Culture and Careers

Culture and CareersCulture is defined as the beliefs and values that shape the customs, norms, and practices of groups of people that help them solve the problems of everyday living. Thus, culture influences the Culture and careers refers to the way that culture influences the way people work, the way they make decisions about work, and how their career paths are shaped, way groups communicate, the way they take care of and educate their children, how they provide food and shelter, and how they earn a living. . In other words, culture shapes individuals’ identities and the context in which they work. All individuals have a cultural, ethnic, and/or racial heritage, and in some cases, individuals have multiple cultural identities that shape their contexts. For example, the cultural context for an African American woman who lives in the southern United States will be based on her race, gender, and geographic location. The cultural context in which she lives helps to determine her own and others’ career expectations, her preparation for work, and the opportunities open to her.

The terms culture, race, and ethnicity are often used interchangeably, though this has also caused some controversy in the field. Race may be viewed as both a biological concept and as a social construct. Geneticists note that the biological concept is not very useful because although at one point in history it was possible to biologically distinguish individuals based on race, racial groups are no longer biologically distinct from each other. But it is also clear that race has a strong social meaning in the United States, and there are different social and psychological consequences for individuals based on their race. Thus, the term race continues to be used in research to help identify differences between individuals who identify as members of different racial groups. For more than three decades, researchers have examined various factors that contribute to the big differences across racial groups in the types of work chosen and the progress in those careers. Since there are no differences in ability patterns across groups, psychologists have focused on other factors that may lead to differences in occupational choice, such as career dreams, role models, work values, or interests in careers. More recently, researchers have examined possible reasons in the environment that may contribute to those differences, such as racism and discrimination.

In the United States, the largest racial groups are White, African American, Asian American, and Native American. Ethnic group refers to individuals who come from a common geographic area and share customs and ways of behaving. Hispanics/Latinos are referred to as an ethnic group and may encompass several different racial groups. The term racial/ethnic minority group is used to denote African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic/ Latinos, who are in the numerical minority in the United States. The term culture is used to broadly encompass the context for various groups. Cultural identity is considered to be shaped by racial and ethnic identity; related concepts are gender and careers, sexual orientation and careers, and identity. While much of the following discussion will focus on differences between racial/ethnic groups, it is also critical to note that there are often more differences within a group than there are between groups. Thus, for example, there are often more differences between men and women, and adolescent and adult African Americans than there are between Hispanic, African American, and White men.

Culture influences careers in a number of ways. Since individuals work within a context shaped by the culture of the organization and the individuals within that organization, culture influences the type of work that is done, the rewards for various types of work, and the types of interaction that are valued. In other words, cultural values shape our perspectives of the importance of work and the type of work that is valued. Cultural values shape not only the decisions made by organizations and within the workplace but also the career and work decisions made by individuals. For example, individuals who place a very high value on family and the collective good of their racial or ethnic groups may make different choices than those who place a high value on individual achievement.

In the United States, the cultural context for the majority cultural group includes several assumptions about work. It is assumed, for example, that work decisions are made solely by individuals, without consultation from others. It is also assumed that individuals are affluent enough to have the resources to seek opportunities to prepare for work and that the work opportunities are available and open to everyone. Finally, it is assumed that the career development process is logical and rational and occurs in a linear, step-by-step fashion. However, many of these fundamental assumptions do not apply to individuals who are from racial/ethnic minority groups. In many cultures, the role of family is viewed as being important in decision making, and racial/ethnic groups differ in the availability of resources open to them. Work opportunities are often closed to racial/ethnic minority groups due to racism, and consequently the career development process is often not linear or rational.

