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....

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