Gendered Stories of Career; Unfolding Discourses of Time, Space, and Identity

Patrice Buzzanell & Kristen Lucas. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

At a conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research in January 2005, Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard University, sparked national attention when he addressed the issue of the underrepresentation of women in tenured faculty positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions (Summers, 2005). Summers proposed that women are not subject to overt sex discrimination in hiring and promotion practices. Differences in intelligence, gendered socialization, and, ultimately, personal preferences, Summers said, lead many women to opt out of pursuing high-paying, high-powered jobs. He concluded that “what’s behind all of this … is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity.” He maintained that most women simply do not desire high-power, successful careers in science and engineering, and, to a lesser extent, are not equipped (motivationally or as a matter of aptitude) to succeed in them at the same level as men.

Women, indeed, are grossly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (also known as the STEM disciplines). Only 8.3% of tenured or tenure track professors in those fields are women (Nelson, 2005). In business and government, their representation is disproportionate as well. Among Fortune 500 companies, less than 16% of corporate officers are women (Catalyst, 2005b), and only one quarter work in line positions that have control over core business operations (Catalyst, 2005a). In government, only one third of the top-ranking policy leaders are women (Center for Women in Government, 2004).

Ostensibly, the laws passed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have banned discrimination in hiring and promotion. So, if discrimination is no longer permitted and there is legal recourse now when it does occur, could there be some substance to Summers’ (2005) claims? Could it be that the cause of the disparity is that women simply choose not to pursue high-profile careers (those characterized by high earnings, status, and perquisites), whether those careers are in science, engineering, business, government, or elsewhere? Summers’s remarks tapped into some longstanding beliefs about differences in men’s and women’s abilities, interests, and desires. These beliefs play out daily in career processes and outcomes when, for example, an employer wonders silently or asks out loud if a young female interviewee is planning to have a family or if a man is groomed for management instead of an equally capable woman.

To his credit, Summers (2005) admitted that he could be wrong and encouraged research that examines his “high-power job hypotheses.” However, the problem with his remarks was that he presented them as “causes” that legitimate and naturalize the underrepresentation of women in high-profile careers. In some cases, women may choose to pursue low-profile careers or temporary jobs. In others there may be visible and invisible barriers as well as limited and/or forced choices that exclude women from careers at the top of their fields. In contrast to Summers’s tack of locating the problem in women and sex/gender differences, we place normative career models and assumptions at the center of the debate.

We argue that the gendered construction of career acts to discriminate against women (and other members of traditionally under-represented groups).

In this chapter we review career literature from a variety of perspectives to provide an overview of salient issues and research trends at the intersections of gender, career, and communication. We argue that there are material, psychological, and discursive factors that make the nature and enactment of career difficult for many women. We problematize career by highlighting and critiquing three of its prominent dimensions (see MacDermid, Roy, & Zvonkovic, 2005). This critique identifies who is harmed by and who benefits from normalized processes within these dimensions as well as by normative conceptions of career itself. In this way we can show that the career experiences of women are different from—not inferior to—the normative (male) model. We begin by discussing career discourses as contextual and gendered constructions. Next we highlight gendered career communication theory and research within the key dimensions of time, space, and identity. Finally, we pose some directions for future research.

Contextual and Gendered Discourses of Career

Career derives from the medieval and Latin words carraria (a road for vehicles) and car-rus (car), respectively. It is defined as “a field for or pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement especially in public, professional, or business life” or “a profession for which one trains and which is undertaken as a permanent calling” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). In essence, then, a career can be considered to be the journey individuals take over the course of their lifetimes—one that involves advancement and competencies acquired with time and training. While the journey motif is used most often as a metaphor for career (Inkson & Amundson, 2002), it does not reflect how career discourse and practices have changed based on when and where career has been examined (contextual constructions) and whose is being discussed (gendered story).

Contextual Constructions of Career

Career theory, research, and practice are interdisciplinary and shaped by specific historical, economic, and cultural events (Arthur, Hall, & Lawrence, 1989). As bureaucratic models became prominent at the beginning of the 20th century, the notion of career became a means of viewing the movements of organizational members from their initial entry into the workforce through various forms of training and assessment all the way to retirement (see Hall, 2002; Miles & Snow, 1996). As McKinlay (2002) notes, a modern career was based on promise—“the vow that an organization makes to the individual [man] that merit, diligence and self-discipline would be rewarded by steady progress through a pyramid of grades” (p. 596). From recruitment to retirement, then, career involved individuals’ conformity to procedural and behavioral codes as well as a careful monitoring of self-presentation, especially of appearance (McKinlay, 2002).

