Occupational Stereotypes

Occupational StereotypesOccupational stereotypes are a reflection of our tendency to use heuristics in our thinking about the world in the place of data. The result in this domain can be, and often is, prejudice and unequal opportunities for those demographic groups who become labeled. Classes of occupations can also suffer from generalizations made about them. However, occupational stereotypes can also be beneficial in understanding the complexities of modern working life.

The capacity to organize systematically their knowledge of themselves and their world is one of the outstanding characteristics of human beings. However, the processes of discovering, observing, educing, concluding, and remembering are all selective and interpretive in nature. Our environment and our experience of it are multilayered and complex, and so we select aspects of both and form them into patterns by thought processes such as induction, deduction, and abduction. This is how we understand our experience of the world, and this becomes the basis of human knowledge. This knowledge is either learned directly by individuals or taught to them indirectly by others.

The necessity of this selection and interpretation process is that of simplification. Humans focus on some aspects of their experience and environment and neglect others. Those aspects that they select they interpret as a way to make the experience meaningful. Thus knowledge is an individually or communally constructed sampling of reality. From such sampling or knowledge, individuals develop expectations and form behavioral responses. Sometimes individuals may have limited direct experience of some aspects of the world, and those aspects of the world may be mediated by the selective exposure to and dogmatic interpretation by authority figures in those individuals’ lives. This may result in stereotyped thinking, characterized often by oversimplification, prejudice, projection of individuals’ own inadequacies onto others, and ignorant or willful misinterpretation of the character and behavior of others. Racism is a typical example of stereotyping in which whole communities or nations are reduced in the minds of others to a few basic (almost always very negative) characteristics in order to justify some form of violence or exploitation. This is an example of the very negative side of stereotypic thinking. However, insofar as stereotyping represents a summary of our experience of reality, as a form of knowledge, it also has a positive dimension.

Occupational Stereotypes in the Career Development Field

Perhaps not unexpectedly, occupational stereotypes in the career development literature have been understood, investigated, and utilized in both positive and negative ways. Negatively occupational stereotypes have been viewed as individual and community cognitive errors in thinking. Such stereotypes are seen as derived from incomplete or false information, from biased values, and from feelings of threat associated with change or a challenge to existing power groups. An example from the career development field that has received a lot of attention has been to investigate and challenge the stereotype that all girls are poor at math. The resultant occupational stereotype is that females should avoid mathematically based occupations, including most sciences (other than biology). Research sought to expose that there is no obvious genetic basis for females being worse than males at math and that the limitations of females doing well at math were environmental, such as adults telling them that girls either do not need a career or should take humanities rather than science subjects, since this seemed to fit a stereotype of the artistic and nurturant woman rather than the logical and mathematical scientist. Research also indicated that females were often treated differently in educational contexts, resulting in limiting their exposure to math-based courses and resources for developing basic arithmetic skills.

Various interventions were subsequently developed to challenge these gender and occupational stereotypes, including more gender-fair occupational information, counseling to encourage exploration of nontraditional careers, changes to legislation to facilitate female participation in such careers, the development of mathematical self-efficacy scales to assist females to redress some of the social conditioning telling them they would not have mathematical skills, and parental education about the possibilities for female participation in math-based studies and careers.

Significant research has been conducted on the impact of gender and ethnic occupational stereotypes. Generally, there is widespread evidence of the existence of such stereotypes that appear to be robust over time. They have been shown to have impacts on (among other things) hiring decisions, vocational assistance and expectations, mother-child interactions, self-efficacy, and event-related brain potentials (electrical brain activity).

Positively, occupational stereotypes have been viewed as reflections of individuals’ knowledge of the world of work. Such knowledge reflects their experience of work and may become the basis for both improved self-awareness in relation to work as well as a foundation on which to build occupational exploration and job search strategies.

Occupational Stereotypes as Problems

In the field of social psychology, there is a vast literature on prejudice into which cognitive mechanisms such as stereotyping are to be found. Some of this overlaps the career development field insofar as work often constitutes a major way in which disadvantaged and minority groups are able to redress their social and financial disadvantage. The focus of most of this work is on people’s overgeneralized, only partially true, often misleading, and almost always oversimplified ideas and perceptions about such groups. Such ideas and perceptions are frequently the result of lack of knowledge and personal contact with other groups or a “clash of cultures” in which stereotyped thinking becomes a perceptual filter through which the actions of other groups are interpreted.

