On Career Guidance

When I was in high school, back in the days before computers, two typing courses were offered. One was a full-year, full-credit business course that, in addition to teaching how to type, covered everything from how to write a professional letter to how to format research papers. The other was a half-year course that taught only basic typing skills. I opted for the full-year course for several reasons: I wanted to be a writer; I knew that, if necessary, I could earn a living as a typist; and I planned to go to college, where there would papers to type.

I successfully completed the course and, at the end of the school year, I chose my courses for the next year, as was procedure. After submitting the paperwork, I was called into the guidance office. My guidance counselor, an older woman, wanted to know why I wasn’t taking shorthand. “You took business typing and did well at it, and shorthand is the next course in the sequence to become a secretary,” she said. I explained that I didn’t want to be a secretary; I wanted to be a writer, planned to go to college, and had taken the business typing course because it covered everything I needed to learn. I still remember the way she looked at me and what she said: “You really should take shorthand. You may have to support yourself until you find a husband.”

Even though I was only a young teenager, I left the sexist dinosaur’s office determined not to be led down a path that wasn’t right for me. The next day I summoned my courage and asked the head of guidance for a new counselor. Unfortunately, the guidance counselor I was given, a middle-aged man, wasn’t much better. He thought I should take Driver’s Ed as opposed to Spanish III. When I told him I could learn to drive elsewhere, and that a third year of Spanish would give me a three-year sequence in a language, he seemed puzzled.

I share my experience to point out that many steps along the way shape a person’s future.

Although it’s doubtful that a guidance counselor today would push a teenage girl toward “women’s work,” subtle stereotyping does exist. Research shows girls often forego careers in technology, for example, because they perceive girl techies as uncool. Boys too steer away from careers that may be of interest, like nursing, because of perception.

What can be done to help young people find the career path that’s right for them? If you’re a parent, encourage exploration and discourage stereotypes. Obviously, as a parent, you have a special opportunity to provide career assistance.

But you don’t have to be a parent to make a difference in a person’s career. We all have a wide range of relationships, within our families, with friends and their children, and at work.

Young people seek out more experienced adults for guidance, whether overtly or in ways that are less obvious.

That young woman you work with, the one who mentioned she might take a night course at the local community college as you were chatting while in line at the cafeteria, was searching for affirmation. Did you take the time to ask her about her plans and encourage her to go for it? Or did you merely nod as your mind wandered?

As experienced working women (and men), we have a lot to offer in the way of career guidance. It doesn’t have to involve a formal mentoring program, although it might. A simple conversation could make all the difference to a person at a crossroads. In truth, not much may be required. Often, people only want someone they respect to listen to them.

We all remember the people who gave us an ear at important times in our lives. And, like me, you probably remember those who didn’t listen or wouldn’t hear you.

Why not make it a goal to help? You don’t need to wave a flag or get on a soapbox in order to do this. It only requires looking and listening for opportunities to share your knowledge and experience with others.

By providing assistance, you might just change someone’s life. While offering support, you may also help eradicate any remaining employment stereotypes—whether related to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability or sexual orientation.

Sure, the workplace has come a long way since I was a teenager, but it would be a mistake to rest on this incomplete legacy.

Paula Santonocito
Career Editor, SingleMindedWomen.com