counseling in the early 20th century. This analysis concludes with implications for women's contemporary career counseling.

Need for a Historical Analysis

Career decisions are influenced by many factors, such as gender, race, and socioeconomic status, and are often facilitated by career guidance and counseling (Gati & Perez, 2014). Understanding the history of career counseling can enable contemporary career counselors to fully understand how such factors, and especially gender, affect career development, career decision-making, and career counseling for women. Currently, there is a movement to increase opportunities for women to enter traditionally masculine fields (e.g., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] positions; Kanny et al., 2014; Szelenyi, Bresonis, & Mars, 2016). Yet, disparities persist. For example, women are paid only $0.81 per every $1.00 that men are paid (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). Likewise, in the 1950s, 1% of students in engineering programs were women, and more than 60 years later, 18% of students in these programs are women (Bix, 2013). Many barriers that are slowing progress toward equity are rooted in historical divisions of labor, societal attitudes for segregating women in the workforce, and gendered career counseling. Efforts to increase the number of women in STEM college majors are national initiatives (National Science Foundation, 2015). Despite these initiatives, women remain underrepresented in STEM (Kanny et al., 2014).

Career counselors can be influential in the career aspirations and orientation of high school girls and college-age women (Fitzgerald & Crites, 1979; Whitmarsh, Brown, Cooper, Hawkins-Rodgers, & Wentworth, 2007). Contemporary career counseling can benefit from an analysis of the historical causes of gender inequities to better serve women. Understanding contextual factors that shaped early career counseling is important because this is the foundation for career counseling today. For example, the term career counseling was not used at the turn of the century. Instead, the term vocational guidance was the language of the day. This is reflected in the founding of the National Career Development Association in 1913 as the National Vocational Guidance Association. We use both terms throughout this article because prior to 1964 the term vocational guidance was used to describe guidance, education, and theory, whereas career counseling is used to describe guidance today (Herr, 2013).

Also, it is important to note that career counseling experiences for White educated women were historically substantially different from those of women of color (Cooper, 1937; Gould, 2018). Current career counseling practices and research are influenced by these historical foundations and may continue to perpetuate inherent gender and racial biases. For example, women, especially women of color, experience lower pay even when their performance evaluations are equal to those of White men (Castilla, 2008). Career counselors still use career assessments, such as vocational interest and self-efficacy scales, to assist individuals with career choice and development (Lent, Sheu, & Brown, 2010). However, variables such as interests and self-efficacy may be affected by other variables such as stereotype threat, lack of exposure to occupations, and other sociocultural factors (Castilla, 2008). Thus, minority individuals may be provided with career options rooted in patterns that have been affected by bias.

Early Developments

A study of women's earnings in 1929 demonstrated that college-educated women, who at the time represented less than 4% of women in America, earned more than women who did not attend college in all occupational fields studied (Elliott & Manson, 1929). That study found that college-educated women worked mostly in education (55.5%), with others working in clerical (11.8%), welfare (6.3%), health care (5%), sales (4%), and other occupations (17%). In the late 1920s, when these data were collected on over 14,000 women, education and clerical positions accounted for over 70% of the sample yet were two of the lowest paying jobs in society. Of note, the highest earning jobs for women were in health and financial fields, which were two of the least represented career options in the survey.

Early career counseling research focused on vocational choice and developing measures to place individuals in "appropriate" careers (Harrington & Long, 2013). Subsequently, researchers aimed to understand why women selected certain careers. Elliott and Manson (1929) asked how the most educated of women found themselves in some of the least paying jobs. They offered three possible explanations: (a) college-educated women were financially able to enter low-paying jobs; (b) financial rewards were less significant to college-educated women; and (c) college women were more susceptible to traditional careers (Elliott & Manson, 1929). A contemporary view of these explanations can identify the underlying sexism that these claims make, such as the notion that education is "women's work." The authors did not elaborate on other potential explanations for the restricted occupations among women. One potential explanation for why women found themselves in a limited number of careers may be that the career counseling they received at the time presented limited options.

During the early 1900s, developments in childhood education decreased the length of time that women needed to be at home (Hollingworth, 1916). This reduction in household responsibilities made it feasible for women to join the workforce. Moreover, White affluent women who could afford college education found themselves pursuing vocational interests beyond just pursuing another household income. Between 1890 and 1920, the share of working women increased from 16.5% to 20.2% (Pedersen, 1988). This new group of working women was mainly better educated, White, single, and born in the United States (Hill, 1929). Furthermore, most working women were unmarried or without children; only 7.3% of married women were working in the 1920s. These working women also experienced lower pay, less prominent opportunities, and restriction of occupational fields compared with their male counterparts (Elliott & Manson, 1929; Parsons, 1926; Pedersen, 1988).

These working women faced difficulties in professionalizing female-dominated occupations, such as teaching, and faced many barriers in entering male-dominated fields, such as medicine (Pedersen, 1988). Societal norms and feminized fields served as barriers for the women who could, or had to, enter the workforce. Thus, women's personal decisions, as Elliott and Manson (1929) suggested, were likely influenced by these barriers to employment, thereby leading to the dominance of college-educated women in lower paying teaching and clerical occupations. Although there was an increase of working women, they were confined to socially acceptable roles. This is even more apparent among working married women, who were mainly employed as domestic servants, laundresses, and factory workers (Pedersen, 1988).

Establishing Career Counseling for Women

Despite these limited occupational opportunities, the increase in working women sparked a conversation about women's career counseling among women, feminists, and career counselors. To begin with, the notion that women needed and should obtain career...

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