Culture very clearly shapes the opportunities available to individuals. A review of the demographic diversity of occupations indicates that members of racial/ethnic minority groups are overrepresented in some occupations and underrepresented in others. Thus, it may be that for some, career and work decisions are a result of a compromise between occupations available to them and what they really hope or want to do. This suggests that culture may interact with work and career in two ways. First, culture helps to influence individuals’ views of what types of work are appropriate and of the role of work in their lives. Second, culture influences the types of work available to individuals, both for positive reasons (e.g., opportunities available to those in a family business) as well as negative reasons (e.g., racism preventing someone from being hired into a work setting). Cultural values, the demographic diversity of work, and the role of interests, dreams, and barriers to work are all explored more fully in the next sections.

Cultural Values and Work

Cultural groups have been found to differ on a number of variables, though most researchers discuss five major dimensions on which differences in cultural values influence career and work. The first dimension is that of individualism versus collectivism. Those who value individualism have a preference for working alone, avoid dependence on others, and prefer accountability as an individual. They tend to place a high value on competition. Their work goal is to maximize material wealth and well-being. Conversely, those who value collectivism have a preference for working as part of a group, subordinate their own goals for achievement to that of the group, and place a high value on group success and cooperation. European Americans tend to be high on individualism, while most members of racial/ethnic minority groups have a preference for collectivism.

Another dimension in which cultures differ is in their views of the purpose of work in individuals’ lives. Some cultural groups have a preference for doing and achieving through work, and others prefer to work so that they can do other things. For the latter, who work to live, work is something to be tolerated to get to the “real” or “important” things in life. The former, who live to work, place a high value on work as a worthy end in and of itself; European Americans tend to value living to work. For many members of racial/ethnic minority groups, however, the role of work is less central in life.

A third cultural value is how much people believe they can control or shape their surroundings and how much they believe that life and consequences are predetermined. This has been referred to as locus of control: Is the control within the individual (internal locus of control), or is it shaped by forces outside the individual (external locus of control)? Those with an internal locus of control tend to be more aggressive in achieving their own plans and also tend to be more optimistic about achieving those plans than those with an external locus of control, who tend to be more passive and accepting of fate. Research has found that European Americans tend to be higher in internal locus of control, and racial/ethnic minority group members tend to be higher in external locus of control. It is important to point out that often the circumstances of lives affected by racism and discrimination are, indeed, out of individuals’ control.

A fourth dimension is that of avoidance of uncertainty. Cultures differ in how comfortable individuals are with ambiguity and unfamiliar tasks and how much risk is tolerable. Those high in uncertainty avoidance have a preference for highly structured environments and place a high value on individuals’ conformance to rules and established norms. When rules are broken, a typical response is a high level of anxiety. Individuals’ roles as women or men or as an elder or younger member of society are specified very clearly, and all members of the cultural group know what to expect from the behavior of others. The rules for behavior and relationships are clear, and conflict is avoided when possible. Cultures with low uncertainty avoidance have a much higher tolerance for outside-the-norm ideas and experimentation. Cultural groups with long ties to Catholicism, such as Latinos, tend to be higher in uncertainty avoidance, as are Asian cultures. Native Americans and African Americans tend to be lower in uncertainty avoidance, and European Americans tend to be in the mid-range on uncertainty avoidance.

Finally, the fifth dimension focuses on differences across cultural groups in the way that time is perceived. Those who focus on the past place an emphasis on the traditional way of doing things; the future is an extension of the past. Asian Americans tend to have a strong sense of past traditions. Those with present-time orientations place an emphasis on spontaneity and living for the moment, and this orientation is more typical of African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. The last orientation, that of emphasizing the future, has a focus on future goals, and individuals with this emphasis are willing to make sacrifices for long-term goals. For those with future orientations, such as European Americans, time is viewed as a commodity to be “earned,” “wasted,” or “used.”

It is important to note that while research has shown differences among racial/ethnic groups in cultural values, there is no particular value in having a preference for one aspect of the dimension or the other. In other words, while European Americans place a higher value on individualism than collectivism, it does not mean that individualism is superior to collectivism. Cultural values for work, however, influence preferences for working style, and as will be seen in the next section, since European Americans occupy most of the positions of power and authority in the U.S. workplace, their cultural values become the norm on which work is shaped and evaluated.

