Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

The Experience of Women in Male-Dominated Occupations: A Constructivist Grounded Theory Inquiry

Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

The Experience of Women in Male-Dominated Occupations: A Constructivist Grounded Theory Inquiry

Article excerpt


Women who work in male-dominated occupations face challenges that differ from those who work in more gender-balanced and female-dominated occupations. These challenges affect their retention and career success. In this study, the authors explored the challenges these women face as well as how they cope and persevere despite them.

Background to the study

The South African female labour force has been growing because of equity legislation and improved access to education and work opportunities (Finnemore & Cunningham, 1995; Franks, Schurink & Fourie, 2006; Mostert, 2009; Van den Berg & Van Zyl, 2008). However, progress with gender transformation and equity in the South African workplace is still unsatisfactory (Anonymous, 2012; Du Plessis & Barkhuizen, 2012; Hicks, 2012; Lewis-Enright, Crafford & Crous, 2009). There are powerful economic incentives for women to move into historically male-dominated occupations (England, 2010). Yet women who defy conventional female career patterns and choose to pursue careers in male-dominated occupations often return to careers that accommodate their roles as primary caregivers better (Ashraf, 2007; Cha, 2013; Danziger & Eden, 2007; Frome, Alfeld, Eccles & Barber, 2006).

The challenges women face in attempting to penetrate successfully and persevere in historically male-dominated work environments emanate from traditional gender hierarchies and norms that prevail in the family and society. Despite gender equality and empowerment, the household unit has a traditional structure - and still has - that makes males the dominant gender (Hartmann, 2010). These traditional stereotyped role expectations spill over to organisational policies and practices to maintain women's marginalised work roles (Bobbitt-Zeher, 2011; Cha, 2013) and become entrenched in a gender-biased organisational culture (Prescott & Bogg, 2011).

Historically, men have dominated policy development (Taylor, 1997). Organisations are still structured and function in ways that do not always support women's career patterns and their need to integrate work with family responsibilities (Cha, 2013; Frome et al., 2006). Hicks (2012) refers to the invisible aspects of the male-dominated institutional culture that give lip service to gender empowerment strategies but continue to marginalise women. According to Finnemore and Cunningham (2005), men have predominantly recorded the history of women and work through their eyes.

Raghuram (2008) urges researchers to think in a different way about the effect of gender on career trajectories and aspirations in male-dominated environments. A focus on women in male-dominated occupations remains especially important in the light of studies that point to the negative personal and social consequences women face. Mostert (2009) highlights the effect of work-family conflict, as well as the demands of work and home on women's health whilst Mathur-Helm (2006) cautions against the consequent family relationship problems.

Further, women experience the world of work quite differently to how men do (Bobbitt-Zeher, 2011; Prescott & Bogg, 2011). Generally, a desire for status, power and social comparisons drives men. On the other hand, a desire to do a good job and contribute to organisational functioning motivates women (Davey, 2008; Prescott & Bogg, 2011). Women's unique work experiences, coupled with archaic work-life role structures based on gender (Hartmann, 2010), pose unique challenges to career-orientated women in general and, more specifically, to women who choose a traditionally male-dominated career.

The authors believe that organisations need to legitimise women's characteristics, natural behaviours and values and give them a platform in order to level the playing field for both genders.

Research purpose

According to Raghuram (2008), researchers have neglected to study women's experiences when they enter male- dominated occupations. …

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