After World War II, during an era of unprecedented economic growth in the United States, the so-called silent generation contented itself with control, predictability, loyalty, stability, and long-term membership in a single organization (Kratz, 2004; Sheehy, 1995). Career models were linear and oriented upward (Buzzanell & Goldzwig, 1991). Career research and advice focused on the advancement of white males in managerial and/or professional occupations within hierarchically organized companies through fast-track identification systems, executive development programs, position competitions in internal labor markets, and formal or informal mentoring and networking (Arthur et al., 1989; Miles & Snow, 1996; Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Rosenbaum, 1989). Because career emphasized linearity, exclusionary processes, certain preferred outcomes and members, and competition, it was imbued with traditionally masculine qualities (Buzzanell, 1994; Marshall, 1989).

By the mid-1970s, however, the stable world of the organization man was shattered by the uncertainties of international competition and economic stagnation-inflation that gave way to reorganizations, outsourcings, and network structures in the 1980s (Kratz, 2004; Miles & Snow, 1996; Smith, 2001) and emphasis on self-management of career in the 1990s (Sterns & Huyck, 2001). Contingent or temporary work became more prominent, benefits that many workers took for granted (e.g., health insurance) were eliminated, and temporary staffing company Manpower became one of the largest corporations in the United States (Gossett, 2003; Smith, 2001). Workers, including managers and professionals, experienced unemployment, underemployment, downward mobility, and successive downsizings with some workforce segments, such as people of color and working-class members, being disproportionately harmed by such trends (Buzzanell, 2000; Fairhurst, Cooren, & Cahill, 2002; Heckscher, 1995; Hirsch, 1987; Newman, 1993).

The world of the organization man also changed as women and people of color joined managerial and professional ranks (Calás & Smircich, 1996). Academic and popular materials recounted individual strategies that contributed to white women’s success at climbing the corporate ladder (e.g., Harragan, 1977). Whether women could even have managerial and professional careers was debated with the male career model being the lens by which women’s careers were evaluated (Bell & Nkomo, 2001). Other materials addressed the structural barriers, double binds, and gendered societal expectations women faced and continue to face (e.g., Acker, 1990; Buzzanell, 1995; Kanter, 1977; Wood & Conrad, 1983). Over time, treatment of career, class, race, gender, and other group membership intersections became more complex and grounded in members’ own discourse, identity constructions, and material circumstances. This turn toward the intersectionality of gender and other identity constructions meant that researchers no longer delved solely into sex differences and structural barriers but also examined how women (and men) described and performed their careers over time and space. They used survey and life history analysis to investigate black and white women’s professional, classed, racialized, and gendered identities and to reveal how their striving for success and dignity in their workplaces was similar and different (Bell & Nkomo, 2001). Black and white working-class men’s constructions of self-worth and social hierarchy are gleaned from interviews probing into their views on jobs, society, class boundaries, racism, and immigration patterns in the United States and France (Lamont, 2000). Meanings of career, success, and life in Native American culture display the difficulties of using alternative criteria for career fulfillment and well-being (Juntunen et al., 2001). Among girls and boys born in poverty, it became clear that hope diminishes over time, leading researchers to question educational interventions and the salience of career as traditionally defined for these children and the working poor (Weinger, 1998; see also Ehrenreich, 2001).

The Gendered Story of Career

Besides historical influences, other ways in which the career is constructed are gendered. Not all women or men adhere to feminine or masculine career approaches but some ways of framing and enacting career are gendered.