Demographic Diversity of Work

The workforce in the United States has become increasingly more racially and ethnically diverse, mirroring the increasing diversity of the population of the United States. The 2000 census indicated this increase; in the 1990 census, one out of four individuals (or 25 percent) indicated he or she was a member of a racial/ ethnic minority group. In 2000, the percentage of individuals identifying as members of racial/ethnic minority groups had grown to one in three. This was also the first census in which individuals were allowed to indicate more than one racial/ethnic affiliation. Of the third who identified as members of a racial/ethnic minority group, approximately 13 percent indicated they were African American, 1.5 percent identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native, 4.5 percent as Asian/Pacific Islander, 13 percent as Hispanic/Latino, and about 7 percent indicated “Other” race. Of those identifying as more than one racial/ethnic group, a large number were under 18 years of age, suggesting that the United States will become increasingly biracial in the future.

Since the 2000 census, Hispanic/Latinos have surpassed African Americans as the largest racial/ethnic minority group in the United States (13.85 percent vs. 12.9 percent). This increase and the increase in number of individuals identifying as Asian American/ Pacific Islander are both due to higher immigration rates and higher rates of fertility. But while in 1990 members of racial/ethnic minority groups were most likely to be found in coastal or border states (e.g., California, New York, Florida, or Texas), the 2000 census showed an increase in diversity across the country in every state.

While there is an increasing number of racial/ ethnic group members in the United States, there are marked differences in educational and occupational attainment across groups. The 2003 census, for example, indicated that Asian Americans had the highest percentage of high school graduates (94 percent) by age 24, followed by Whites (86 percent), Blacks (81 percent), and Hispanics (65 percent). As might be expected, the levels of college graduation by age 29 mirrors this same pattern: 10 percent of Hispanics, 17 percent of Blacks, 28 percent of Whites, and 62 percent of Asian Americans had graduated from college by age 29. While these differences may seem striking, it is important to note that there is less disparity among racial/ethnic groups than ever; in 1940, the rate of high school graduation for African Americans was less than a third of that for Whites (7.7 percent vs. 26 percent), and the college graduation rate was similar (1.3 percent vs. 4.9 percent). Statistics are available only for African Americans and Whites during that time; data on Hispanics were not collected until the 1980s and on Asian Americans until the 1990s.

The differences in educational attainment may be due to a number of factors. Individuals may not have the financial resources available to them to finish high school or to attend and graduate from college. There may also be barriers due to lack of knowledge about educational opportunities, lack of parental support for education, and lack of role models to support higher educational attainment. Racism may also be a barrier for individuals in seeking opportunities for higher levels of education. Racism may play a role in equal access to educational and learning opportunities that are available to students from racial/ethnic minority groups, as well as discrimination in admission to institutions of higher learning. Whatever the cause of the educational disparity, it is clear that differences in education become magnified as employers require higher levels of education prior to employment, and with higher levels of education and employment come greater earnings. This can lead to a vicious cycle in which individuals from higher income levels have access to greater opportunities and resources for education, which leads them to have more occupational opportunities and income. They provide their children with more opportunities for education, and their children, in turn, have more occupational opportunities, and the disparity between groups grows. Recognition of this cycle has led a number of educational institutions to create specific programs to break this cycle and governmental programs to specifically address barriers that exist for racial/ethnic minority group members.

