Monday, 3 February 2014

Only white people get jobs? Representation in career advice

Today at work my students were investigating possible careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), something that's a bit of a buzzacronym in employment and political circles. The class of 14 year olds were taking the Career Quest questionnaire on the government's careers advice website. The questionnaire is not dissimilar to the old pencil-and-cross-out-the-answer careers advice sheet I did half a lifetime ago, though this one was all flash graphics and instant choose-your-own-future. Each of the 78 questions were on a separate web page can came with three photographs to illustrate the possible jobs the question was asking about. So far, so pretty.
Google image search "doctor" on first page. Photo description "Happy afro doctor portrait". Er.

I was talking to a group of girls who were taking the quiz when I noticed something. Every person in every photo was white. White man in hard hat. White women at computer. White person in labcoat. I asked the girls if they'd noticed any people in the photographs who weren't white. They said they hadn't, and I asked them to let me know when they did.

A few minutes later, this absolute gem of an observation was made.

"Miss, miss! I found a brown person! They're sitting being spoken to by a white person!"
Google image search "manager photo Asian". Guess what you get if you only use the first two words

The students were righteously concerned that in a quiz designed for young New Zealanders to choose a possible career path, people of colour did not seem to be represented in any of the possible careers. "Are we not supposed to have a career then miss?" was the half-joking question another asked me.

Having done the questionnaire myself, I did a little breakdown of representation. I tallied up the number of Asian (including Indian), Māori/Pasifika, and other people of colour actually carrying out a job. Customers, students and patients were not included. If I was in any doubt then I counted it as a positive ID. I appreciate that my labels are extremely broad and problematic in themselves but I beg understanding for the purposes of this quick and dirty research.
Google search "stock photo teacher". First page!

The results were depressing.

Of a total of 234 photographs in the quiz....

7 showed Asian people

16 showed Māori/Pasifika people

3 showed people of colour

There were more photos of inanimate objects than black people. 

No photos showing people with disabilities.

I am a forgiving sort and will assume that this whitewashing of the NZ workforce was the result of error, rather than a deliberate attempt to make it look like only white people get jobs. However, we live in a country where, according to the last census, three quarters of the country identify as white/pakeha, just under 15% as Māori and nearly 12% as Asian. Hardly proportional.
"Stock photos disabled". First photo showing a person in a wheelchair not being pushed by an able-bodied person. Or alone looking sad.

If you're reading this thinking "So what? It's a quiz on a website", then think about who it's aimed at. Think about the state-supported drip-feed that subtly reinforces that only white people are employable, that every kid who is thinking of their future sees on page after page the same stereotype.

I was going to write to careers NZ to point this out, but seeing as my pack of 14 year olds are keen to exercise their right to call this stuff out, I'm going to let them do it. They're bound to do a far better job than me anyway, after all, they're the ones not being represented....

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Do U even twitter bro?

New Zealand commercial radio is a strange and lawless place. Our Prime minister adores it and is far more likely to be answering questions about whether he prefers vegemite or marmite on a classic hits breakfast show than he is discussing charter schools on our chronically underfunded yet vaguely intelligent public broadcast news programs. Breakfast shows offer listeners the chance to win divorces, wives (not at the same time) and drivetime noodleheads appear in Pride parades after losing bets on-air. As you can imagine many of these professional journalists have their own twitter accounts, and I enjoy not following any of them on my timeline.

This evening, a young purveyor of opinion by name of Polly Gillespie, whose twitter bio invites us to listen to her on the breakfast show on ZM, as well as her columns in that august organ Women's Day, tweeted
Now, twitter is a strange and terrible beast. You only have 140 characters to get across your thought. This thought, hashtag and all, looks racist. If I need to unpack why then you're probably reading the wrong blog.

Naturally, the idea of someone hating on Asians wishing to visit New Zealand's most famous beach that isn't ninety miles long being espoused by a national radio presenter is rather concerning and I could help but wonder what her employers ZM and Women's Day might think about this. The more I read her feed however, the righteous leftie anger turned to a kind of pitying rage. When called on her missive by the twitter populace, her responses ranged from:

(apparently tweeting racist things is fine if you're a fan of reality TV)

(because the best way to react when being called out is with smilies and referring to social media buttons as twins)

(because calling out racism makes you creepy weirdo. Like that Mandela guy)

Over the course of many emoticons, kisses and indignation later it transpired that our heroine had been watching Piha Rescue and was concerned about the perceived high number of Asian people who seemed to need rescuing on the show. Her tweet was actually a suggestion that all visitors to our shores should be properly educated in surf safety lest they require the services of the brave men and women of Surf Rescue.
This fascinates me because the woman is a professional journalist. Regardless of how quality you may consider those outlets to be, she has at some point I am sure attended at least a couple of night classes on writing things and then saying them out loud to people. Surely, surely at some point the idea that using something like twitter to make a comment that absolutely does not work out of context (and barely works within it if I'm honest, but I'm trying to be nice) was discussed and it was explained why it would be phenomenally stupid to do so?

As I type this Ms Gillespie (Wife, mummy, dork) is describing her detractors as "crazy" (oh dear) and retweeting all the other watchers of Piha Rescue who, like, totally got what she meant. At present neither ZM or Women's Day haven't said whether they think their star presenter/columnist is actually very racist, or only slightly racist and very naive, but I'd hope they'd at least be having a please explain meeting tomorrow morning.

There's a lesson here for all of us, regardless of whether we earn our crust being a professional minor celeb or merely use twitter to post pictures of cats. Your 140 characters ARE your context. If you don't want to sound like a racist, don't write something that looks racist.