Forming stereotype about career roles based upon appearance can have a strong influence on how middle school students navigate the career decision-making process. When creating career exploration activities to address this, it is important to keep students engaged and to underscore their ability to make choices independent of stereotype about career possibilities.
While counselors should encourage students in early adolescence to be creative and fantasize about vocational possibilities, it is equally important for counselors to understand the students often bring to the process learned stereotypes which have the potential of hindering students in their career decision-making process. Often, many middle school students will make career judgments based solely upon appearance (e.g. skin color, clothing, hair style, etc). Unfortunately, this appearance based decision could negatively influence students’ career choice. As a result of classifying occupations based upon appearance, which in turn is based upon stereotypical beliefs, middle school students may end up with fewer number of future career options. As school counselors, it is important to discuss these vocational stereotypes, including the notion that appearance need not determines one’s career choice, and introduce students to a wider range of career possibilities they may never have thought possible.
Introducing, “Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover”
In order to effectively teach middle school students about the effect of holding negative stereotypical beliefs about occupations and individuals employed different occupations, “Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” is recommended. This is an activity that has proven successful in middle school settings in changing students’ perceptions about their career choices without regard to negative stereotypes.
Instructions for conducting activity
Group size: Up to 30 middle school students
Time required: At least 45 minutes
Instructions: Create a list of at least ten well-known individuals representing different career fields. Select individuals who may be considered to have a nontraditional career role based upon appearance (e.g. male dancers or female wrestlers). It is best to have a variety of careers represented - the more the better; be creative! Examples of possible professions you could have represented on your list include:
Once you have identified and listed these professionals, check newspapers, magazines or online sources for a picture representing each one. Number each individual and post the pictures, with corresponding number, on the walls throughout a classroom.
Facilitating Activity: Once the students have entered the classroom and found their seats, provide each student with a sheet of paper that lists the different professionals posted throughout the room. Explain to the students that they should (a) walk around the room, (b) carefully look at each picture, and (c) try to determine which profession from their career list corresponds to which individual picture. After students believe they have found a match, they should write the number found on the picture next to the profession on their career list.
Don’t be surprised to find that almost every student will have inaccurately matched a professional with the appropriate career. But this is the point! Students will be forced to make assumptions about certain professions based upon socialized messages they’ve learned regarding career choice and appearance.
Facilitating Discussion: Once the activity is completed, give the students the correct answers to match each profession. Then, lead a class discussion to process this activity. During this discussion, counselors should clearly address important points such as:
1. Assumptions should not be made about an individual based upon appearances and stereotypes. Possible questions for further exploration:
Why did you assume that the young female is the teacher? Do you know any teachers that are not young females?
What are some of the negative effects of stereotyping someone’s profession based on appearance?
2. Explore other stereotypes related to individuals and career choice. Possible questions to help further exploration:
Besides physical appearance, what are some other stereotypes you know regarding career choice (e.g. education level, geographic location, family structure, etc.)?
Do you know anyone who does not fit into these stereotypes?
3. Dispel the notion that an individual is limited to specific professions because of appearance, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, or age.
It should be more apparent to the students by the end of the discussion that stereotypes exist regarding different careers. But these stereotypes could hinder their career choice and exploration process if not addressed.
It is important for school counselors to understand how adolescents’ perception of different occupations may be distorted because of learned stereotype beliefs regarding a given occupation. With this knowledge, counselors can discuss the consequences and negative impact these stereotypes developed through socialized messages can have on students’ career options. Such a discussion may encourage students to consider professions they may have never previously considered, or at the least, expand upon already existing options. When creating career exploration activities for adolescents, it is important to keep them engaged and to underscore their ability to make choices for themselves about their career possibilities. “Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” is one activity that can help to address this potential problem middle school students. And always remember to have fun!
Brian Stevenson received his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Irvine in 2007, and is near completion of his master’s degree in Counselor Education at San Jose State University. His counseling experiences include, one year as a career counseling graduate intern at a college career center, and two years as a middle school GEAR UP counselor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.