The increases in racial/ethnic diversity in the country discussed earlier have also resulted, as may be expected, in an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse workforce. A study by the National Research Council showed increases in diversity in almost all occupational groups, though diversity was broadly defined to include gender, race, age, and educational level and did not just specify race or ethnicity. When occupational groups are examined specifically for diversity in race or ethnicity, however, it is clear that racial/ethnic groups are not represented equally.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data from employers, and workers are identified as Black, White, Hispanic, or Asians; data are not collected on Native Americans. Blacks and Hispanics are each 13 percent of the population and would be 13 percent of workers across occupations if they were equally represented. However, they are underrepresented in many professional occupations and overrepresented in less skilled occupations. For example, Blacks and Hispanics are 7.9 percent and 5.1 percent (respectively) of executive, administrative, and managerial specialties; 5.3 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively, of engineers, architects, and surveyors; 4.8 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively, of natural scientists; and 5.0 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively, of physicians, dentists, and veterinarians. However, Blacks are 30 percent of guards, 36 percent of postal workers, 32 percent of licensed practical nurses, and 25 percent of dietitians, social workers, communications workers, correctional institution officers, and shoe sales workers. Hispanics are 38 percent of butchers, textile sewing machine operators, and concrete finishers and 40 percent of house cleaners. The implications of differences in occupational choice become more apparent when considering the differences in wages earned across the occupations. Across all occupational groups, Blacks earned 80 percent and Hispanics earn 68 percent of the median weekly wage earned by Whites. Men in all groups earned more than women in the same group, with the most extreme difference found for Hispanic women, who earned slightly more than half of what White men earned. Unemployment also differs markedly across racial/ethnic groups. In 2000 and 2002, the unemployment rates for Whites were 2.6 percent and 4.2 percent, 5.4 percent and 7.6 percent for Blacks, and 4.4 percent and 6.1 percent for Hispanics.

Culture and Career Development Theories

The statistics discussed above indicate that the educational and occupational landscapes are not equal.

Culture, or membership in a racial/ethnic minority group, appears to result in different pathways to careers, career choices, earnings, and the opportunity to work. What is less clear, however, is how that dis­parity occurs. A number of career theories help explain and predict the types of careers individuals will choose (e.g., Holland’s theory, social learning theory, social cognitive theory, and Super’s career development theory). Most of these, however, were developed to explain the career behavior of the majority culture and do not as adequately explain the career development of racial/ethnic minority individuals.

Most of the theories, for example, have been based on research conducted with White individuals (often the early research focused just on White men). Another criticism of these theories is that they have been based on the type of majority culture assumptions detailed earlier (individuality, centrality of work, open-opportunity structure, and linear process). Many of the theories note the role of interests in occupational choice, assuming a relatively straightforward path from having an interest in an activity to deciding to prepare to enter that occupational area. For example, an adolescent is interested in physics, math, and computers. Her teachers and parents encourage her to become a physicist; she learns about this field and decides to go to college and major in physics. But what if no one is there to encourage her interests? What if she does not know what she could do with an interest in physics or there are no resources available for her to go to college? What if she does not know that people of her race could be physicists and decides it is not a possible field for her? None of the theories explicitly addresses the external realities for many racial/ethnic minority groups. Thus, researchers and scholars have begun to call for theoretical frameworks that incorporate the realistic and perceived barriers experienced by members of racial/ethnic minority groups. These new theoretical frameworks will be based, however, on the research that has been conducted in the past two decades on factors related to career choice for racial/ethnic minority groups, described in more detail in the next two sections.

Aspirations, Interests, and Career Choice

As noted earlier, it is clear that there are differences in the occupations into which different racial/ethnic groups enter, though the reasons for that disparity in occupational representation are not as clear. Is it possible that there are differences in the dreams or interests that individuals may have? In other words, do the variations in choices made by individuals stem from their aspirations or work interests? Investigators who have examined differences in students’ responses to “What do you want your career to be?” have found that there appear to be very few differences between racial/ethnic groups. In fact, most studies showed greater differences between men and women than between ethnic groups. Differences have also been found between those whose parents are of higher social class even within the same racial/ethnic group. Thus, people of different cultures do not necessarily have different career dreams, and we cannot conclude that differences in career choices can be explained by the differences in hopes and dreams for careers.