Relevant to work, such stereotyping adversely impacts the selection of candidates for work. At both the legislative and educational levels, endeavors have been made to reduce the inequity of such thinking and action along the lines of gender, age, disability, culture, religion, and ethnic origins. For example, those with cerebral palsy are frequently perceived to have major cognitive deficits, when in fact the condition is predominantly a motor dysfunction, and as a consequence are excluded from some occupations for inappropriate reasons. Notwithstanding the obvious importance of this whole area of theory, research, and practice, in career development the focus of attention relating to “occupational stereotypes” has been much more specific.

Occupational Stereotypes as Possibilities

John Holland was the vocational psychologist who decided to make occupational stereotypes one of the main bases for his theory of career development and its practical applications. Holland began with the acknowledgment that most people view the world of work in terms of occupational stereotypes. However, rather than see these occupational stereotypes as problems, confusions, and barriers to career development, he saw them as providing opportunities to develop and assess individuals’ understandings of both themselves and occupations. In fact, Holland saw such occupational stereotypes as often accurate and distilled pieces of knowledge that individuals gained through their experience of the world. Where this experience was limited with respect to a particular occupation, then individuals’ stereotypes of these occupations were indications of people’s projections of themselves. This too was valuable data for counselors to utilize in career counseling for occupational choice. In some ways this perspective prefigures modern constructivist counseling approaches, most notably that of Mark Savickas, which emphasizes perception as construction and construction as a key to meaning and change.

Initially, Holland used occupational titles as a way to categorize and assess individuals’ preferred ways of interacting with their environment, which he thought of as personality. Holland’s research led him to conclude that both individuals and occupations could be classified according to six general types. Briefly these six types are as follows:

  1. Realistic (R): a focus on manual, mechanical, outdoor, practical, building, and agricultural activities
  2. Investigative (I): a focus on intellectual, scientific, analytical, conceptual, and mathematics activities
  3. Artistic (A): a focus on creative, idealistic, aesthetic, performance, introspective, and emotionally expressive activities
  4. Social (S): a focus on supportive, teaching, religious, sociable, cooperative, and caring activities
  5. Enterprising (E): a focus on business, sales, media, leadership, and extroverted activities
  6. Conventional (C): a focus on office, clerical, money handling, methodical, and conforming (to rules) activities

In theory each person’s and each occupation’s type was the ordered combination of all six categories. However, for most practical purposes, the subtype— the highest three assessed type scores—were employed for both individuals and particular occupations. For example, architect’s subtype is Artistic Investigative Realistic (AIR), which makes sense in that the job involves creative design (Artistic), knowledge of materials and calculations (Investigative), and an appreciation of the realities of building and construction (Realistic). Initially, Holland sought empirically to confirm occupational stereotypes by establishing which type and subtype combination were most dominant for workers in each occupation. Subsequently, he elaborated this to include also a consideration of the kinds of tasks that people in the occupation performed.

This classification has found widespread acceptance, application, and both empirical and counselor support over the last 30 years up to the present. It constitutes the basis for many of the most popular classifications of vocational interests and occupational information databases in both English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries. This classification also formed the foundation for Holland’s own person-occupation matching theory of occupational choice and for the development of a number of inventories assessing both individuals and work environments.

As Holland’s thinking developed and changed over time, he increasingly wrote about “work environments” rather than “occupations” or “occupational stereotypes.” A work environment was created by particular types of individuals congregating and fashioning a physical and social context reflective of their preferred ways of interacting with each other and the rest of the world.

The Holland taxonomy does have some limitations characteristic of all stereotypes. Holland himself has noted that work environments are rarely homogeneous. As a consequence, a single occupation such as “counselor,” while having a dominant subtype SAE, also has been found through research to have other subtypes such as SEA, SCE, ASI SAI, SEC, and SAC. Holland attributes such variation to characteristics of the work environment that are predominantly not psychological in nature, such as the size and complexity of the organizational context, the relative power and independence of workers in a particular occupation, and the perceptions and expectations of others in the work environment. This in turn points to recent perspectives of understanding both individuals and their work in terms of complex, multivariate contextual as well as psychological influences. Holland’s approach was based on simplicity, practicability, and research data, and it exemplifies such virtues. However, the trade-off with simplicity is the risk of oversimplification, an issue with which the field of career development as a whole is continuing to come to terms.

The other main area of criticism of the Holland taxonomy also illustrates the issue of generality versus specificity. These criticisms are leveled at the actual content of the classification at the type level. For example, it has been noted that the Realistic category as represented by numbers in the workforce is about eight times the size of the Artistic category. This does seem disproportionate and has led some writers to suggest that this reflects a bias that requires redressing by further differentiating the Realistic category. Another example is criticism of the actual type names, which some counseling clients find misleading (such as private investigator is not I but E) and less than flattering (not many people like being labeled “conventional,” which connotes being boring and predictable). However, notwithstanding such limitations, Holland’s taxonomy has been found to be useful by counselors, researchers, test constructors, and career development theorists (see the following) alike.

