What have we learned from the changing nature of womens careers?

Written by
Laurie Cohen

28 Oct 2015

28 Oct 2015 • by Laurie Cohen

In the mid-1990s, when I was a PhD student, I interviewed a number of women about their careers. It was a decade of entrepreneurship and enterprise – a time when outdated ideals and bureaucracy were ostensibly making way for individual liberty and wealth creation. Recession was biting, and policymakers were touting entrepreneurship as promising hope – much as they do now.

Those interviews formed a major part of my early research into career transition. At the time the thought of revisiting them never occurred to me, but 17 years later, as a professor, I tracked down the same women and spoke to them again.

I wanted to find out what had changed – and what had stayed the same – in terms of how women perceive and pursue their careers. Returning to the original accounts and bringing the stories up to date was an instructive and moving experience for all of us. 

Five key lessons that emerged:

1. Work-life balance: A 21st century imperative

In the early 1990s women still worked at work and at home. The concept of work-life balance had yet to become part of the zeitgeist, which is why in the first set of interviews the notion had almost no resonance.

Now work-life balance is central to how women think about and arrange their lives. As one of the subjects remarked: “Women have always worked, but I think it’s just accepted now that women have a career.”

In tandem, of course, work-life balance is no longer a problem exclusively for women or, more specifically, for mothers. It applies to men, too – although whether they see their domestic roles as responsibilities or choices is still an open question.

2. It’s not always about the family

Women still assume primary care responsibilities. It’s often success that helps them to do so.

Yet it’s not right to infer that most women leave organisations “for the kids” or because of other family reasons. That’s a myth. Exclusion from decision-making processes, conflicting workplace values, the slow pace of change and the difficulty of fitting in are also key factors.

Some respondents confessed to having exploited the myth themselves, including one who originally claimed to have quit her job for her daughter. At the time it was the only explanation that made sense to the people around her, but during my second interview with her, she admitted: “Actually, I wanted to make the move.”

3. Loved ones don’t always help

The impact of family and friends on the direction of women’s careers is frequently greater than the impact of relationships in the workplace. All the interviewees spoke of the influence of partners, children, parents and even grandparents. 

But this influence isn’t always positive. Deliberately or not, many dependents and entangled domestic relationships circumscribe what can and can’t be done.

Sometimes the outcome is rebellion. As one respondent remarked: “I think: ‘What would my family do in this position? Great – I’ll do the other.’” And sometimes the result is capitulation, as with the woman who, describing her career choices at school, recalled: “My father said: ‘Any fool can do domestic science. You will be a nurse.’ And that’s what happened.”

4. The ‘rules of the game’ are no longer the same

Society’s ideas about what constitutes a legitimate and appropriate career for women have moved on in many ways. To take just one example, consider the question of working from home.

In the 1990s, many self-employed interviewees thought they weren’t taken seriously as ‘sole practitioners’. Some even recreated a strict organisational structure at home to try to maintain their own sense of professionalism.

Now the same women think it’s men who are likelier to be viewed with suspicion if they’re not office-based. “Women sole practitioners are brave and radical,” said one interviewee. “Male sole practitioners are there because they can’t get on in firms.”

5. Entrepreneurship endures

Although they might not have bought into the rhetoric at the time, many subjects undoubtedly regarded some form of entrepreneurship as a means of escape. And for most that’s exactly what it proved.

Now they’re enjoying the benefits – success, independence and even the freedom to work past a ‘normal’ retirement age.

They’re also happy to acknowledge what they are. One interviewee who was formerly dismayed to be described as an entrepreneur, now cherishes the tag as a symbol of liberation, confessing: “What I realise now is that Mrs Thatcher, who I hated with a passion, did me a really good turn.