Older professional women's views on work: a qualitative analysis.

Author:Whiston, Susan C.

This qualitative study reports on the career experiences of older professional women using consensual qualitative research. Thirteen women over age 50 were interviewed regarding the influences of gender and age on work. In general, all participants reported career adaptability, and many participants also reported specific subthemes of career adaptability (i.e., concern, control, curiosity, and confidence) as resources. These subthemes denote participants' future orientation, self-discipline as evidenced by their conscientiousness in career decisions, active information seeking, and certitude that they have the ability to solve career-related problems. Relationships with colleagues were also considered critical, and participants acknowledged the benefits and drawbacks of being a woman and being older. These women were able to achieve flexibility and autonomy in their work and spoke about the importance of work-family balance and boundaries. Practitioners are encouraged to consider how career adaptability is manifested within the interplay between gender and age, because this can influence career counseling with older women.

Keywords: aging, older women, career development, career adaptability


The number of older workers in the United States has increased in recent years and projections indicate that by 2018 nearly a quarter of all workers will be age 55 years and older (Toossi, 2009). Brewington and Nassar-McMillan (2000) asserted that older workers face a multitude of work-related concerns and that this population should be of interest to career counselors. Robson, Hansson, Abalos, and Booth (2006), however, contended that career theorists have neglected the career development of older workers. Although there has been significant interest in the career development of women in the past 30 years (Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987; Walsh & Heppner, 2006), in their review of older workers, Hansson, DeKoekkoek, Neece, and Patterson (1997) found very few studies related to the experiences of these women. Because the population of workers in the United States is increasingly female and over the age of 50 years, research is needed to understand the working lives of older professional women in the labor force. The purpose of the present study was to explore the experiences of older professional women by using qualitative methods to identify themes used to describe their working lives.

Life-space theory (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996), one of the few career theories that address older adults' life-span, espouses a perspective on careers as developing over the entire human life cycle. Maintenance--the career stage that includes the developmental tasks of sustaining, keeping up, and innovating--is typically associated with individuals who are 45 to 65 years of age. This can be a renewal period in which the individual updates skills and knowledge or discovers new challenges (Super et al., 1996). In career construction theory, Savickas (2002, 2005) updated and advanced Super et al.'s (1996) seminal theory by using social constructionism as the metatheory in which to reconceptualize vocational development. According to Savickas (2005), "career construction theory, simply stated, asserts that individuals construct their careers by imposing meaning on their vocational behavior and occupational experiences" (p. 43). A focus of the present research project was to examine the meaning that older professional women attribute to their work and current career stage. Savickas's (2013) career construction theory has three major components: vocational personality, life themes, and career adaptability. Career adaptability emphasizes the coping processes individuals use to connect social roles and construct their careers. Whereas vocational personality addresses what career an individual constructs, career adaptability deals with how an individual constructs a career. The current study investigates how older women construct their careers.

McMahon, Watson, and Bimrose (2013) suggested that a systems perspective should be applied when conceptualizing the career development of older women. The systems theory framework (Patton & McMahon, 2006) applies a systemic model (see Bronfenbrenner, 1994) contextually to career development consisting of interconnecting layers that include the individual, social, and environmental-societal systems (McMahon et al., 2013). The addition of a systems theory framework is novel within the career literature because the conceptualization of the worker moves beyond her individual experiences and considers the interplay between systems within her immediate surroundings and macrosystemic influences, such as politics, the employment market, and globalization. Similar to Bronfenbrenner's (1994) inclusion of the chronosystem, this model also considers the passage of time as a factor that affects the career development of older women workers (McMahon et al., 2013). The chronological impact of multiple systems is an important consideration when contextualizing the career development of older women, who may have been affected by societal forces in different ways at different times. The present study investigates older women's viewpoints regarding current influences on their work and considers systemic influences on the meaning that older women attribute to their careers.

In one of the few studies that has focused on the career development of older women, McMahon, Watson, and Bimrose (2012) used a grounded theory approach to study the career adaptability of women between the ages of 45 to 65 years. Focusing on career transitions, they found that, across all participants' stories, career adaptability was evident in periods of transition and also in other facets of the participants' careers. Their findings indicate that career adaptability is deeply contextually embedded at many levels and represents a recursive interplay of women workers, their social networks, and the broader sociopolitical systems in which they live. They also found that the specific construct of career adaptability manifested itself differently in the stories of the various older women. Finally, McMahon et al. (2012) discovered that the five subcategories of career adaptability (i.e., concern, control, curiosity, confidence, and cooperation) were not coded equally across the participants and there was variation in the frequency reflected in the participants' stories. McMahon et al. recommended additional inquiry related to the career development of older women.

Our study expands on the work of McMahon et al. (2012) in three ways. First, we used a different population. Our sample was from the United States, not from Australia, England, and South Africa, and comprised only professional women. Second, our focus was not on older women's career transitions, but on their current work situation and career issues. Third, we incorporated consensual qualitative research rather than grounded theory. Our study also was influenced by both career construction theory (Savickas, 2013) and a systems theory framework (Patton & McMahon, 2006). Our analysis of the vocational experiences of older professional women addressed three research questions. First, how do older women describe and attribute meaning to their current work and career stage? Second, what factors influence the career decisions and development of older women workers? And third, how do age, gender, and relationships influence the working lives of older women?


Research Design

The present study was conducted using the consensual qualitative research (CQR) method (Hill et al., 2005). CQR is appropriate when researchers want to collect consistent data across individuals with the intent of a thorough and in-depth examination of individual experiences. CQR varies from other qualitative methodologies in that the consensus process in data analysis is central. This approach is based on the assumption that complex constructs can be understood more fully from multiple perspectives and levels of awareness. CQR involves multiple judges that take an inductive or bottom-up approach to data analysis in which results emerge from the data. Because of the inherent biases that can occur in attempting to make meaning out of people's narratives, CQR requires a team of judges to analyze the data and come to consensus on the results.


Thirteen women from a midwestern state who self-identified as professionals participated in the study. Hill, Thompson, and Williams (1997) contended that, to intimately understand the studied group, researchers using CQR should narrowly define their selection criteria for participants. Therefore, we restricted our study of older women to those over 50 years of age, which is consistent with the sample used by August and Quintero (2001). In terms of denoting professional occupations, we selected the commonly used criterion of having a college degree. All 13 participants were over the age of 50 years, with an age range of 50 to 66 years (M = 59.62, SD =4.84) and all had college degrees (eight with a master's degree or less and five with a PhD or a JD). Eleven reported their ethnicity as European American, whereas two identified as African American. Participants who were not over 50 years of age, did not have a college degree, or were not working full time were eliminated from the study. The occupations reported by the participants were attorney, systems analyst, coding specialist, professor of astronomy, executive vice-president, social worker/art therapist, art teacher, professor of music theory, professor of biology, museum director, clinical nurse specialist, city attorney, and case manager. We recruited the participants primarily using a snowball sampling technique, in which participants recommended other potential participants who were then contacted to see if they were willing to be interviewed (Noy, 2008).


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