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A survey of women with disabilities in nontraditional careers.

A Survey of Women with Disabilities in Nontraditional Careers

During the 1970s, individuals with disabilities began to assert their right to full participation in our society. At the same time, American women began to review their traditional position in society (Dixon, 1983). Until recently, however, these two groups followed separate but parallel courses (Dixon, 1983). Organized women's groups were inattentive to women with disabilities. An assumption was made that their problems were disability-related as opposed to resulting from sexual discrimination (Brown, 1981). The women's movement, however, helped to educate the country concerning the untapped skills of women. This message filtered through and had a direct impact on the lives of women with disabilities (Corbett, 1981). Most major women's organizations and national organizations for individuals with disabilities were to establish caucuses specific to women with disabilities (Corbett, 1981).

Despite this support, women with disabilities continue to have an uphill climb for equality, especially in obtaining employment. Nondisabled women fight against being limited to employment which is considered to be appropriate for their sex, for example, as secretaries or waitresses. According to Brown (1981), women with disabilities are denied even this type of employment because they are looked upon as being asexual and employers see them as incapable of performing even basic job functions. The differences between nondisabled women and those with disabilities are especially evident when comparing employment in nontraditional occupations (Vash, 1982). Although the majority of women are still concentrated in traditional female careers (Women's Bureau, 1985), nondisabled women have made positive strides in entering nontraditional careers, and have found these careers to be professionally challenging and economically rewarding (Johnson, 1974; Ocel, 1983; Orr, 1985). For example, over the past decade the numbers of women in positions such as accountants and underwriters have increased from 24% to 38% and 0% to 58% respectively (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1984), thus virtually eliminating these positions as nontraditional for women.

The data provided by the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1984), do not reveal the percentage of women in these nontraditional occupations who also have a disability. It appears from information available that few of these nontraditional occupations are held by women with disabilities. According to the 1980 census, less than one fourth of working-age women with disabilities were in the labor force, and of those who were employed, the greatest concentration was in the service and clerical fields (28.8% as service workers and 25.4% as clerical and other administrative support personnel) (Bowe, 1984).

Results of studies of successfully employed women with disabilities have revealed that the majority have achieved success in traditional women's careers such as human services (Hayslip, 1981; Johnson, 1983). Very few of these women were employed in nontraditional occupations. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to identify women with disabilities engaged in nontraditional careers, to describe their career experiences, and to develop a descriptive profile of these women. Specifically examined in this survey were: (a) factors that contributed to the women's choice of a career; (b) factors that contributed to success in their career; (c) career problems they encountered; (d) career problems that were unique to them; and (e) factors that contributed to solving their career problems. In addition, an analysis of those factors which influenced these women's decisions to enter a nontraditional career was undertaken. For the purposes of this study, a nontraditional career was defined as those occupations in which a third or less of the work force are women (Cross, 1983; Tangri, 1972).

Methods

Participants for this study were recruited from across the United States. In order to ensure a broad-based sample as well as a sufficient number of potential participants, more than one hundred letters were sent to rehabilitation agencies, organizations involved with women with disabilities, college support services programs for students with disabilities, and organizations for women in nontraditional careers. Their assistance in securing the names of women with disabilities who were in nontraditional careers was requested. These inquiries resulted in a compilation of women who presumably were in nontraditional careers and were disabled in some way.

A Nontraditional Career Survey was forwarded to each of these women. In some cases, because of a concern with confidentiality for clients of certain agencies, the survey was sent to a contact person at the agency who then forwarded the survey to the participants. These researchers did not have access to the names of these individuals at any point and all surveys were returned anonymously. A total of 449 women were surveyed. Of these, 148 women were sent surveys directly and 301 were sent surveys through intermediaries.

Survey Questionnaire

A questionnaire format based on suggestions by Orlich (1978) as well as a modified version of the total design method for mail surveys proposed by Dillman (1978) was utilized. Questions were listed along a descending order of importance; those which the respondent was most likely to see as important came first and those least important, last. Demographic questions were placed at the end of the questionnaire (Dillman, 1978). Because some of the women who received the survey may not have been eligible to be included in the study, the first several questions determined eligibility. Those who were ineligible were directed to proceed no further with the questions and to simply return the survey.