Women and men often frame career narratives differently (Gergen & Gergen, 1993; see also the “Dream” or life vision in Kittrell, 1998; Levinson, 1996). “Manstories” are focused on a quest. They are linear narratives progressing toward greater work achievement and success (Gergen, 1990). The quest is guided by mentors and by an occupational dream or vision men create in their 20s (Levinson, 1986). Masculine or traditional careers focus on external manifestations of success and require that individuals be perceived as ideal workers who are willing to put in long hours, fashion a pro-motable image, acquire the necessary human and social capital, and privilege work over family and personal time (Buzzanell, 2001; Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000; Perlow, 1998, 1999; Williams, 2000). The traditional career requires that individuals demonstrate enterprising qualities so that they and their organizations become winners. They are “to cultivate their self, to realize their dreams, and at the same time contribute to, and share in, the enchantment of organizational excellence” (Fournier, 1998, p. 56; see also Holmer Nadesan, 1999). In this competition between winners and losers, workers engage in personal branding in which self-promotion strategies are turned into “an ideological understanding of the corporate world capable of an embracing influence over workers’ very sense of self” (Lair, Sullivan, & Cheney, 2005, p. 309).

Individuals enacting the masculine, enterprising career are expected to project a fit and youthful image, valorize appearance and personality over substance, and commodify themselves and their relationships (Lair et al., 2005; Holmer Nadesan, 1999; Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000; Trethewey, 2000). Optimally, these men have wives and children because that family structure is associated with higher income and salary progression (Schneer & Reitman, 2002). The masculine career still leaves little room for alternative career routes, family, leisure, and community service.

“Womanstories” tend to be fluid, shifting, and embodied—interweaving life aspects, allegiances and relationships (Gergen, 1990; see also Bateson, 1989). These stories become manifest in a feminine career form that combines employment, marriage or partnerships, and motherhood or caregiving in phases but also marks a “sense of responsibility to wider contextual needs” (Marshall, 1989, p. 286) or a strengthening of self in relation to others over the course of a lifetime (Gallos, 1989). Their broader context or responsibilities may include civic engagement, such as working on community-centered projects (Tonn, 2003), or the vow black women take to give back to their communities of origin (Bell & Nkomo, 2001). Because a feminine career cannot be understood without examining multiple commitments and nonwork experiences (Arthur, Inkson, & Pringle, 1999; Powell & Mainiero, 1992), this career has been labeled relational and kaleidoscopic to emphasize career decisions that are “part of a larger and intricate web of interconnected issues, people, and aspects that had come together in a delicately balanced package” (Mainiero & Sullivan, 2005, p. 111).

The feminine career form appears discontinuous compared with traditional, linear models. So-called irregularities emerge because of the various ways women enact careers. They may opt out of the labor force, downplay career ambitions, relocate based on partners’ employment opportunities, stay at home permanently or take temporary leaves of absence to care for dependent children or aging parents, pursue contingent, temporary, and flexible work arrangements, become entrepreneurs, and/or imbue a high profile career with nurturing, power sharing, and community involvement (Arthur et al, 1999; Arthur & Rousseau, 1996; Bell & Nkomo, 2001; Cunningham & Murray, 2005; Edley, 2004; Fels, 2004; Helgesen, 1990; Hewlett & Luce, 2005; Hylmö & Buzzanell, 2002; Mainiero & Sullivan, 2005).


Contextual and gendered overviews of career supply societal narratives from which individuals draw to craft their career identities and outcomes. Although these societal narratives seem to direct the formation of particular gendered identities, they also are contradictory, flexible, and subject to change as women and men resist, refashion, adopt, reject, and revise aspects of contemporary careers. Indeed, scholars try both to expose the ways in which career systematically excludes anyone who does not fit the profile of the ideal entrepreneurial worker and to create a vision for workplace change (Bailyn, 1993, 2004; Buzzanell, 1995, 2000; Fels, 2004; Kirby & Krone, 2002; Lair et al., 2005; Perlow, 1998; Williams, 2000). When career dimensions are problematized, tensions within discourses and practices can be explored productively.

Gendered Career Dimensions

Career is actualized through individuals’ identity constructions along the lines of key career dimensions. Of these interrelated dimensions, the spatiotemporal dialectic is the most prominent in career discourse and practices. It also is gendered, insofar as masculine approaches and values are more aligned with the prominent linear career: “The male principle is more closely associated with time, with linear progress in a given direction, and the female principle with space and a more cyclic pattern of change and transformation” (Marshall, 1989, p. 280). We distinguish among and analyze gendered career communication within each interrelated dimension (time, space, and identity) separately.


