Typing in the 1980’s — and the Decline of Women Choosing Career and Technical Education

Before personal computers, IBM Selectric typewriters represented the cutting edge of desktop technology for modern offices. In the early 1980s, my high school had an entire room filled with shiny Selectrics atop sturdy desks. Many of my peers, mostly females, entered this room to take typing, which was a Career and Technical Education (CTE) course (though we called it a business elective at the time).

photo courtesy the author

Because my guidance office and family believed I was “college material,” I was steered away from typing class. But because I am stubborn and like a challenge, I took it anyway. When I entered Drew University in 1984 (my matriculation was delayed by two years), it was the first liberal arts college to issue a computer to students, the bulky Epson QX-10. Unlike most of my classmates, I knew how to type (or “keyboard,” as it would become known).

What does all this have to do with International Women’s Day, whose 2020 theme is “Each for Equal?” In the United States, women have arguably reached equality in college enrollment and degree attainment. In fact, women today enroll and complete college at higher rates than men. But in studying College- and Career-Readiness (CCR) policies for a forthcoming report, I’ve learned that CTE participation is one area where women are still less than equal. Not only is women’s CTE participation less than half the amount of participants since its peak in the early 1980s, but those females who do enroll are often steered away from the higher-paying career tracks.

In 1982, the year I graduated high school, female graduates earned more CTE credits than male graduates in the United States. While CTE participation has declined for all students since the 1980s, the drop for women is sharper. By 2013, average CTE credits earned by females had dropped by a third over three decades, while CTE credits earned by males dropped by a fifth. In part, this can be explained by a decline in courses such as typing and data entry, as well as the structural changes of the modern business environment with fewer secretarial roles, but it also reflects an increased emphasis on “four-year college for all.”

The gender breakdown of students who do pursue CTE coursework is roughly equal, however differences in the type of coursework reflect gender inequality. Courses known as “New Era CTE” tend to divide along gender lines, with females predominately concentrating in health care and communication while males concentrate in computer science and engineering, fields which generally pay higher salaries. A study conducted in Texas suggested “tracking” exists within CTE, aligning students with “historically gendered occupational roles.

While CTE popularity is declining overall, its importance — for women and men — shouldn’t be overlooked. In the 1980s and 1990s, CTE was viewed as a pathway to postsecondary employment, apprenticeships, or trade school. Recent studies suggest today’s CTE vocational concentrators “are more likely than their peers to enroll in college […] and may also be more likely to persist in college.” Furthermore, a strong CTE curriculum prepares students with key competencies such as critical thinking, communication, and teamwork. These are many of the cross-cutting skills rated by employers as “most important” for long-term career success.

If female students desire careers in health care or communication, they should not be steered away, but they should also be given information on the long-term economic prospects of various fields. As women continue to outpace men in college enrollment, persistence, and degree attainment, they also need to receive equal information on career choices and compensation by field. And they should be given equal opportunity to pursue any postsecondary pathway they choose, just like I was given. Every day when I sit down to write and research, my “rash” decision to take typing pays off!