A nominal measurement scale was utilized in the construction of the questionnaire items. Three types of questions were used: (1) closed-ended questions with unordered answered choices which are often used to establish priorities among issues, (2) partially closed-ended questions which included the additional response option of other (please specify), and (3) open-ended questions where the respondents could answer in their own words (Dillman, 1978). Each item was consecutively numbered and, in order to conserve space, response categories were arranged in a horizontal line on each page, whenever possible.

A pilot study was conducted to ensure the appropriateness of the questions and format to the actual research. The pilot study suggestions included adding a "none" category for questions which did not apply to the survey participants' situation, and briefly describing terms such as "role models" and "mentors." The women who participated in the pilot study were not a part of the actual study.

Results

Four hundred and forty-nine women were surveyed with 170 women responding. One hundred and twenty surveys were received from women with disabilities in nontraditional careers and 50 from women with disabilities in traditional careers. A total usable survey response rate of 26.7% was obtained. Of the 120 survey respondents reporting nontraditional careers, 86.7% (n=104) were in professional occupations and 13.3% (n=16) were in skilled/semiskilled occupations. Geographical distribution of the respondents could not be determined with real accuracy due to the use of intermediary organizations whose memberships and outreach spanned the entire country in many instances. However, surveys were postmarked returned from 30 states distributed across the Northeast (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire); Mid-Atlantic (District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania); Southeast (Georgia, Florida, Tennessee); Mid-west (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin); Southwest (Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas); and the West and Northwest (California, Montana, Oregon, Washington) regions of the country. Intermediaries who were utilized were located in the states of California, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Survey participants were classified by occupation according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (1984). Examples of professional occupations included lawyers, physicians, and ministers. Skilled/semiskilled positions included a tool and die maker, security guard, and forklift operator. Table 1 contains a complete listing of both professional as well as skilled/semiskilled nontraditional careers reported by survey respondents.

Table 2 provides demographic data on these women with respect to age, marital status, racial status, onset of disability, and number of children. The majority of women surveyed were currently employed full time (77.5%; n=93), were in professional occupations (86.7%; n=104), and obtained their positions after the onset of their disability (90.8%; n=109). Their salaries were equally distributed between $10,000 and $30,000 + a year (83.3%; n=100). In addition, the greatest percentage worked in either very large companies with over 500 employees (35%; n=42) or in very small companies with less than 50 employees (32.5%; n=39). The number of females in the organization who held a similar position and/or equivalent job classification varied widely, with 65% (n=78) of the women reporting at least one other woman working in a similar position. The number of other females with disabilities employed in their organizations ranged from 0 to 25 women, with the majority of women indicating "no women with disabilities" (80.8%; n=97).

Career Choice

The most frequent response these women gave as their reason for choosing a nontraditional career was the nature of the position itself. Over sixty-six percent (n=80) of the women chose this category. Reasons given for choosing a nontraditional career by these respondents can be found in Table 3.

Mothers were most frequently viewed as one of the individuals who influenced a woman's career choice (47.5%; n=57). "Other" individuals including the woman herself were also considered to be influential as well (20%; n=42) Other career choice influencers such as role models were not readily available to these women. Only 35% (n=42) of the women had role models, however, those who did seemed to have both men and women as role models and these role models usually did not have a disability.

Career Success

The majority of women (77.5%; n=93) idicated that dedication to the job contributing most to their career success. Mentors were reported as contributing to the success of the nontraditional career of women with disabilities by 52.5% (n=63) of the women. Over half of the women who stated that they did have a mentor who took a personal interest in helping them advance in their career (n=34) indicated that their supervisor acted as a mentor. The mentors were both men and women, and several had disabilities.

