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12 February 2013

What does your work mean to you?

Bonjour,

We heard great things from you about guest blogger and PwC-Alum Julie Armstrong’s previous post on her research about gender and business culture.

I asked her to approach her findings from a different angle this time: what role does paid work play in a woman’s sense of self? How does she choose the nature of her work and whether it’s paid or unpaid? What factors influence her choices to put in more hours or fewer?

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Read on for Julie’s insight, including how her findings intersect with highly-publicized narratives of choice by Ann Marie Slaughter, and female executives at Yahoo! and Facebook.

Dale

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Recently, while out for a run around a university track, I noticed that students have returned to campus after their winter break.  As I ran (something I started in college and have done ever since), I reflected on my college years...It was, or at least it seemed, to be a period of life full of choices: choosing among majors, classes, clubs, roommates, and so on.  Of course, many choices made in college are intended to prepare us – for better or worse – for the “real” world that awaits after graduation.  But if the students I ran by are anything like me, no matter what decisions they make in college about their professional future, things will not turn out as expected.

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In a previous blog post, I wrote about some findings from my research on the impact of workplace culture on professionals.  While discussing workplace culture and the ways workplace norms shape professionals’ experience both at work and outside of it, my study respondents talked at length about the meaning of work in their lives, ultimately giving insight into the reasons why they choose to work in demanding careers (most acknowledged the possibility of choosing a less intense career path).

Both men and women respondents alike spoke of the intellectual challenges their work affords them, the opportunity to work with smart and talented colleagues, the variety inherent in their work – all things they greatly value in their careers.  Thus, alongside the frustrations, misgivings and work/life conflict caused by the demanding and unpredictable nature of their work, respondents’ also enjoy many elements of their work.

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While both men and women spoke of the value of their work in these ways, women respondents expressed an added layer of importance that their careers occupy in their lives.  They described their careers as a means of financial independence and self-sufficiency – a way to hedge against life’s uncertainties, ensuring their ability to care and provide both for themselves and for current, or future, dependents.

Moreover, women explained that work contributed to their sense of self – a vital source of confidence, fulfillment and accomplishment.  Women respondents experienced a sense of being valued at work that is, in some way, particularly satisfying because it is not directly tied to others in their lives.  Several women respondents also emphasized that their careers made them better partners, family members, friends and mothers.  Indeed, some women respondents discussed the meaning and importance of their work as a way to justify the demanding careers they pursue. 

I should point out that I do not interpret men’s silence on these issues to be indicative of a lack of meaning or importance in their work.  Rather, it is the contrast of men’s silence and women’s vocal expression of these issues that is notable.  This contrast, I believe, reveals women’s acknowledgement – albeit sometimes a subconscious one – of an alternative in which women do not work in the paid labor force, an alternative that is more readily accepted by broader cultural standards for women than it is for men.

These findings reveal just how committed women often are to their work, aspiring to have meaningful careers.  Some of you may think, “Well, of course, they do! This is obvious!”  But, in fact, cultural conceptions of men and women in the workplace often bring into question the ambition and commitment of women in a way that is not true for men (for example, consider research on the “motherhood penalty”).  In this way, I think these findings serve as a particularly useful reminder to organizations and to the people that fill their ranks (us!) to not make unsubstantiated conclusions about women’s level of ambition and commitment to work.  Perhaps findings like these help us rethink what it means to be committed to work.  Take, for example, flexible work arrangements: what if such arrangements were seen not as a signal that one is less committed to their career, but in fact that one is quite committed and is thereby finding alternative ways to “balance” career and family?

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Having listened to respondents talk about what their work means to them and why they’ve made certain career choices pushed me to think more broadly about what it means to choose.  As you read this post, you may be inclined to think that these findings reveal a somewhat judgmental attitude towards women who have chosen to step out of the paid workforce, whether permanently or for a period of time.  But, in fact, this is not the case at all: women respondents in my study were very careful to explain that the thoughts they shared with me – the reasons why they’ve made such career choices – really are about their own choices, not somebody else’s.  In fact, several women respondents emphasized that one day their choices regarding their careers may change, perhaps even dramatically, as changes in their personal lives occur.

Choice is probably best thought of as the “expression of preferences within constraints” (see research by Correll or Stone for more on this idea).  Sometimes those constraints are wide and flexible, affording us a high degree of latitude in our decision making, and other times they are narrow and rigid, thereby limiting our alternatives.

To think about choice in this way deepens our understanding of the fact that choices are not made in a vacuum.  Often, we find ourselves taking into account the various factors that shape the alternatives available to us, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of such alternatives. In short, rarely are our choices regarding work easily made.

Perhaps this deeper understanding of choice will lead us to respond to the “choice narratives” of Ann Marie Slaughter or Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg in a less defensive, reactive fashion but instead with a greater measure of empathy.  Not necessarily because we understand why such women have made the choices they’ve made, or because we think their choices are ones we would make, but precisely because we can’t fully understand why they’ve made such choices.  We simply don’t know the constraints, whether few or many, that they operate within: demands, public policies, resources, relationships, ambitions, values, experiences past, present and future, and so on.  Perhaps we will even experience a greater degree of freedom to feel confident in our own choices, doing what works well for us, not what works well for someone else.

What does your work mean to you?  What are the choices you’ve made or wished you’ve made or regretted you’ve made or plan to make?  My hope is that as we create diverse and inclusive workplaces, where our differences are valued, that we’ll develop a greater appreciation for the diversity of choices we make.  This past new year didn't bring the start of a new school semester for me (although it has, many times, in the past).  It was marked, however, by new steps in my career.  While the process of deciding what that next step will be is often a tricky endeavor, I do take some comfort in knowing that meaningful work comes in a variety of forms, at different times along our career paths.  And I also take comfort in knowing that I'm certainly not the first and I definitely won't be the last person to navigate the sometimes messy process of making career choices.

Julie

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Comments

Thank you for your article - I have often had discussion regarding the choices we make wrt our careers. The past 20 odd years have been a real balancing act, but this year marks the start of a new phase where both children have left school, and with it comes the realisation that the choices I made have both prepared them for their own careers as well as given me a great foundation for the years ahead, where I no longer need to juggle home and career as much. Would I have chosen differently even with hindsight? Absolutely not!

This is a fantastic article.
Personally I didn't realize how vital my career was to my self-esteem until I was made redundant on Christmas Eve last year.

Job hunting over Christmas and in the first few weeks of January was very frustrating. I felt "lost" without the regular routine of work and rather worthless as I tried to occupy myself with activities (like decorating, baby sitting for friends etc) that didn't bring in any money.

I've now found a great job with a fantastic firm, but this period has made me appreciate how crucial it is to my happiness to have a fulfilling job.

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