Arthur and colleagues (1999) say that “career theory emphasizes the time perspective through which unfolding experiences come about” (p. 3). Time is embedded in, constructed by, and manifest (in meaning) through discourse in particular cultural and organizing processes. Although socially constructed and experienced in different ways (e.g., cyclical, linear, biological, seasonal, project oriented, social times; see Bailyn, 1993), the prominent career time is linear. In Western thinking and practices, time is clock time—objective, standardized, commodified, simplistic, measurable, and independent of objects, events, people, and contexts (for an overview see Crossan, Cunha, Vera, & Cunha, 2005). Marshall (1989) points out that this linear orientation is masculine insofar as it admits no deviation. However, the linear temporal orientation by which individuals classify and evaluate themselves and others has differential effects on the lives of women and men. It also establishes discursive closure by which alternative ways of talking and thinking about time are either inadmissible or are considered naïve or trivial (Deetz, 1992).

According to Buzzanell and Goldzwig (1991), a primary issue is the metaphorical association of time and directionality that plays out in career discourse. Time is elevated as the “unalterable criterion for classification…. What is different about traditional career model metaphorical extensions or analogies is the extent to which such spatiotemporal terms privilege ‘promotability’ and ‘worth’ in the particular hierarchy” (p. 482). Not only does individuals’ positional time in internal labor markets signify worth and success but their use of time indicates correct priorities (see Bailyn, 1993; Perlow, 1998, 1999). U.S. workers are expected to spend incredibly long hours at work. This time is measured through presence or “face time” in the office, hours engaged in paid activities, diminished leisure time, and prioritization of work over family time (Bailyn, 1993; Bonebright, Clay, & Ankenmann, 2000; Hochschild, 1997; Schor, 1992).

Masculine conceptualizations of time with regard to career can be detrimental to members of both sexes but particularly to women. Women and their careers can be negatively affected by the competing demands of work and biological clocks, the loss of skills accumulation due to time-based discontinuities, and the inaccurate perceptions of their commitment to career caused by family-based constraints on face time at work. Early-career phases are marked by a steep accumulation of skills, the development of important organizational networks, and an establishment of professional reputation. However, this stage occurs when women are in their most fertile, childbearing years. To perform the tasks necessary for high profile careers (putting in extra hours at work, relocating, and traveling for business purposes), women are staying single longer and delaying childbirth. Ultimately, these delays make it more difficult to find a partner and have a baby, and many career-focused women (33% in the U.S., overall; 42% in corporate America) are childless. Instead of choosing to be child free, their situation becomes a “creeping nonchoice” (Hewlett, 2002, p. 66; see also Sheehy, 1995). There are long-term emotional consequences for women desiring fulfillment in dimensions of life other than work.

For women who do choose to have children, lost time can also have serious consequences. As children are typically born during women’s early-career stages, the discontinuity in their careers may mean that they are not able to develop their reputations to the fullest extent possible. In technical fields, a leave of absence of even a year or two could mean falling behind in necessary technical know-how. In a variety of careers, even brief leaves of absence (maternity leave) often are associated with penalties in long-term earning power (Hewlett & Luce, 2005). They could also create and/or increase gaps in wages, promotions, and so on among women with children, those without, and men. A woman who recently took advantage of family-friendly policies to have two children was initially denied tenure on the grounds that she did not meet her university’s standards of productivity. Although the university had promised to “stop the tenure clock” by not counting the time she was on leave when evaluating her productivity, she was granted tenure only after a 3-year legal battle (Inside Higher Ed, 2005). This example demonstrates the differences between official and actual policy implementation (see Kirby & Krone, 2002).

Face time, one’s physical presence at the workplace, remains a critical indicator of commitment to the organization and to career development (Bailyn, 1993; Perlow, 1998). Women (and men) who desire meaningful personal relationships are disadvantaged because they often cannot, or choose not to, put in the long hours and the appearance of single-minded dedication to their companies that high-profile careers demand (Bailyn, 2004; Buzzanell, 2000; Lair et al., 2005). Because women also continue to bear the burden for second-shift duties (child care, housework), their attention to outside commitments—regardless of their productivity and efficiency at work— often is attributed to a lack of commitment to organization and career.