Career Problems

The majority of women (57.7%; n=69) reported people's attitudes toward individuals with disabilities as the problem that they encountered most frequently in pursuing or establishing their career. Since the majority of women in this study did not have children (70%; n=84) child rearing problems were not a major issue. However, of those women who had children, the most frequent problem they reported was "other". "Other" responses included a lack of time, money, and/or energy, a lack of support from others, and difficulty with their children. The majority of women (58.8%; n=67) indicated that as a woman with a disability there was a constant need to prove oneself on the job. They also considered having a disability and being a female with a disability as equally problematic, both at 33.3% (n=40).

The majority of women (69.2%; n=83) reported that work experience was the most influential factor in helping them to overcome career problems. When asked about arrangements for special accommodations, most women stated that, in general, accommodations were not available to them during their education and training (70%; n=80), or while employed (57.5%; n=69). Those that did report some type of accommodation most often indicated the removal of architectural barriers.

Professionals Skilled/Semi-skilled Occupations

There were very few statistically significant differences between the responses of the women in the professional occupations compared to those in the skilled/semi-skilled positions. It should be noted that there were fewer women in skilled/semi-skilled positions in the study (n=16). However, those areas in which statistically significant differences did occur were: (1) the reported responses to the most serious obstacle to the women's career, x2(4,n=98)=11.781,p<.05; (2) the most serious problem that was unique to women with disabilities, x2(4,n=98)=13.782,p<.05; and (3) the degree to which the women would recommend their career field to other women with disabilities, x2(3,N=120)=14.648,p<.05. The remainder of the reported responses to career choice, career success, and career problems did not result in any statistically significant differences.

The most serious problem that created obstacles for women with disabilities in professional occupations was divided between people's attitudes toward women and their attitudes toward individuals with disabilities, both receiving 29.8% (n=25) of this group's response. For women in skilled/semi-skilled positions, the greatest obstacle was divided between insufficient support services on the job and "other", for example, a lack of knowledge about disabilities by employers and coworkers, both receiving 35.7% (n=5) of this group's response.

The most serious problem unique to women with disabilities most frequently reported by women in professional occupations was that as a woman with a disability, there was a constant need to prove oneself on the job (42%; n=37). For women in skilled/semi-skilled position, the most frequent problem reported was a lack of unbiased materials portraying what females with disabilities could do (40%; n=4). Finally, women in professional occupations were more likely to recommend their career field to other women with disabilities (78.8%; n=82), compared to 43.8% (n=7) of those in the skilled/semi skilled positions.

Type of Disability

There was no statistically significant difference in the type of disability and type of occupational classification. Orthopedic disability was the most frequent type of disability reported for all respondents. This was also the case for women in professional occupations (26.9%; n=28). However, for those women in skilled/semi-skilled positions, the most frequent type of disability reported was deaf/hearing impaired (25%; n=4).

For women with a single disability, there were statistically significant differences in type of disability and (1) reported responses to factors related to overcoming career problems, x2(32;n=100)=51.779,p<.05, and (2) whether women would recommend their careers to other women with disabilities, x2(16;n=102)=28.540,p<.05. There factors contributed to the differences related to overcoming career problems. These factors were work experience, education and assistance from others. Women with neurological and organic disorders had high responses to the work experience category (63.6%), while women with deaf, neuromuscular, and orthopedic disabilities had their highest response rates in the education category (33.3% and 50%). Women with amputees or learning disabilities considered assistance from others most important (50% and 67%), while women with visual impairments were equally divided among assistance from other, education, and "other" (28.6%).

Since these disability groups are rather heterogeneous, reasons for the high response rate to the factor of education may be speculated only. The majority of women in these disability groups became disabled at birth or at a very young age. They may have needed immediate specialized education programs in helping them overcome problems related to their disability. Therefore, they would have benefitted the longest and, presumably, the most from education. This especially may have been the case for individuals with hearing and visual disabilities where, for many years, highly specialized schools existed for these populations.

Women with neurological and organic disabilities considered work experience to be the most important factor in overcoming career problems. The majority of these women became disabled in their teens or later in life, presumably after their education had been nearly completed. This may account for the high response to the importance of work experience rather than education as had been reported in the previous group.

