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Career horizons for women

‘The possible’s slow fuse is lit
By the imagination’
— Emily Dickinson (Franklin, 1999: 608)

When back in the 1990s I started doing research into women’s careers I was struck by how many respondents apologized for not having had a ‘career plan’ or indeed for not having a career at all. When I returned to these respondents seventeen years later I was curious about what had happened to their dreams, and wondered if they had been fulfilled, or somehow shattered. However, I soon realised that these were all the wrong questions, based on assumptions about women having long-term, guiding visions that either work out or fail. But it wasn’t like that. Many spoke of luck, of falling into their careers, and of being in the right place at the right time – or the wrong place at the wrong time. Such explanations might have served to highlight diffidence or modesty that is seen as socially desirable or to explain trajectories that respondents felt were more meandering than purposeful. Or it could be that in a society that values goal orientation and strategic decision-making, the lack of a clear end-point is a bit embarrassing. However, without clearly articulated plans and dreams, the achievement of these visions was a moot point.

Instead, the stories I heard were about how the women continuously responded to their changing contexts, making a myriad of incremental adjustments as the structures, cultures, and ideologies that informed their choices evolved. Most did mention moments of success or failure, such as Rachel finally being able to move her law firm out of her front room, or Silvia whose hotel business suddenly ground to a halt as foot and mouth disease swept through the English countryside. But no one spoke of her career as a delineated, bounded entity that could be fixed or judged in its entirety.

Highlighting the idea of organizational strategy as emergent (in contrast to conventional wisdom of the day which saw it as wholly rational), Henry Mintzberg drew on the metaphor of the potter. Without a clear picture of the final product, she uses her accumulated skill, knowledge, and touch to mould her pots, watching them take shape beneath her hands:

At work the potter sits before a lump of clay at the wheel. Her mind is on the clay but she is also aware of sitting between her past experiences and her future prospects. (Mintzberg, 1987: 66)

Portrait of a female executive by International Information Program (IIP). CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr

Neither the potter nor the women in my research experiences unfettered choice; their horizons are not limitless and neither pots nor careers can look any way or be anything. Rather they are circumscribed, constrained, and enabled by what is seen to be possible at any given time. Given this moving, emergent picture, better questions would have been: How did respondents understand careers, where did these ideas come from and how did they envisage their own career-making within this broad landscape? To answer these questions I propose a new concept: the career imagination.

The career imagination attends to the idea of career as both a social and an individual process, cast and re-cast in the flow of time and across space. As my respondents narrated their careers, in 1993/4 and again in 2010, they painted rich and detailed pictures not only of what they did or the way they did it (or indeed what they were inclined to do), but also of the understandings that these actions, or propensities for action, were based on. I am calling these pictures the career imagination. It is a cognitive construct, articulated discursively, that defines and delimits what is possible, legitimate and appropriate, prescribing its own (sometimes competing) criteria for success. It is a local accomplishment, a product of a particular time, place and social circumstance, informed by experience and history.

Part of what I like about the term ‘imagination’ is its ordinariness. Situating the concept firmly in daily life gives it salience and purpose. Indeed, I find myself referring to career imagination, not just in academic discourse, but also in everyday conversations – unexceptional talk about, say, my parents’ working lives or what my own children see as their future possibilities. However, while this commonsense appeal is a great strength, it is also raises concerns precisely because in the course of our day we use the term in such diverse, even contradictory ways. On one hand we use imagination to refer to flights of fancy, thoughts that transcend everyday experience and understandings and take us to new places and untrammelled possibilities. My data contained many such examples, like Anthea who said she had always wanted to pan for gold! However, I am not using the term in this sense. The career imagination is a bounded concept, defining the limits of what a person sees as possible in career terms, and in so doing, also what is impossible.

As respondents considered what careers look like and how their own careers might be construed, they spoke of occupations and the trajectories they prescribed, underpinning values, the connection between career and other aspects of life. They reflected on the material rewards and career identities that their working lives might bestow upon them.

Although the concept connotes dynamism, it does not discount the many enduring elements in respondents’ (or indeed in any of our) stories. Thus old ideas don’t simply disappear as new ones come to the fore, but rather the career imagination continuously expands, accommodating, sifting, and sorting possibilities. It can thus be seen as a repository of history and experience, and a product of its particular time and place. Like the potter whose products carry traces of the past as she works in the present and into the future, it is at once steeped in the past, but alive to current contingencies and mindful of the things to come.

Headline image credit: Always standing, always reaching out by Broo_am (Andy B). CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr

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