Traditional time-based conceptualizations and assessments of career, along with the prioritization of work time over other life aspects, can have economic, relational, and psychological effects that are detrimental to many people, especially women. Furthermore, the loss of talent when some women (and men) opt out, downshift, become disillusioned, or start their own businesses is of increasing concern to U.S. businesses (Berger, 2000; Chaker, 2003; Hewlett & Luce, 2005; Saltzman, 1991). Using a gendered lens, researchers have examined the ideological underpinnings and material consequences of career so that they can offer alternative ways for individuals and organizations to frame and enact the temporal dimension of career.


Space, as a dimension of career, also has physical, social, and discursive aspects. Physical space is important because individual movements and locations connote power. Levels of organizational prestige and authority are associated with whether employees occupy a cubicle or an office, if their assigned work space is large or small, or even if it is on lower or higher floors. Social space focuses on the ways individuals experience their work roles in larger occupational contexts (Arthur et al., 1989): Work experiences can include location in a structural-organizational or a chain-of-command hierarchy. They can be linked with individuals’ centrality to decision-making units in the organizations or to the extent of employees’ engagement in communicative networks that span organizational boundaries. Discursive space may shape and be shaped by public argument such that the privilege to talk is reconfigured to accommodate new voices (Mumby, 2000). Like time, space is a symbolic process that is “fully implicated in engaging, constraining, producing, and maintaining discursive practices” (McKerrow, 1999, p. 272). Some spatial features—access, appropriation, domination—relate directly to gendered career processes and outcomes (McKerrow, 1999). Each of these is described below.

Access addresses the structures by which movement among different spaces and networks is formed or regulated. The discourse and practices surrounding access, such as internal labor markets and career networks, can influence quality of work life and career possibilities. Padavic and Reskin (2002) demonstrate how an internal labor market of separate career ladders in a grocery store limited women’s advancement opportunities. Although women were not explicitly discriminated against, top management positions were linked to initial career paths in the produce department (dominated by men), whereas departments dominated by women (cashier, bakery) had short career ladders without bridges to management ladders. Padavic and Reskin (2002) also argue that short career ladders encourage high rates of turnover, which then can be used to keep wages low for people who occupy those positions.

Professional networks have been shown to facilitate employees’ career advancement, increase the success of their socialization, and make important organizational knowledge accessible. Networks, however, also are gendered. Analysis indicates that the uses and effects of informal networks are gendered and racialized. Women seem to be as adept as men at forming them, but their networks are not well integrated into organizational power centers (Powell & Mainiero, 1992). Managers of color are less likely to have intimate informal relationships than white managers of either sex (Ibarra, 1995). Black women find informal social networks less accessible (Bell & Nkomo, 2001; Combs, 2003).

Appropriation addresses the ways in which privilege is protected through the acquisition and use of space. Occupations are gendered in ways that ensure the allotment and perpetuation of more prestigious, “difficult,” and highly paid occupations to privileged members of society (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004; Cejka & Eagly, 1999; Leidner, 1991). This feature is best illustrated by the sex segregation of jobs. Although great strides have been made in opening career choices to both sexes (women firefighters, men flight attendants), considerable sex segregation persists. Women are more likely to occupy “front space” jobs (receptionist, customer service) that emphasize communication with customers and demand high levels of emotional labor. Men are more likely to occupy “back space” jobs (repair technician) that center on technical know-how and hands-on work. What is even more troublesome is that the feminization of particular occupations (when women are the numerical majority) leads to lower wages and prestige.

Appropriation can also occur through the placement of employees in core and peripheral positions. This process is gendered in that men are more likely than women to be in core or line positions that have direct control over business operations. Women and minorities are more likely to have peripheral, or staff, positions outside of the core business (human resources, public relations, diversity services; Padavic & Reskin, 2002). Among Fortune 500 companies, women are dramatically underrepresented in key executive positions (Catalyst, 2005a, 2005b). Research by Catalyst indicates that women in top ranks disproportionately hold peripheral positions. Men hold 85% of key executive positions and 90% of core executive positions. Half of male officers work in core positions; only one quarter of women with key positions do so.

Focusing on career as a set of discursive and technical practices rather than on careers as vocationally and occupationally situated enables researchers to demonstrate how workers are constructed, and construct themselves, as core and peripheral organizational members. Fournier (1998; see also Collinson & Collinson, 1997) displays how the discourse of enterprise (discipline, self-empowerment, and enchantment) creates a discursive space in which career and identity are produced such that there are some members who are located at the core (the “enterprising self”) and some who are at the margins (the “fatalistic self”). Those at the core create narratives of careering or self-directed development; those at the margins describe exploitation and structural constraints. These narratives align with members’ identity constructions: “Through the new career discourse, employees are seduced into inventing their self and desires in ways conducive to the pursuit of organizational excellence” (Fournier, 1998, p. 60).

Domination examines how space is regulated and who controls different types of it. Domination can occur in a variety of ways and can subordinate diverse people who are “othered.” The surge of women into the workplace in the 1960s and 1970s was accompanied by (attempts at) the domination of work spaces by men. Women have been subjected to invisible barriers that limit access to the top of organizations (glass ceilings; see Buzzanell, 1995). Minority women also experience “concrete walls” that serve to isolate them within the organization. Unlike glass ceilings, where women can still see who and what is going on above them, these walls block minority women from seeing and being seen (Bell & Nkomo, 2001). They continue to ensure that top organizational positions, including academic positions, still are white-male dominated (Bell & Nkomo, 2001; Buzzanell, 1995).

Another way in which domination of space occurs in the workplace is through the gendering of work spaces. Even if a majority of employees are supportive of women in the workplace, a few exceptions can drastically reframe the space as a male domain. A male coworker can shift a neutral workplace into a hostile environment by telling profane jokes or making sexual references to or advances on women. Gendered displays such as these emphasize differences between women and men and lay claim to the space belonging to men by making women feel uncomfortable and/or unwelcome.

Domination also can occur by attempts to insulate the sphere of work from competing spheres of home or life. Making the work space off-limits to talk about family or to attend to family needs (talking on the phone to a child’s teacher) can ostracize people who want to integrate their lives. Because women bear the burden for issues such as child care (see Hochschild, 1997), the separate spheres of work and home can be difficult, if not impossible, to balance in day-to-day practice, and women can be led to reconsider career choices that would allow more time for family commitments.

As a whole, communication scholars offer insight into diverse career processes and practices relating to gender and space. Some have found that discourses of the new career obfuscate material consequences for particular segments of the labor force, most notably for white women and men with less education, geographic mobility, and resources, and for people of color (Buzzanell, 2000). With regard to sex-segregated occupations, women may engage in complex discursive practices that enlarge (and constrict) their abilities to work effectively in different kinds of jobs (blue-collar positions; see Conn, 2004). Individuals and their family members construct their gendered identities and career possibilities differently based on work arrangements, such as telecommuting (Hylmö, 2004), on entrepreneurial work (Edley, 2004), and in job loss situations (Buzzanell & Turner, 2003). The admissibility of discourse in different realms is explored in gender and family talk at work, where mothers are discouraged from and silence themselves in this talk (Farley-Lucas, 2000; Jorgenson, 2002) and where men and women are discouraged from taking family leaves through colleagues’ comments, managers’ mixed messages, and negative career consequences (Hochschild, 1997; Kirby, 2000; Kirby & Krone, 2002). As Bailyn (1993) puts it, there seems to be “a real taboo on talking, or even thinking, about children and parenting at work” (p. 25). She wonders if this is a way “to delegitimize the private sphere, to keep the separation of public and private in place. One wonders, too, what the emotional cost of such a taboo might be” (p. 25). Because many temporary, part-time, or contingent workers are female, research on the impact of temporary workers on the permanent work environment (Gossett, 2001) as well as on their complex identifications with organizations (Gossett, 2003; Jordan, 2003) is salient to communication research on gender career.


In career literature, identity is described in two ways. It is considered to be a key tension or problematic in career discourse and practice (Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003) that involves shifting and seemingly contradictory identities and discourses. Identity also functions as a metacompetency or essential facet of career construction about which individuals seek to craft a coherent story (Arthur et al., 1999; Hall, 2002; Ibarra, 2003).