The third factor, assistance from others, received high responses from women with amputations and those who had visual impairments. A reason for the high response from women with amputations and visual disabilities may be that these disabilities are "visible" disabilities. These women may use "visible" assistance devices such as an artificial limb, cane or guide dog thus arousing the concern of others to come to their assistance more often. In summary, in reviewing the different types of disabilities and the women's responses to overcoming career problems, it may be speculated that any differences among the groups, in part, may be related to the women's age of onset of disability as well as the degree of visibility of the disability.

When comparing women with individual disabilities to those with multiple disabilities, there was a significant difference in their response to the problems that created the most serious obstacle to their career, x2(4,n=98)=11.531, p<.05. Women with multiple disabilities were more likely to consider insufficient support services on the job (41.7%; n=5) as a major problem. Women with individual disabilities considered both people's attitudes toward individuals with disabilities and their attitudes toward women as major problems (27.9%;n=24).

Women with Disabilities in Traditional Careers

Because a significant number of surveys were received from women with disabilities in traditional careers (50 surveys) an analysis was conducted of their responses as well. Women with disabilities in traditional careers were primarily employed full time (68%;n=34) and had salaries of less than $10,000 a year (54%;n=26). A slight majority of them were in skilled/semi-skilled positions (54%;n=27) compared to professional occupations (46%;n=23), with no women being employed in unskilled positions. The majority of the women had obtained their positions after the onset of their disability (86%; n=43). The greatest percentage of women were employed in companies of 1-50 employees (48%; n=20) with 62% (n=30) having at least one other female employed in similar positions in their organizations. Sixty-four percent (n=32) did not have a woman with a disability other thnan themselves employed in their company.

The average age of these women was 35.1 years. The largest percentage of women had become disabled at birth or by age two (34%; n=17); had deaf/hearing impaired disabilities (20%; n=10); were white (94%; n=47); and had never been married (40%; n=20). Of those who were married (38% n=19), (56% n=28) had no children.

Selected factors related to these women's career choice, career success, and career problems were compared to women with disabilities in nontraditional careers. A statistically significant difference was found regarding the role model who had the most influence on the women's choice of a career, x2 = 17.601,(df=6,n=53,p<.05). Women with disabilities in traditional careers considered friends to have had the most influence on their careers, while those in nontraditional careers considered mothers and themselves to be most influential. There were no other statistically significant differences in the factors related to career choice, career success, or career problems between the two groups of women, those in traditional and those in nontraditional careers.

Discussion

Women with disabilities in nontraditional careers are in many respects similar to their nondisabled peers. Women with disabilities in this study were predominantly white, considered themselves to be high academic achievers and reported a great deal of personal initiative, persistence, and assertiveness. The majority of the women were in professional nontraditional occupations similar to the representation of all U.S. women in nontraditional careers (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1984). A great percentage worked for large companies and earned salaries well above the "typical" working woman with a disability.

Personal interest and motivation appear to have been essential to a woman with a disability in her choice of a nontraditional career, as they were to nondisabled women. Such a finding is significant in that few women with disabilities have the benefit of outside influencers such as role models to encourage them in considering such a career. Without this personal initiative, it is unlikely that they would have entered a nontraditional career. The factors that contributed to the career successes of women with disabilities in nontraditional careers were comparable to those reported by nondisabled women (Casey, 1979;Riley & Wrench, 1985). Having a mentor to help establish a nontraditional career along with dedication to the job were as important to a woman with a disability who wanted to succeed in a nontraditional career as they were to nondisabled women. Very few women in this study, however, had mentors who also had a disability. Women with disabilities in nontraditional careers, if they wish to see others like themselves succeed in such career, may wish to consider acting as a mentor to other women with disabilities who are attempting to succeed in nontraditional careers (Carrick and Bibb, 1982).