Researchers have also examined whether differences in career choices can be explained by differences among groups in vocational (or work) interests. Interests may be viewed as a preference for an activity, and studies have been conducted to investigate whether culture affects the activities that different groups prefer. The research on vocational interests, for example, has found big differences between the interests of men and women, which may give a partial explanation for the different careers that men and women pursue. However, most research has found that the differences in interests between cultural groups is relatively small and is much smaller than the differences within the same racial/ethnic group. For example, differences are greater between men and women of the same racial/ethnic group or between older and younger members of the same group than between groups. As another example, one study found that Asian Americans who are less acculturated to the United States (i.e., those whose families are recent immigrants) are much more likely to choose an occupation that is consistent with occupations typically held by Asian Americans (e.g., scientist or engineer) and valued by their families than an occupation that is consistent with their own interests. This is consistent with the cultural value of collectivism discussed earlier, in that individuals chose an occupation that met family obligations rather than their own interests.

Investigators have also found that the structure underlying interests is the same across groups, such that it is clear that the world of work is perceived in the same way across racial/ethnic groups. Studies have also shown that individuals appear to be basing their decisions on the same type of overall factors, though groups may weight those factors differently. In other words, while individuals from all racial/ethnic groups indicate that family is important in their career decision making, for some groups, family plays a much greater role in their decisions. It appears clear, then, that the differences in the occupational landscape are not a result of the interests expressed by individuals, by their career dreams, or by their incorporating different aspects in their decision making.

Barriers and Supports

Some researchers have examined the career dreams or interests of individuals, and others have focused more on the effects of racism and discrimination on the choices that are open to individuals. In other words, they have focused less on whether the lack of equal racial/ethnic representation across occupations is due to individuals’ choices and more on whether it is due to real (discrimination, racism) or perceived (perception of opportunities) barriers. Similarly, some researchers have also focused on the various factors that help to facilitate the choices of racial/ethnic minority group members.

Some of the same researchers that asked about career dreams also asked students and their parents what careers they expected to enter. They found that although there were no differences in aspirations, there were differences across racial/ethnic groups in careers they expected to enter. Parents from different racial/ethnic groups also did not differ in the types of careers they hoped their children would choose, but when asked what they expected them to eventually do, the responses of parents from different racial/ethnic groups were quite different. Those differences seem to mirror the types of occupations held by racial/ethnic minority group members, suggesting that students expected to do the types of occupations they observed others of their racial/ethnic group doing. Thus, for example, African American students may not feel that the occupation of “engineer” is open to African Americans because they do not have role models of African American engineers, either in their families or in their communities.

The history of racism and oppression for many racial/ethnic minority groups in the United States is long and has had a lasting effect, including the perception that discrimination will occur in the career process. This may help account for differences between aspirations and expectations. It is clear, for example, that Blacks and Whites have very different perceptions of occupational discrimination, and studies have shown that in the same situation, Blacks will perceive more discrimination against Blacks than Whites perceive occurs against Blacks. Investigators have also shown that Black students’ perceptions of discrimination are highly related to their perceptions of occupational opportunities. Further studies have replicated this finding across other racial/ethnic groups. In general, minority students are more likely than Whites to perceive barriers due to race or ethnicity.

Other researchers have examined supports for career and educational choices. In general, their studies have found that coming from a higher-income home, strong support from parents, exposure to programs that help to promote career exploration, and high expectations from parents and teachers facilitate educational and occupational attainment. Over the past two decades, schools have begun to develop programs both within the curriculum and outside the school setting to provide additional support for students. Government policies that emphasize high expectations in education and equal opportunities in employment also serve as support for career and educational opportunities.


The role of culture in careers is complex, and researchers have only begun to study various factors that explain differences between groups. Career development theorists are being challenged to be more inclusive in their theories to incorporate the realities of individuals from various racial/ethnic groups. Clearly, something occurs between the dreams that racial/ethnic minority group students and their parents have for their careers and the actual occupations they enter. We know that cultural values may play a role in that difference between aspirations and expectations, but we also know that racial/ethnic groups differ in their perception of barriers to accomplishing their educational and occupational goals. It appears that these barriers are also part of the reality of making career choices and thus are part of the cultural context for many individuals.

See also:


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