As a communication problematic, identity, according to Kirby and colleagues (2003), concerns the ways in which individuals (re)constitute themselves as family and workplace members and how they would describe and enact their life priorities. As such, identity is an ongoing process with different manifestations in different contexts. In work-family literature, it is linked to gendered understandings of and conflicts within work or family roles and realms (Kirby et al., 2003). When it is viewed as a discursive process, however, the focus changes to ongoing processes of negotiation by which individuals craft themselves as gendered and embodied (see Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000). Researchers have discussed how individuals form their understandings of themselves in relation to their work over time and how these identities shift as individuals face particular career and/or life changes. Some of these changes are workplace pregnancy and relationships with supervisors and subordinates, job loss, the processes of employment interviewing and organizational assimilation which under-represented members undergo, and midca-reer and/or midlife identity (re)constructions (Allen, 2000; Ashcraft, 1999; Buzzanell, 1999; Liu & Buzzanell, 2006; Meisenbach, 2004; Trethewey, 2000, 2001). Most of this literature describes tensions among varied identity contradictions as individuals attempt to resolve these contradictions.

As a metacompetency or essential facet of career construction, identity is viewed as “a higher-order capability that enables the person to acquire other skills” (Hall, 2002, p. 32), with identity growth and career effectiveness requiring the two elements of feedback about one’s self and self-awareness. Hall (2002) advocates the construction of a clear and internally consistent identity, saying that it “then, is a measure of wholeness—of how well integrated the person’s life is” (p. 133). Given Western mandates to know oneself and to focus on the coherent self as the source of career success, it is not surprising that Hall would consider identity as the most important aspect of career development from the individual’s viewpoint.

There are numerous theories about and means of assessing career identity awareness and (re)construction which typically advise individuals to know themselves and their central life interests or anchors as starting points to viable and satisfying careers (see Hall, 2002; Butler & Waldroop, 1999; Schein, 1990). However, recent counseling advice recommends that individuals not start with extensive self-analysis, but rather network with weak ties and try different kinds of work (Ibarra, 2003). Through the performance of possible identities, individuals can then craft different stories of their careers—particularly during times of transition—for different audiences (Ibarra & Lineback, 2005). The doing of career identity work involves individuals’ engagement in varied work activities and in iterative storying about their work, careers, and identity(ies). These and other materials from the literature on career counseling talk about forming career identities out of many possible selves using a winnowing process that then attempts to fix a coherent identity for a particular time and place. The focus is on appropriate person-career fit, identity coherence, and career counseling processes.

Besides discourses and prescriptions about routes toward personalized career identity work, communication researchers have explored another source of successful career identity constructions; namely, popular societal discourses. Holmer Nadesan (1999) found that self-help or popular success literature “promise[s] self-fulfillment through the consumption of products and through strategic identification with corporate identities and/or cultures” (p. 39). Lair and colleagues (2005) noted that popular discourses of personal branding offer routes to success in a turbulent economic environment. Yet, these and other materials on the new career promise success without consideration of detrimental consequences for women and others who cannot assume a universal standard (ideal worker, typically male) (Buzzanell, 1995, 2000; Lair et al., 2005; Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000). Identity is complicated by the management of invisible social identities, such as those formed through race, chronic illness, disability, sexual orientation, religion, and age (Clair, Beatty, & MacLean, 2005). In cases such as these, individuals appear to have choice in revealing their often stigmatized identities, but their identity struggles are much more complex than “choice” to reveal or “pass” would suggest (Lair et al., 2005; Spradlin, 1998).

In problematizing identity, we turn to communication researchers who have contrasted the search for “real” coherent selves advocated by many career theorists and self-help writers with the “fake” or inauthentic selves by which individuals perform career identities that are inconsistent with their personal feelings and interests but beneficial to their organizations (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005). Instead of promoting coherent real identity constructions, Tracy and Trethewey suggest that the poststructuralist image of a crystallized self might better capture the politicized and layered ways in which career, gender, race, discourse, and identity intersect. Embracing the shifting nature of identity(ies) can enrich and expand gendered discourses on career standards, occupational participation, and the crafting of productive career narratives.


We began this chapter by summarizing Summers’s (2005) remarks about women’s underrepresentation in science and engineering careers in institutions of higher education. In general, career developmental processes, practices, and consequences are gendered globally with inequitable career patterns situating women in less prominent, more care-giving, and less economically viable occupations and work-life choices (Burke, 2000; Maume, 1999; Townsley, this volume). As a result, Summers’s assumptions about women’s choices, socialization, and biological predispositions are replicated in gendered career patterns.