The benefits and satisfaction that women with disabilities in nontraditional careers have attained in their careers give support to Crane and Fenton's (1981) views regarding the rewards for women with disabilities in nontraditional careers. These rewards included high salaries, personal satisfaction, and intellectual and emotional stimulation, factors which were also experienced by the majority of women in this study. Crane and Fenton (1981) stressed that such rewards made a nontraditional career choice a viable option for women with disabilities to consider. These benefits and rewards, however, appeared to be more readily available to those women who were in professional occupations rather than in skilled/semi-skilled positions.

Orthopedic disability was the most frequent type of disability reported by the respondents. This finding according to the SSA (1982), is comparable for all women with disabilities. Significant differences were found between type of disability and responses to (1) overcoming career problems and (2) career recommendations. It is suggested that the women's age of onset of disability as well as the degree of visibility of their disability may have some effect on how they responded to these career questions. Finally, in comparing women with multiple disabilities with those with single disabilities, women with multiple disabilities reported that insufficient support services on the job were major deterrents to their career. It was suggested that this difference may be a result of the need for additional support services for women with multiple disabilities which takes precedent over other factors such as people's attitudes toward women or their attitudes toward individuals with disabilities.

Essentially, women with disabilities in nontraditional careers, especially those in professional occupations, appear to be similar to their nondisabled peers. A subject, however, which seems to distinguish women with disabilities from nondisabled women is that of career problems. Career problems included people's attitudes toward individuals with disabilities and a constant need for the woman with a disability to prove herself on the job. These problems were considered by women with disabilities to be "unique" to them in comparison to nondisabled women.

Career problems were dealt with by the majority of these women through work experience and dedication to the job, problems which might have been more easily overcome through outside support and assistance. Considering what appears to be a very small number of women with disabilities in nontraditional careers, assisting them to overcome the hurdles to pursue and establish a nontraditional career may be a way to encourage more women with disabilities to consider such careers. What is still to be determined are the most appropriate methods of support and assistance for overcoming these problems. Perhaps, development of support systems and networks would be helpful, a recommendation already suggested by other authors (Crane & Fenton, 1981; Carrik & Bibb, 1982; Yoder & Adams, 1984).

Finally, since it is unlikely that a woman with a disability who is interested in a nontraditional career will come in contact with another woman with a disability in a comparable career, she should look to her nondisabled counterpart for guidance and support in pursuing a nontraditional career. A woman with a disability will find these nondisabled women to be very much like themselves in many respects and can use their knowledge and understanding in undertaking a nontraditional career. However, if women encounter career problems that involve their disability, women with disabilities will probably have to overcome these problems on their own. At best, they can hope to find a woman with a disability in a nontraditional career who can provide some advice and guidance on this subject.

As a result of the findings of this study, and in order to help those who will be dealing with women with disabilities in nontraditional careers in future research, the following recommendations are offered:

1. Broad issues and trends involving the career choice, career success, and career problems of women with disabilities in nontraditional careers were explored in this survey study. If more detailed and indepth information concerning these women is to be obtained, the most appropriate avenue may be through personal interviews with these women.

2. Women with disabilities in nontraditional careers reported people's attitudes toward individuals with disabilities as a serious obstacle to their careers. However, additional research is needed to determine the specific nature of these attitudes and the extent to which they affect these women's careers. In addition, little assitance has been provided to these women in helping them overcome these problems. Although outside support and assistance have been suggested as ways to help these women overcome these problems, the most appropriate methods of providing this support and assistance need to be explored.

3. Significant differences were found between type of disability and (1) reported responses to factors related to overcoming career problems and (2) career recommendations. It has been suggested that among the reasons for these differences are the age of onset of the woman's disability; the degree of visibility of her disability; and, the need for additional support services for women with multiple disabilities which takes precedence over other factors such as the people's attitudes toward women or their attitudes toward individuals with disabilities. If these theories are to be substantiated, further research will need to be conducted.

Table : Professional and Skilled/Semi-skilled Nontraditional Careers Reported by Survey Respondent

Table : Demographic Data on the Survey Respondents in Nontraditional Careers

Table : Reasons Given for Choice of Nontraditional Career by Survey Respondents
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Author:Katz Lynda J.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1989
Words:4306
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