Career as meaning making: a hermeneutic phenomenological study of women's lived experience
Elley-Brown, Margaret Jean
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The multifaceted nature of women’s careers has received growing interest in the career management literature. This research utilises hermeneutic phenomenology (Heidegger, 1927/2008) a methodology previously little used in management research, to illuminate previously unexposed aspects, of women’s career experiences within the perspective of their wider lives. Women’s careers are at the heart of this study, which contributes to the quest to reveal a more comprehensive picture of this complex dynamic. “Conversational” interviews were undertaken (van Manen, 1990), with a purposive sample of fourteen women aged between 30 and 61 years, working in the education industry. Using a minimum of direct questions, participants were encouraged to describe their career experiences in detail in a discussion co-led by participant and researcher. Phenomenology supports the view that people make sense of their world from within, from the “inside,” or the lifeworld (trans. Ger. lebenswelt). By enabling participants to re-establish contact with their original experiences, rich interview data for analysis were produced. Phenomenological anecdotes or evocative stories of the “lived experience” of women’s careers were crafted from the interviews. These were hermeneutically interpreted against the philosophical writings of Heidegger (1927/2008) and Gadamer (1960/1998), as informed by the human science approach to phenomenology outlined by van Manen (1990). Key findings include three overarching and intertwining themes, entitled, “Where have I come from” “Who will help me” and “Who am I becoming?” Using the dual concepts of Heidegger’s historicity (1927/2008) and Bourdieu’s (1977) habitus, this research reveals how sociological aspects of a woman’s life were crucial in shaping her career identity. An early disposition towards leadership and teaching was identified early in these women’s lives. A key finding was that limited cultural capital and habitus did not necessarily restrict; rather they tended to inspire. Women made sense and meaning of their present situation, and their future, by being conscious and aware of the influences of their past, their culture, and their heritage. A second theme concerns the impact of an ethic of care in these women’s lives (Gilligan, 1982). Heidegger (1927/2008) opined care is fundamental to our existence, it makes us feel more human; an argument embodied by the women in this research. Being shown care in their everyday existence meant these women had increased meaningfulness in their careers; it caused a positive change in their psychological state, and was instrumental in the development of career agency. In its imperfect state, its negative influence meant women became disillusioned and lacking in purpose. Strong ties with significant family members, particularly her mother or her partner, were found to be key to these women’s career confidence. Further her career often took precedence over that of her partner; these women did not opt out; they continued to seek challenge throughout their careers (Mainiero & Sullivan, 2005). The findings of this study reveal that being shown an ethic of care exposes the finely tuned balance of the intricate relationship between psychological and physical life passages (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). A third theme concerns women’s movement desire to be “true to themselves” and to seek authenticity (Hall & Mao, 2015). Women in this study were often non-conformists; they followed self-crafted individual pathways, and responded to a calling. They pursued educational opportunities throughout their careers, they desired to become increasingly masterful in their work, and to reach the highly desirable state of practical wisdom, Aristotle termed phrönesis (Sellman, 2012). For women in this study, their career had more expressed meaning when they could be true to themselves, follow their own pathway, and become increasingly reflective and masterful. The contribution of this study is empirical, methodological and theoretical. It adds to empirical knowledge by broadening the understanding of women’s career management and revealing facets of the relationship between subjective and objective career. By providing a detailed explanation of the methods used in this hermeneutic phenomenological study, it provides a guide to assist other researchers investigating careers. The three emergent key themes exist in an organic synergy, linked by time, by psycho-social and environmental factors. A tri-partite model based on the three identified themes is introduced as a step towards an emergent theory of women’s careers.