Since the late 1980s, the successful transition from high school into adult employment has been a central component of the reform movement in American schools (National Center for Education and the Economy, 1990; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997). The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1990 mandated transition services for youth with disabilities while the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities Act was intended to increase opportunities for all students to enter high-skill high-wage careers. Despite this national focus on transition planning and workforce preparation, gender equity in career preparation and postschool employment outcomes has not been fully achieved. Vocational education and school-to-work programs are still largely gender segregated, preparing young women to enter low-wage, traditionally female occupations (American Association of University Women, 1998; Milgram & Watkins, 1994). Annual median earnings for female high school graduates with no postsecondary education are equivalent to 64% of the earnings of their male peers (U.S. Department of Education, 2000).
This gender gap in career opportunities is even wider for certain vulnerable populations such as minority women and women with disabilities. Previous studies have documented that women with disabilities are less likely to be employed than either young men with disabilities or young women without disabilities. Those young women with disabilities who are employed are likely to (a) work in lower status occupations such as service, clerical, or other helping occupations; (b) earn lower average wages than their male peers with disabilities; (c) receive few or no benefits; and (d) have limited opportunities for promotion or career advancement (Doren & Benz, 2001; Fulton & Sabornie, 1994; Harlan & Roberts, 1995; Slappo & Katz, 1989; Wagner, 1992).
Why do so many young women with disabilities transition from high school into low-wage and low-skill occupations? What are the critical factors that influence short-term occupational and long-term career choices for this population? This study addresses those questions by investigating the career development process for young women with learning disabilities entering the workforce.
CAREER DEVELOPMENT THEORY
Career development theory is concerned with describing the complex combination of factors that influence occupational aspirations and career choice. The notion of career development was first described in the vocational education literature in the early 1960s (Super, Starishevsky, Matlin, & Jordaan, 1963). Since that time many researchers have examined the emergence of career-related attitudes and behaviors, gradually broadening the scope of career development theory to include social and environmental influences.
Both individual characteristics (e.g., gender, disability, ethnicity) and family demographics (e.g., parental employment, socioeconomic status, parental education level) have been linked to occupational aspirations and initial career choices (Davey & Stoppard, 1993; McBride Murry & Stitt-Godhes, 1994; Stockard & McGee, 1990; Way & Rossman, 1996). Many career development theorists focus on how these individual and family attributes influence self-concept, which can be defined as "one's view of who one is and who one is not ... self-concept also includes who one expects or would like to be" (Gottfredson, 1981, p. 547). Gottfredson argues that very young children hold positive views of many occupations. As they mature, children gradually limit their choices of occupations based on their developing sense of self-concept. After discarding job choices that are clearly affiliated with the opposite sex, children rule out occupations that are considered low status, or outside the realm of their social class. As they begin to define their own abilities, jobs that seem too difficult to obtain are no longer considered as options. …