The career patterns of women are different. Learn how and why.

career coaching career conversation career patterns Sep 13, 2022

Women’s career patterns have been found to be different to those of men. The New York Times Magazine coined the phrase “the opt-out revolution” to describe “the alarming talent drain of highly trained women, largely working mothers, who choose not to aspire to the corporate executive suite”. There are certain high profile women who appear to fit this description, for example, former Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg who quit after 14 years at the top. 


Interestingly, Sandberg is the same woman who earlier in life wrote the feminist book entitled “Lean In”, which encouraged other working mothers to simply “push themselves harder”. Hinsliff (2022) writing for the Guardian, wonders why Sandberg is now “leaning out”. In her words, Sandberg says she wishes to spend more time on feminist philanthropy, plus “parenting our extended family of five children”.

So what is going on? If we turn to the research on women’s career patterns, several models have been put forward to explain this “opt out” phenomena. For example, O’Neil and Biliamora (2005) put forward a three phase, age related model. They suggest that women broadly are motivated by different factors depending on the three different phases of life they identified. These are 1) early career (ages 24-35) which is the “idealistic achievement” phase, 2) mid-career (ages 36-45) which is the “pragmatic endurance” phase and 3) advanced career (ages 46-60) which is the “reinventive contribution” phase.

 What does this mean in practice? Women in the idealistic achievement phase (early career) will most likely base their career choices on “their desires for career satisfaction, achievement and success”. Women in this phase are most likely to have an “internal career locus”. This is a reference to the theory of locus of control by Rotter (1954). People can be broadly categorised as having a more internal or external locus of control. Locus of control refers to the extent to which people feel that they have control over the events that influence their lives.

Women in the pragmatic endurance phase (mid-career) are operating in “production mode” and “doing what it takes to get it done”. They operate relationally, “managing multiple responsibilities both personally and professionally.” This relational approach includes the greater likelihood of taking the needs of others into account when making decisions on their own career patterns. Lastly, women in the reinventive contribution phase (advanced career) are more driven by “contributing to their organisations, their families and their communities.” These women are more likely to acknowledge the influence of others in their career patterns, that is they show an “external career locus”.

 Mainiero and Sullivan (2005) propose another model to explain the career patterns of women. They call this “the ABC Model of Kaleidoscope Careers for Women”. In their words, “like a kaleidoscope that produces changing patterns when the tube is rotated and its glass chips fall into new arrangements, women shift the pattern of their careers by rotating different aspects in their lives to arrange their roles and relationships in new ways.”

Similarly to the previous model, Mainiero and Sullivan (2005) break down women’s careers into early career, mid-career and late career. The model includes the letters ABC because women, it is proposed, display a need for varying degrees of Authenticity, Balance and Challenge over the course of their work life. In the three different phases of women’s careers, the A,B and C factors are all there, but feature to greater or lesser extents, like a kaleidoscope which shows varying amounts of a fixed number of colours when rotated.

Again, what does this mean in practice? One predominant trait of women in the early career phase, is a focus on the C factor, that is “goal achievement and challenge”. This marries well with the “idealistic achievement” phase of the previous model. In mid-career, women predominantly struggle with the B factor, that is they “must cope with issues of balance and family/relational demands”. The predominant factor for women in late career is pursuit of the A factor, that is “questions of authenticity arise”.

Our own Hima Vaghani recently featured in the podcast The Human Revolutionaries Show[1] in which she talked about increasing diversity in the workplace including the need for organisations to acknowledge and adapt to the life stages of women. Hima says it should “not just be about the numbers” but about “tapping into the power of diversity”. Greater representation of women (and other under-represented groups) shouldn’t be done just because it looks good or is the right thing to do, but because it has real “business value”. Greater diversity in the workplace can “fuel innovation” and generate new ideas that can help to solve problems. To listen to this excellent podcast follow this link:

 So what can organisations do to be more female-friendly and retain their high achieving female workers over the lifespan? O’Neil and Biliamora (2005) say organisations need to “understand, recognize and support women’s career and relationship priorities” in order to retain talented professional women. Mainiero and Sullivan (2005) suggest organisations need to “completely redesign the way work is done in a way that supports work/life integration”. They must adopt “kaleidoscope thinking” and create “new, open-ended career paths for women and men.”

 How can we at The Careers Company help? We offer organisations career solutions to create healthier, happier and more productive workspaces for both genders. Check out our packages aimed at organisations here. Whether you are an individual or an organisation, the first step is to arrange a free discovery call with one of our coaches by clicking here.





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