A qualitative exploration of professional women’s career patterns

Choices and challenges: a qualitative exploration of professional women’s career patterns

Lona Whitmarsh

With the rapid changes occurring in the role of work in women’s lives, this research project was designed to examine the career planning, career decision making, and work history of women in both female-dominated and gender-neutral careers (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.-a). A qualitative analysis of structured interviews identified 6 emerging themes: variations of career/family patterns, career encouragers, career obstacles, personal compromises, career changes, and career decision-making patterns. Insights for strengthening the exploration process and strategies for supporting career management are presented based on the emerging themes.


In 2003, women composed almost half (47%) of the U.S. labor force (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, 2005). However, as Belkin (2003) pointed out, only a small percentage of women hold the top positions in their professions. Puzzling statistics included the fact that of the 1981, 1985, and 1991 female graduates of Harvard Business School, only 38% were working full time. Additionally, research conducted by Catalyst (2003) reported that 26%. of women at the cusp of the most senior levels in their professions did not want the promotion.

Although the study of gender differences in career behavior was limited in seminal career development theories, Cook, Heppner, and O’Brien (2002) suggested that current career development concepts continue to reflect male worldviews. These basic assumptions include a separation of work and family roles in people’s lives; a reverence for individualism and autonomy; the centrality of work in people’s lives; a linear, progressive, and rational nature of the career development process; and the structure of opportunity. Many contemporary researchers have called for new theoretical models to be developed to adequately address the uniqueness and complexity of women’s career development (Astin, 1984; Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987; Fassinger, 1990). Gottfredson (2005) has provided an alternative view of career development with an emphasis on gender appropriateness and status as critical developmental factors in career decision making. She asserted that young children initially hold positive attitudes toward all occupations. However, as the self-concept and accompanying gender identity develop, children begin to restrict occupational preferences to those identified as appropriate for men or women, “blacking out large sections of their occupational map for being the wrong sex type” (Gottfredson, 2005, p. 79).

Hackett (1997) identified core themes and issues that have emerged from recent investigations of gender differences, including gender role socialization, parental influences, multiple role issues, and support and barriers for career directions. An influential factor in the career orientation and aspirations of high school girls and college-age women is the critical role family members play in helping young women develop the self-efficacy necessary to pursue and persist in a career, particularly one with a math and science focus (Caldera, Robitschek, Frame, & Pannell, 2003; Ferry, Fouad, & Smith, 2000; Flores & O’Brien, 2002; O’Brien & Fassinger, 1993; Rainey & Borders, 1997; Zheng, Saunders, & Shelley, 2002). Zheng et al. also highlighted the importance of relationships with other influential adults, including high school counselors, for enhanced educational aspirations.

When we reviewed the U.S. Department of Labor (n.d.-a, n.d.-b) statistics to determine which careers were male versus female dominated, a surprising fact emerged. