Journey to the top: are there really gender differences in the selection and utilization of career tactics?

Author:Laud, Robert L.


There exists extensive research on career success characteristics, yet focused upward mobility studies are few and results have been inconclusive and often contested (Barrick & Zimmerman, 2009; Carter & Silva, 2010; Groysberg, 2008; Harris, 2008; Kelan & Jones, 2010). Moreover, researchers have noted that many gender questions regarding management success have gone unanswered and have repeatedly called for comparisons of how men and women in similar career situations create their upward journeys and what differences are exhibited (Gottfredson, 2005; Kirchmeyer, 1998; Powell & Mainiero, 1992; Whitmarsh, 2007). There is little empirical or theoretical support that provides an understanding of how males and females organize and formulate their career tactics on their ascendancy. To address this issue, our research provides empirical data specific to gender tactic selection and offers further theoretical insights into this dynamic. In addition, the findings have practical application that will contribute to the career strategies developed by both men and women.

Previous studies have largely explored pre-hire predictors or antecedents of career progression which emphasize factors that are established primarily prior to employment, but do not reflect the situational shifts and subsequent tactics that either males or females may exploit. The career literature on these career antecedents is extensive and includes factors such as demographic data, e.g., age, gender, race (Judge, Cable, Boudreau & Bretz, 1995; Kelan & Jones, 2010; Tharenou, 2001;); industry strength and profitability, e.g., (Bell & Straw, 1989; Eby, Butts & Lockwood, 2003; Siebert, Kraimer & Liden, 2001); and more psycho-social investigations, e.g., Big 5 personality dimensions, trait approaches (Boudreau, Boswell & Judge, 2001; Daft, 2008; Kirkpatrick & Lock, 1991; Stogdill, 1974); proactive personality traits (Seibert, Kraimer & Crant, 2001); and career and organization commitment (Sturges, Conway, Guest & Liefooghe, 2005; Sturges, Guest, Conway & Mackenzie Davey, 2002). However, these important studies provide little insight into those factors or tactics that can be controlled by individuals and modified against changing circumstances. And what few studies there are on upward mobility do not offer sufficient theoretical insight with regard to male-female differences (Whitmarsh, 2007). Further, within the growing body of research on women's careers there seems an overconcentration on barriers to advancement and work-life issues (Greenhaus & Foley, 2007; Kottke & Agars, 2005;). As women assume a greater percentage of managerial and professional positions, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports as over 51% in 2009, along with increasing economic power, there has been a call for new models of career development that more fully explain the multi-dimensional complexity of upward mobility actions, apart from prede-termanants (Kirchmeyer, 1998; Whitmarsh Browm, Cooper, Hawkins-Rogers & Wentworth, 2007).

Career Success

There exists a wide variety of definitional constructs applied to career success. Research on predictors includes demographic data, social capital, work orientation, and industry and organizational characteristics (Judge et al., 1995). Success, based upon this model, would include both objective and subjective measures. The objective measures may include compensation, title, level, and number of promotions. The subjective measures are focused on both work and life satisfaction as perceived from the viewpoint of the career player. Satisfaction measures, as well as predictors, have been subject to issues of standardization and have been contested (Ballou, 2010; Hall and Chandler, 2005).

The definition of success has been of great interest to scholars, career researchers, counselors, career aspirants, executives and organizations for many years. However, the definition has been elusive and has fluctuated according to interpretations of various career scholars and changing conditions over time (Gunz and Heslin, 2005). Contemporary career theory expands the complexities of success criteria to include the interdependencies of objective and subjective criteria, changing demographics, cultural shifts, family reconfigurations, new career models and evaluation criteria (Heslin, 2005). Conceptually, career success can be viewed along a continuum with subjective criteria at one end and objective at the other. The subjective criteria focuses on the accomplishment of personal goals, work-life balance and self-selected dimensions of work that the individual considers meaningful and from which they receive personal satisfaction (Hall and Chandler, 2005). One challenge in determining subjective success criteria exists relative to scaling and standardization. For example, there may be a range of personal goals within work-life balance. Some individuals may focus on maximizing time with family, while others may consider success as having access to corporate fitness centers. Alternatively, at the other end of the continuum are the objective criteria and measurements for items generally tangible and easily measured such as compensation, job level, title, and span of control.