The Cognitive Map of Occupations

Linda Gottfredson took Holland’s notion of occupational stereotypes and applied it to sociological as well as psychological aspects of career development and choice. Gottfredson noted that most people’s knowledge of occupations is social rather than vocational. Thus, for example, comparatively few people in the general population can enunciate the duties of a petroleum engineer. However, most can agree on whether it is most typically seen as a male or female type of occupation and whether it is a high, average, or low-level social status occupation. Gottfredson’s theory indicated that as individuals develop from childhood, so too do they develop increasingly differentiated images of themselves (self-concept) and occupations (images or stereotypes). According to the theory, this development has a set sequence: sex types, prestige (and ability) level, and field of work (classified according to Holland’s taxonomy).

Research has confirmed by and large that the general population shows high levels of agreement about most occupations according to masculinity-femininity, prestige range, and dominant field of work (interest/ activity). Gottfredson used such data to develop the Cognitive Map of Occupations to illustrate this consensus. Moreover, these (social) images of occupations have a major impact on the development of occupational aspirations. Individuals’ developing understanding of themselves in gender terms, for example, is matched by a sex type perspective about the world of work. These two images are matched in a process that eliminates occupations whose images are viewed either consciously or unconsciously as incompatible with the developing self-concept. Thus a female child will typically not see occupations that involve highly masculine-oriented activities such as mining, boxing, and construction work as appropriate. Once eliminated, such occupational options (based on their occupational images) are not reconsidered by the developing person.

This same process, called “circumscription” by Gottfredson, then occurs in sequence for prestige/ ability level and field of work. Individuals thereby limit the range of acceptable alternatives to those whose images (or stereotypes) are a reasonable match with their own self-concept based on sex type, prestige level, and field of work. According to Gottfredson, people are often unaware of this process occurring. One of the roles of career counselors may be to make the circumscription process more “visible” to their clients so that they, the clients, can then consider both the accuracy and appropriateness of such a development of occupational aspirations. This may lead them to challenge their occupational stereotypes by choosing a non-traditional career, and they may require some ongoing counselor support to “swim against the (traditional) social tide.” Making the process explicit may also help people to “compromise” when they cannot find an appropriate occupational image and/or fail to be able to implement it successfully. This compromise process is seen as a reversal of the circumscription process. Individuals are more likely to relinquish field-of-work preferences before they relinquish prestige preferences before they relinquish sex type preferences. Images of occupations remain the basis for this compromise process. More recently, Gottfredson has introduced the idea of degrees of compromise as a way to illustrate the relationship between the three developmental dimensions of self and occupational images and to account for the discrepancies between her original formulation and subsequent research findings.

Some Conclusions

Stereotypical thinking is simply a function of the often unacknowledged reality that humans are always limited in their knowledge. Such an acknowledgment is often only grudging in much of the career development theory literature. As a consequence, these formulations typically overemphasize the rational in career decision making. If career development theorists and counselors commence with the assumption that there are major limitations on our rationality, then more can be done to utilize and if necessary redress the implications and effects of stereotypical thinking. Occupational stereotypes may serve as limited but useful summaries of how individuals view their world, thereby giving insight into their perceiving and meaning making. Occupational stereotypes may produce deleterious effects if they unnecessarily limit individuals either in terms of personal cognitive constraints or in terms of external contextual barriers, from being able to consider and choose from the potentially widest range of options available. Either way, the worst thing that can be done is to ignore the reality of occupational stereotypes as a fundamental way humans formulate their understanding of themselves, their world, and their careers.

See also:


  1. Gottfredson, L. S. 1996. “A Theory of Circumscription and Compromise.” Pp.   179-281 in Career Choice and Development. 3d ed., edited by D. Brown, L. Brooks and Associates. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Hackett, G. 1995. “Self-efficacy in Career Choice and Development.” Pp. 232-258 in Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies, edited by A. Bandura. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Holland, J. L. 1997. Making Vocational Choices. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. Leong, F. T. L., ed. 1995. Career Development and Vocational Behavior of Racial and Ethnic Minorities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  5. Savickas, M. L. and Lent, R. W., eds. 1994. Convergence in Career Development Theory. Palo Alto, CA: CPP Books.
  6. Savickas, M. L. and Walsh, W. B., eds. 1996. Handbook of Career Counseling Theory and Practice. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.
  7. Walsh, W. B. and Osipow, S. H., eds. 1994. Career Counseling for Women. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.