What did I want to do with my life?

A number of years ago, my parents were moving from one house to another when they decided to pack up their reminders of me. Old pictures, yearbooks, report cards, and things I had either never seen or had blocked out of my memory were stuffed into a box and handed off to me.  At least they didn’t throw it all away.

I was looking for some fresh sheets to put on my bed yesterday, when I saw the old box. I went over to it, and on the top was something that I must have completely missed back in the mid-1980s. It was a vocational assessment that came from a place called National Computer Systems in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Of course, the “computer” end of it would probably give us all a good laugh if we could see it today. Things have come a long way on the technology side.

The report I received–or that my parents apparently received–indicates that I was most interested in adventure, writing, politics, law, and public speaking, and that I was least interested in teaching and domestic arts (whatever those are). The irony is that I later went to graduate school and taught in the classroom for five years. That just shows how much attention I paid (or didn’t pay) to this report.

The most fascinating thing about this report from a generation ago is the “Occupational Scales” section. There are dozens of potential occupations listed, such as police officer, farmer, computer programmer, and pharmacist. For each occupation, there is a “Female normed scale” and a “Male normed scale,” which are generally different from each other. For example, my responses on whatever test they gave to me suggest that, were I a female, I would be likely to want to be an Army officer. As a male, though, my answers indicated a considerably lower interest in the same career.

There must have been some reason why NCS did this–we all did things in the 80s that seem strange now–but to suggest my interest in a job field was directly tied to my gender seems strange to me today. But an even bigger issue can be found with vocations such as “skilled crafts.”

The higher the number for the normed scores are, the further to the right the asterisk appears on their range. But the absence of any female-normed score for “skilled crafts”–replaced instead by a pre-printed “N/A”–suggests a determination by NCS that no female would ever consider a career in the skilled crafts. Whatever the “skilled crafts” are, my classmates who happened to be female weren’t given a score to predict their interest (or lack thereof) in this field.

In addition to “skilled crafts,” females were also steered away from being vocational agricultural teachers, investment fund managers, and agribusiness managers. Males, on the other hand,  were steered away from being dental hygienists, Home Economics teachers, secretaries, and dental assistants.

Even if I wasn’t interested in being any of those things (or very much else, at that age), the notion that I wouldn’t want to do them just because I’m a male probably would have bounced right off my 17-year old brain. But now, a generation later, that way of thinking seems as outdated as a typewriter, carbon paper, and white-out. And that has to be considered a good thing.

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