Supporting Early Career Development of Transgender and Gender Expansive Children in Elementary School
By Nathan Mather, Ellen H. McWhirter, and Peter P. Ehlinger
On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to protect transgender employees against workplace discrimination based on sex (Sanger-Katz & Green, 2020), and in NCDA’s Career Convergence, Motulsky and Frank (2018) articulated helpful strategies for career counseling with transgender adults. Optimal support of transgender career development, however, begins in elementary school, because in early childhood, gender identity is usually solidified (Keo-Meier & Ehrensaft, 2018) and career development initiated (Low et al., 2005; Watson et al., 2015). Gender can influence career development (Howard & Walsh, 2011) with implications for wellness and career outcomes (Low et al., 2005; White Hughto et al., 2015). Our focus in this article is on transgender and gender expansive (TGE) children. Transgender children are those whose gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth, and gender expansive children is an umbrella term for those whose gender identities and/or expression are inconsistent with cultural and social expectations (Keo-Meier & Ehrensaft, 2018). A national survey by GLSEN found that 8% of elementary school children reported that they do not conform to traditional gender expectations (GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2012). Bullying and harassment as a result of being misunderstood and marginalized (Reisner et al., 2016; White Hughto et al., 2015) have adverse effects on TGE student attendance, grades, and educational aspirations (GLSEN & Harrison Interactive, 2012), and consequently, their career opportunities and financial security in adulthood (White Hughto et al., 2015). These adverse effects are even more pronounced for TGE children with intersecting marginalized identities (e.g. BIPOC and undocumented TGE children; Singh et al., 2015; James et al., 2017). The provision of gender affirmative career development support in elementary school is one component of what must be a larger effort to increase the safety and well-being of TGE individuals in school (GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2012) and, later, in the workplace (Dispenza, et al., 2012; White Hughto et al., 2015). Early exposure to gender affirmative career education and activities may help protect TGE children from some of the deleterious effects of living in a cissexist society, normalizing their experiences as they explore, engage in activities, and develop interests and capacities.
Children’s Gender Identity and Career Development
By late elementary school, children begin matching their interests and strengths with vocational pathways, eliminating options based on what they see as appropriate for themselves (Howard & Walsh, 2011). Career-related interests tend to become solidified by age 12 and remain relatively stable through adulthood (Low et al., 2005), underscoring the importance of early elementary school interventions that support children’s exploration of interests and that challenge identity-bound limitations. Gendered socialization to the world of work that reinforces traditional, binary gender roles without critical reflection may complicate and constrain TGE children’s exploration of interests, particularly when this hidden curriculum of cissexism intersects with other systems of oppression in schools, including racism, classism, and ableism (Crenshaw, 1991; Rosiek et al., 2017).
Over the past fifty years, efforts made in elementary school career interventions to widen children’s perspectives on gendered work have focused on introducing children to men and women in careers non-traditional for their sex (e.g., Karniol & Gal-Disegni, 2009). These exposures, in conjunction with evolving notions of gender roles, aimed to broaden careers viewed as acceptable for cisgender people, but have not included TGE students.
Fostering the Career Development of TGE Children
Below are specific recommendations for career professionals to foster the career development of TGE children:
1. Reflect on Your Biases
- Reflect on your own biases about transgender people and gendered career pathways so that you can interrupt stereotypes.
- Reflect on how your own experiences of gender role messages in childhood reinforced and/or limited your career aspirations in order to increase empathy for TGE children.
- If you are cisgender, consider how cisgender privilege impacted your early career development.
- Notice and interrupt moments in which you provide more positive reinforcement for children who engage in activities that “fit better” with their perceived gender, or when you withhold praise for gender-nonconforming activities (Granger et al., 2017)
- Notice and interrupt ways in which you reinforce binary conceptualization of gender (e.g., saying boys and girls; you guys) and instead include non-binary students in your language (e.g., y’all, students, all genders).
2. Advocate for Structural Change
- Develop and support policies at national, state, and district levels to protect the rights and well-being of TGE students, as safety is a prerequisite to career education (e.g., see Orr & Baum, n.d. and Human Rights Campaign, www.hrc.org).
- Create working groups to make extracurricular programming (e.g., sports, clubs, etc.) more inclusive of TGE students, thereby providing more learning experiences that build self-efficacy and outcome expectations.
- Stand with transgender colleagues and TGE students when they experience harassment and microaggressions in the school.
3. Make your Career Curriculum Trans-Affirming
- Acknowledge in career education that TGE children’s ability to access and attempt a variety of activities, particularly activities that are gendered, is critical for their healthy vocational development.
- Provide opportunities for children of all genders to engage in a broad range of activities so that self-efficacy and outcome expectations are not limited by gender identity (Lent, et al., 1994).
- Teach about transgender people, especially Black, Indigenous and other transgender people of color, who contributed across disciplines of science, literature, politics, and arts (e.g., see Teaching Tolerance, www.tolerance.org).
- Promote and use gender-affirmative materials, including resources specifically for TGE children and their families, on school websites.
- Use gender-inclusive language when discussing careers (e.g., firefighter instead of fireman; Vervecken & Hannover, 2015).
4. Engage with TGE Children and Transgender Communities
- Express confidence that TGE children can be successful in a particular domain, regardless of gender or other identities.
- Include transgender professionals from diverse careers and cultural backgrounds among speakers at the school for career days and career panels.
- Invite students from middle and high school Gender and Sexuality Alliance clubs to volunteer in the school.
- Hire transgender consultants to offer expertise as gender-affirming career development activities and content are constructed.
Possibilities and Freedom
Transforming classrooms, schools, districts, and national policies to protect, affirm, and support the career development of TGE children requires sustained and collaborative effort and dedication. Gender affirmative career development efforts help pave a way for TGE children to experience validation and representation as they begin career exploration, resulting in greater possibilities and freedom when they enter the world of work. This direction fits with the broader aim to optimize thriving for TGE children.
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Nathan Mather, M.S. (he/him) is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Oregon. His research interests focus on the co-occurring processes of vocational and critical consciousness development, as well as examining how oppressive practices and policies can be replaced with alternatives to facilitate healing and thriving for students and workers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ellen Hawley McWhirter, PhD (she/her) is the Ann Swindells Professor in Counseling Psychology at the University of Oregon and director of the Spanish Language Psychological Services and Research Specialization. Her scholarly interests include Latinx adolescent career development, critical consciousness, and adolescent risk behavior. She can be reached at email@example.com
Peter P. Ehlinger, M.S. (he/him) is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Oregon. His research focuses on developing culturally-sensitive interventions for trauma, alcohol and substance use, with a focus on trans and gender-nonconforming folks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org