Exploring Women's Career Development: Implications for Theory and Practice

Article excerpt


With a few notable exceptions, most research into the occupational experiences of women is typically macro-social, and based on large-scale, impersonal, aggregated, and static data. Whilst such data reveal the position of women in the workforce relative to men, they do not provide sufficient processual insight into the career development of women.

Through a case study approach, this study aims to discern patterns in the career development of women managers, and to examine if these patterns conform to career models such as those proposed by White, Cox and Cooper (1992), and White (1995, 2000). The case data comprises of the career journeys of twenty women managers from a broad cross-section of occupational sectors in New Zealand.

The data reveal that although the majority of women managers display high career centrality, they do not work continuously as they have several years of interruptions for bearing and rearing children, and work part-time and retrain themselves through further education before returning to the workplace. Interestingly, they do not seem to plan their careers.


The rise in the number of women entering the workforce has generally highlighted the need for greater understanding of the development of women's careers and the career choices of women. Until now, most research in this field has been undertaken through large-scale, quantitative surveys. This type of research has been criticized for producing impersonal, aggregated and static data that construct a firm judgment of the position of women in the work force and do not understand the processes by which they accomplished it (Almquist, 1977 cited in White, Cox and Cooper, 1992).

Traditional models of career development are based on middle-class, working men and do not accommodate the occupational behaviour of women (Gilligan, 1979). This is because these models assume that career movements occur upwards in organizational hierarchies in a predictable manner. The models are also principally founded on a taxonomy of stages of career or age, which is inappropriate when applied to women. Generally, the work cycle of women is less predictable and more complex than that of men (Perun and Beilby, 1981); women's career development does not simply lag behind that of men but may proceed in an altogether different manner (Gutek and Larwood, 1987).

It is only recently that researchers (e.g., White, Cox and Cooper, 1992; Pringle and Dixon, 2000) have sought to examine women's career journeys empirically. Such research aims to enhance our understanding of the phases that women professionals go through while attempting to balance their domestic and professional obligations. Our study seeks to add on to this scant but increasingly important strand of research. In the context of New Zealand where the authors are based, the present research addresses the following questions.

1. What patterns are discernible in the career development of women?

2. How, if at all, do these patterns differ from the career models available in the literature?

3. How can one modify extant conceptualizations of career development to better describe the empirical career journeys at hand?

Literature Review

For the purpose of this study, we use the definition of careers from Arthur, Hall and Lawrence (1989), as it furnishes a flexible and broader interpretation of careers. They define a career as the evolving sequence of a person's work experiences over time; thus, careers involve relationships between employees and their organizations over time. This definition in fact encompasses what Van Maanen (1977) describes as the study of individual and organizational change as well as societal change (Kanter, 1989).

White, Cox and Cooper (1992) held in-depth interviews with 48 women managers or entrepreneurs in commerce and industry or senior members of high status. The study revealed that successful women experienced specific life stages (White 1995, 2000). …