Diversity Issues in Career Development

In the early 1970s, the field of vocational psychology began to focus on diverse factors related to career development. Recent trends indicate a sustained increase in the vocational psychology and career development literature pertaining to diversity issues since the early 1990s. These shifts have been fueled in part by the changing demographic patterns in society and the increasing numbers of women and individuals from diverse racial and ethnic groups comprising the labor force. As the face of the labor force has changed over time, concerns regarding how the field has (a) understood and defined the career development process, (b) conducted vocational research, and (c) trained career counseling professionals for helping a broad range of individuals have been addressed. Today, diversity issues are considered to be crucial in understanding an individual’s career development and decision-making process, and diversity issues have become a major focus within the field. As the U.S. population continues to grow increasingly diverse, career counseling professionals will need to be more responsive to the needs of this changing population. When addressing issues of diversity, it is important to note that these discussions should not be limited to race and ethnicity. Career counseling professionals also need to be attuned to the influence of gender, sexual orientation, ability status, socioeconomic status, and other societal and structural factors that influence career development in a variety of ways.

Diversity Issues

As social beings, the environments within which people live and learn have an enormous impact on career development. The opportunities afforded to individuals, the resources at their disposal, and the social framework within which people live all interact and contribute to their sense of self and their awareness and knowledge of various career options. Thus, it is critical that a range of personal and societal factors be taken into consideration in attempting to understand an individual’s career development process.

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Individual Factors


From the moment a child is born, a powerful and pervasive socialization process occurs in which girls and boys begin to learn what is expected and socially acceptable behavior based on their gender. This socialization process influences the type of play, leisure, and academic activities children tend to engage in and the development of children’s schemas of appropriate gender roles. In addition, this socialization influences how individuals in the child’s life will interact with the child and the types of behaviors that are reinforced. Researchers indicate that by the time children are 8 years old, they have developed a sense of what occupations are acceptable and unacceptable for their gender. Thus, children’s experiences and gender role schemas have an impact on the types of occupations they consider as adolescents and young adults (e.g., nurse for women, doctor for men).

In the adult years, gender socialization continues to affect the career development of men and women in significant ways. For example, women who are employed outside of the house often struggle with balancing multiple roles and might feel that their roles and responsibilities at work and home are in direct conflict with one another. On the other hand, men may experience immense pressure to achieve at work and to be the main breadwinner for the family. The stress to be successful and to provide for the family to maintain a certain lifestyle may influence the types of career and positions that men consider appropriate. In addition, because a man’s personal identity may be highly associated with his work, a man’s psychological well-being may be at risk in the event of job loss or underachievement in the work setting. Though changing social norms and work opportunities have lead to an increase in the number of women entering traditionally male-dominated occupations (and to a lesser extent men entering female-dominated occupations), the impact that gender socialization has on career development continues to be a significant source of influence in the career selections and satisfaction of both men and women.

Race and Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity have been identified as factors that warrant consideration in the career development process. From both a personal and societal perspective, race and ethnicity can influence the types of occupations perceived as acceptable and accessible. For example, from a personal perspective, one’s racial and ethnic identity (the extent to which one identifies as a member of a particular racial or ethnic group) can influence the types of occupations individuals consider as possible options. In part, this perception may be influenced by the type of learning experiences and opportunities to which racial and ethnic minority members have been exposed as well as the availability of role models from their racial or ethnic group in various career fields. From a societal perspective, racial and ethnic discrimination and oppression may lead members of racial and ethnic minority groups to eliminate occupations they perceive as inaccessible to them. Thus, the impact of race and ethnicity on career development of diverse individuals needs to be examined from both a phenomenological as well as a societal point of view.


Culture, the shared values and belief systems held by members of a particular group, influences how individuals view and interact in the world, and it also affects their behaviors, decision making, and goal identification. An example of a cultural value associated with different racial and ethnic groups is that of collectivism. Collectivism is the tendency for individuals to consider the well-being, wishes, and best interest of the group to which they belong (family or community) when making decisions. For example, a client whose culture values collectivism may consider the wishes of his or her parents or other elders in the family in determining what type of occupation to pursue. In contrast, individualism reflects the tendency to make decisions and choices within the context of what is best for the individual and is highly valued in Euro-American society. Thus, selecting a career based on personal interests and needs may characterize the decision-making process of individuals from individualistic cultures. Career counselors need to be aware of and respectful of the cultural context and cultural values that influence their clients’ career development. Additionally, career counselors need to be aware of their own cultural values and beliefs systems and how these may affect the career counseling relationship. Career counselors’ awareness of personal values and beliefs will also decrease the chances that they are imposing their values when assisting clients in their career development.

Sexual Orientation

During the past decade, the career development of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) individuals has begun to receive increasing attention in vocational psychology. Understanding the complex relationship between sexual identity development and career development is critical when working with this population. Sexual identity development can be an extremely stressful experience for LGBT individuals as they may be dealing with gender identity confusion, negative societal stereotypes, and possible conflict with family and peers related to their sexual identity. This developmental process typically occurs during adolescence, the same period of time during which young people begin to identify career interests and develop goals for their future. Thus, the career development of LGBT individuals may be adversely affected as a consequence of the time, energy, and affective resources that may be focused on their sexual identity development. Once LGBT individuals are ready to make career decisions, their choices may be restricted to occupations considered possible or appropriate options due to their sexual orientation. Additionally, they may eliminate possible occupational options due to real or perceived discrimination anticipated in certain work settings. Thus, sexual orientation and the unique issues that LGBT individuals encounter at work need to be attended to by career counseling professionals.