The issue, however, is not simply that many men and women have different career patterns that often disadvantage women. Rather, it is that career discourses are fundamentally gendered in subtle ways and that career research has insufficiently problematized career and its dimensions of time, space, and identity within their historical and gendered complexities.

Career discourses and practices are fundamentally gendered. Contemporary career materials encourage self-discipline, personal branding, use of self-help literature, development of enterprising careers, and adherence to the new employment contract as sensible approaches for sustained employability (Buzzanell, 2000; Fournier, 1998; Lair et al., 2005; Holmer Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000). However, the long-term consequences for individuals, families, and communities have not been broached fully in research or practice (Han & Moen, 1999; Kirby et al., 2003; Lucas & Buzzanell, 2006; Williams, 2000). Reflection on these trends indicates that they would disadvantage every workforce member (anyone who ever has dependents, who ages, whose appearance is not in top form, and who has illnesses or disabilities). Moreover, a focus on appearance, image, and 24/7 paid labor may divert attention from substantive career issues that warrant sustained attention. These issues include the use of economic criteria as the primary rationale for work-family decisions; an increasing economic divide between those with and without career resources and opportunities; the continuing sex segregation of occupations; and unfinished work on gendered equity in work and family practices, relationships, and policies (Bailyn, 2004; Fine, Weiss, Addelston, & Marusza, 1997; Gilbert & Brownson, 1998; Millman, 2005; Williams, 2000).

More expansive theory and research has constructed alternative career stories and models that all workforce members can embrace (see Arthur et al., 1999; Bailyn, 2004; Buzzanell & Ellingson, 2005; Gomez et al., 2001; Kirby & Krone, 2002; Lucas & Buzzanell, 2004; Mainiero & Sullivan, 2005). Taken together, these contradiscursive moves highlight intersections among discourse, gender, and career. They expand the career dimensions of time, space, and identity. They engage in dialogue about shifting career, gender, and professional identities and identifications. They can support the admissibility of arguments bridging work and life domains. They can encourage greater understanding of the career and life cycle intersections within particular contexts and for specific cohorts in societies. Finally, they contribute to the inclusion of the values, needs, and approaches of various workforce segments into career models, policies, and organizational practices. As these discourses and visions of inclusive career research and practice continue, they expand the ways in which people are active participants and initiators of change. These processes of gender and career transformation focus on incremental changes in micropractices through governmental policies as well as radical change in gendered relationships and organizing. They maximize the dialectical processes of agency by which positions and possibilities, discourse and materiality, masculinities and femininities, and power and resistance come into play (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004; McNay, 1999). It is this work to which communication researchers attend and to which they will continue to make distinct contributions.

Surfacing career assumptions and practices as fundamentally gendered is only an initial step in problematizing career (see MacDermid et al., 2005). We encourage further analyses of the three career dimensions in which gender inequities play out. These analyses should incorporate mixed methods and use different theoretical approaches to deal with the complexities of the gendered career. They also can help develop career communication research and interventions that address the interests and well-being of all workforce members.

Because career discourses and contexts change constantly, these problematizations should occur repeatedly over time and for each generational cohort. Data gathering and analytic approaches that have been underutilized in career communication research are the life history interview and the life course method (through which life choice patterns are studied as embedded in historical-social-political contexts and as constraining or encouraging agency). Researchers can use life history interviews and grounded theory to find out how individuals interpret their life course (sequence of roles and events as well as their enactment over time) within certain historical and sociocultural contexts (Bell & Nkomo, 2001). Questions of particular importance for life course researchers interested in gendered career communication are these: What accounts for social trends, norms, and ideals about a worthy life and career? How do individuals change cultural and gendered career scripts? How does each new cohort replicate and/or transform existing notions about career (see Giele, 1998)?

In short, by problematizing career, communication researchers can create awareness about assumptions, inequities, and potential solutions. They can reinforce an inclusive conceptualization of career as an expansive discourse through which work acquires coherence and meaning in individuals’ lives. Using our definition, researchers, practitioners, and organizational members can rearticulate career as a means of enhancing quality of work (and nonwork) life. We hope that future research from multiple disciplines, particularly communication, will respond fully and effectively to Summers’s (2005) attempt to be provocative when he said, “[My hypotheses] may be all wrong. I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said.”