There are other issues, however, in interpreting career success that exists towards the middle of the continuum. Here we can find individuals who may report high levels of individual work-life satisfaction (subjective criteria), but low levels of compensation satisfaction (objective criteria). The converse is also possible. For example, executives may be satisfied with high levels of compensation, but unsatisfied with the demands of a high-pressure job. This issue also brings into play other psychological nuances of causality whereby objective outcomes such as high pay may "spillover" or influence subjective criteria causing the individual to accept a situation as more positive than what it might otherwise appear (Arthur, Khapova and Wilderom, 2005).

Contextual factors are also becoming more central in a tumultuous market where career aspirants no longer have psychological contracts and careers are sharply impacted by globalization, demographic shifts, technology changes and political upheaval. These issues and the associated lack of job security have created an emerging workforce which is more independent and where job loyalty and satisfaction or success is more fleeting. This has led to a series of alternative career paths with new career labels such as protean, kaleidoscope, boundaryless, hybrid and forced entrepreneurship (Sullivan and Baruch, 2009). These events have caused a shift in employee attitudes towards of both men and women. Difficult economic times and increasing life-spans have forced more dual-career couples into the marketplace. Single parent providers are also on the rise along with a recognized need for continuous education in order to remain competitive. Career players have become less dependent upon organizations that can't meet both economic and psychological needs. Leaner and flatter organizations leave fewer opportunities causing individuals to take control of their own circumstances by developing a highly comprehensive skill sets to facilitate career advancement, not just deeper job knowledge (Clark and Patrickson, 2008). Thus, individual differences in the ability to anticipate change coupled with the use of multiple tactics appropriate to the situation may account for individual success (Graysberg, 2008; Kipnis & Schmidt, 1988; Laud and Johnson, 2012).

Some researchers have argued that the process of female advancement has been largely dependent upon variables or job antecedents outside the control of most women (Tharenou, 2001; Tharenou, Latimore & Conway, 1994). Examples would include structural factors at a societal level such as gender-linked occupations, gender-linked career ladders, gender-linked selection practices and training, and gender-linked early association e.g., parents' employment (Ragins & Sunstrom, 1989, Tharenou, 2001). It would appear from this perspective that women, as well as men, may be relegated to an almost passive existence once they enter certain organizations and both may be more impacted by external structural forces as opposed to personal capability (Nabi, 1999). However, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (2009), the higher level positions in the labor force, i.e., managers, professionals and related positions are now dominated by females, 51.4%, although they only comprise 46.7% of the workforce suggesting that other factors other than structural may be impacting career advancement. For example, researchers have offered evidence that personality characteristics are strong determinants of career success, whether male or female, and, in particular, proactive personality coupled with career-related actions over an extended period of time will have a positive cumulative outcome on career progression (Siebert, Crant & Kraimer, 1999). Tharenou (2001) suggests that certain quasi-structural factors such as education and technical knowledge may play a larger role for women at lower organizational levels while subjective social factors such as networking may be necessary for advancement at other stages, similar to the actions of their male counterparts. With more women entering a quickly changing work environment and having equally impressive credentials and level of ambition as their male counterparts, the use of multiple career advancement tactics becomes more necessary for career success. This study focuses on career success based upon objective criteria related to upward hierarchical advancement as determined by title and position level.

Introduction to the Study

Based upon the several issues discussed above, this study seeks to expand our understanding of how men and women prioritize, organize and potentially differ in their selection of tactics and actions during their career ascendancy. This...

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