Wildly Underreported Women of History: Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Cook Briggs

If the last names above ring a bell, it’s because mother-daughter team Katharine and Isabel together created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, one of the most widely used personality assessment tools today. And yet, on Wikipedia neither the Indicator’s nor Isabel Briggs Myers’ page has a full history of their work. Neither page even has a picture of the women (the Indicator’s shows a picture of Jung, whose writing on dichotomies inspired the test).

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The test was initially developed by Katharine and honed over the years by her and daughter Isabel, the Indicator’s first guinea-pig. It was further developed by Isabel as women began entering the workforce during World War II. Using Jung’s concepts she thought to help these women, many who never held a paying job outside the house, find work suitable for their skills and temperaments. She also thought insight into how individuals process the world around them might lead to better understanding between people and nations, perhaps eliminating the need for war altogether.

It seems ironic a test developed by women to assist women is represented by a man on one of the world’s most-trafficked sites. Of course, there are plenty who would rush to say the MBTI (as the Indicator is most widely known) is not some altruistic feminist artifact, but a multimillion-dollar juggernaut beloved by human resource and lacking in accuracy and usefulness. The negative case can certainly be made, and in fact Isabel further refined the test on assistant Katherine Dowes when the young lady was set to marry into the family (Isabel thought clarifying the couple’s personality traits would help them in marriage). Matchmaking isn’t anti-feminist, but does reinforce the stereotype that girls can do science too- in GIRL areas (see: engineering or mechanical work for ladies limited to kitchen instruments/sewing machines/baby stuff).

A thoughtful article on the test’s inventors and the test itself, especially as it’s used in the business world, can be found here. My favorite excerpt: “Corporate America has its own religions, and one of them is Myers-Briggs.”

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