Other Relevant Considerations-Constructs

Other relevant diversity issues that career counseling professionals need to attend to include, but are not limited to, the presence of physical or learning disabilities and immigration status and language proficiency. For example, individuals with physical or learning disabilities may have limited opportunities to engage in career development-related experiences and to develop effective decision-making skills, which can adversely affect their career development. Career counselors need to assess personal (e.g., self-efficacy), disability-related, and environmental constraints on the career development of individuals with a disability. When working with immigrant populations, particular consideration to the stressors faced by these individuals in a new and different society is critical. Attending to how immigrants are adjusting to their new environment, the stressors they are coping with, language issues, and immediate employment needs are critical as these factors may be affecting the career development process. In order to assist individuals in identifying and working toward realistic and achievable career goals, career counseling professionals must attend to the unique contextual experiences of their clients.

Social and Economic Factors

Many of the traditional career development theories in the field have been criticized for being classist due to the basic tenets on which they are based. For example, most Western theories of career development assume that individuals exercise volition in selecting careers, that career is central to one’s life and identity, that universal definitions of constructs exist, and that opportunities are available to everyone. Ignoring the role of social and economic factors on the career development of individuals in our society can have detrimental consequences for the individuals with whom career counselors work, and disregarding these factors leads to continued class disparities.

Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic status is unquestionably one of the diversity-related factors that has been widely understudied in the multicultural career literature, yet its significance in shaping career development cannot be overemphasized. Socioeconomic status has a significant impact on the lifestyles of individuals, the resources available to them, and the types of experiences individuals engage in, all of which influence one’s social class. As such, the role of social class in the lives of individuals is especially important to understand because of its reciprocal relationship to work and more specifically the type of work that individuals have access to and to which they aspire. That is, social class can have a strong influence on one’s career development, and in turn career plays a large part in determining one’s social class.

Wherever one falls along the social class spectrum, there are many ways in which social class background plays an important role in career development. Social class background influences how counselors form attitudes related to success and career aspirations. For example, if a counselor believes that everyone can succeed if only a person works hard enough, the counselor might not address social barriers that might influence the career development of clients who believe that no matter how hard they try, they cannot make it through the system. Believing that talents and hard work are always rewarded or that everyone in society has the same opportunities for economic success places the responsibility of success and failure solely on the individual and ignores the presence of institutional barriers (e.g., discriminatory hiring practices) that can prevent an individual from achieving his or her goals. Social class may also determine whether someone has financial resources to pursue higher education, the social contacts and networks to locate jobs, and access to critical information that can inform career decisions.

Education and Academic Preparation

Socioeconomic status also influences aspects of the environment that can affect the individual’s career development. Economic capital (or lack of it) is associated with the quality of housing, neighborhoods, and schools individuals have access to. The quality of teachers, the educational resources available both at school and at home, the types of extracurricular activities offered at the school, and the expectations teachers have for students all contribute to the quality of education a student receives.

During the early years of schooling, a strong, quality educational foundation across the core academic subject areas, but especially math, science, and reading-writing, prepare youth for secondary and postsecondary education. In addition, coursework in the math and science areas has been identified as especially critical for entree into highly prestigious, high-paying careers. A poor quality education can put youth at risk for not graduating from high school or may limit further educational opportunities down the road. Because education is highly linked to occupational status, it is important that all individuals in society have equal opportunities for receiving a quality education and that supports are available for those wanting to receive advanced levels of education.

Real and Perceived Barriers

Real or perceived barriers related to socioeconomic status that can influence the career decisions and career development of individuals include discrimination; limited exposure to a range of careers; lack of role models from the community employed in a range of careers; lack of financial resources for education or training; lack of support from teachers, peers, or family; and lack of educational preparation. Individually and cumulatively, these environmental barriers can influence the internal beliefs one has regarding his or her ability to achieve his or her goals and can limit the types of careers that individuals believe are realistically attainable.

Career Counseling Models

A number of models and frameworks have been proposed for providing culturally sensitive career counseling with culturally diverse clients, women, LGBT individuals, and individuals with disabilities. Significant components of these models include the attention placed on identifying cultural and contextual factors that have an impact on individuals’ career concerns and include the identification and selection of culturally appropriate interventions. For example, Fouad and Bingham’s culturally appropriate career counseling model provides a seven-step process career counselors can follow when working with culturally diverse clients. The seven steps within the model include (1) establishing rapport and a culturally appropriate relationship, (2) identification of career concerns, (3) examination of the impact of cultural variables on the identified concerns, (4) establishing goals consistent with the client’s worldview, (5) identifying culturally appropriate interventions, (6) decision making and implementation, and (7) follow-up. Career counselors are encouraged to become familiar with the various models available in order to inform their career counseling work with diverse clients.


Race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ability status, and the resources afforded members of diverse groups significantly affect career development. By attending to contextual and societal issues related to diversity within the context of career development, career counseling professionals acquire a more comprehensive understanding of the needs of their clients and are better able to provide effective and culturally competent career counseling services.

The labor force continues to be highly stratified based on race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation, and a hierarchy exists that differentiates careers based on status and prestige. As the field has moved toward adopting a social justice perspective, it is apparent that providing career interventions with individuals from diverse backgrounds can be an effective way to begin to address inequalities in our society. It is also important that career counselors advocate for changes in the world of work that are equitable and honor and value all workers, regardless of their backgrounds or positions.


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