Systems Theory Framework: A Culturally Responsive Model for Career Guidance

By Michelle M. Lovasz

Systems Theory Framework (STF) of Career Development (Patton & McMahon, 2014 and 2018) provides a model from which to view the systems of individual and practitioner that influence career development and guidance. STF acknowledges three systems that influence the content of individuals’ career development:

  • Interpersonal (e.g. identification of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and personality);
  • Social (e.g. values, beliefs, attitudes, and membership among family, peers, school, workplace, community, and media); and
  • Environmental/Societal (e.g. historical oppression, government policies, workplace restructuring, socioeconomic variables, geographic location, and the values, beliefs, and attitudes of age cohorts).

In addition, STF acknowledge three principles that influence the process of individuals’ career development:

  1. The interaction of influences within the individual in context and between the individual and context are dynamic and recursive;
  2. Change over time, from a forward-looking perspective, is significant as past influences shape present influences and interpretations bring about future career possibilities; and
  3. Chance, or unanticipated events, in broader systems affect individuals’ systems.

STF Approach in Career Guidance

The STF approach in career development provides a model that positions the individual and practitioner as co-authors of career guidance (McMahon & Patton, 2004; Patton & McMahon, 2006). STF allows for a writing of the systems of career influences that the practitioner and individual bring to the helping relationship.

As individuals narrate their systems from the viewpoint of career influences, practitioners note themes and areas than present gaps or potential barriers. Both discuss, proceeding from a worldview represented by individuals through the telling of their career stories, and co-construct interpretations that frame next steps in career guidance. Co-constructed next steps can incorporate other career development theories or other interdisciplinary theories to inform guidance towards continued career development.

STF in the Context of Diversity and Inclusion

A culturally responsive practice integrates socialization, norms, communities, cultural influences, and histories, and a STF approach can frame these influences as starting points for career development, empowerment, and advocacy (Chan, 2019). The STF has been applied to and shown practical value in career practice, qualitative assessment, and research among various client groups and cultural contexts (Arthur & McMahon, 2005; Patton & McMahon, 2018).

The STF presents a basis for understanding individual social identities to inform an individual’s positioning within society as it pertains to career development. In an article about applying the STF in career services for LGBTQ+ communities, Christian D. Chan (2019) pointed out that navigating identity development and influences from marginalization inside and outside of work and career contexts can delay career development for individuals. These influences can impact career choices and pathways in terms of climate of safety and workplace and career satisfaction. Influences from marginalization of gender, sexuality, or affection combined with larger grouping of oppressive forces (e.g. racism, ableism, heterosexism, genderism) can create additional stress. This can impact individuals’ wellness and health, including occupational wellness, and can present challenges across life transitions (e.g. parenting, retirement) (Chan, 2019).

For example, in LGBTQ and transgender communities, as noted by Chan (2019), the coming out process has historically presented challenges due to policies lacking protection and laws hindering safety (e.g. incidents of bullying or harassment in the workplace, states where it is legal to fire for non-heterosexual identity). Transgender communities may experience further marginalization due to policy language that places protections based on gender (e.g. women) but fails to account for gender identity as a social identity. Consequently, unemployment for transgender communities has been higher than the national average illustrating an increased need for culturally responsive career guidance (Chan, 2019).

Chan (2019) acknowledges the benefits of prioritizing content influences of identity (e.g. race and ethnicity, sexuality, affection, and gender identity) and setting (e.g. workplace bullying, protections and rights, advocacy) combined with process influences of interaction and change over time. A STF approach can stimulate discussion around terminology and meaning of identity influences, which can shape an individual’s self-identification in career. At the same time, discussions can address possible barriers within specific career environments in order to mitigate possible harm.

Career stories considered from a strengths-based approach and viewed with the STF provide a guide for individuals to examine their own career pathways, initiate their own agency for change and action, and contextualize forces shaping career barriers. As a result, individuals may gain empowerment and meaning for their future selves in affirming work environments.

Practical Applications of STF

The STF can be used as a qualitative career assessment in the intake process. Through the recognition of individual and practitioner differences the helping relationship can be established and the groundwork for a co-constructed interpretation of influences and possibilities can be set to inform next steps in career guidance.

Some types of qualitative career assessments that can be utilized and interpreted through STF include (McMahon & Watson, 2007; Patton & McMahon, 2018):

  • Career genograms
  • Social, role, and cultural atoms;
  • Career sociodramas;
  • Narrative Sentence-Completion Process;
  • My Career Chapter;
  • Career Systems Interview; and
  • My System of Career Influences.

The Brief Scale of Career Development Influences introduces a quantitative career assessment built upon the STF (Bridgstock, 2007). My System of Career Influences can be completed individually, in groups or with the guidance of a career practitioner, presented through a single lesson or over a series of career education lessons, used for self-reflection in career counselor training, and applied as a research tool (McMahon & Patton, 2004; McMahon & Watson, 2007).


Arthur, N., & McMahon, M. (2005). Multicultural career counseling: Theoretical applications of the systems theory framework. The Career Development Quarterly, 53(3), 208- 222.

Bridgstock, R. (2007). Development of a brief measure of career development influences based on the systems theory framework. Australian Journal of Career Development, 16(3), 19-30.

Chan., C. (2019). Broadening the scope of affirmative practices for LGBTQ+ communities in career services: Applications from a systems theory framework. Career Development Network Journal, Spring, 6-21.

McMahon, M., & Patton, W. (2004). Creating career stories through reflection: An Application of the systems theory framework of career development. Australian Journal of Career Development, 13(3), 13-17.

McMahon, M., & Watson, M. (2007). The systems theory framework of career development: Expanding its research influence. Australian Journal of Career Development, 16(1), 47- 54.

Patton, W. & McMahon, M. (2006). The systems theory framework of career development and counseling: Connecting theory and practice. International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, 28(2), 153-166.

Patton, W. & McMahon, M. (2014). Career development and systems theory: connecting theory and practice. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Patton, W., & McMahon, M. (2018). The systems theory framework of career development. In J. P. Sampson, E. Bullock-Yowell, V. C. Dozier, D. S. Osborn, & J. G. Lenz (Eds.), Integrating theory, research, and practice in vocational psychology: Current status and future directions. (pp. 50-61). Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University.


Michelle LovaszMichelle M. Lovasz, M.A., is Assistant Director of the Career Development Center at California State University, Los Angeles. She has co-presented on topics of identity exploration in academic and career advising, major advising via career pathways, alumni as role models in career development, and social media engagement to establish a personal brand. She has also conducted research using conversation analysis to explore co-participation in interview outcomes for Latinx university students in diversity internship interviews. She can be reached at mlovasz@calstatela.edu.

Printer-Friendly Version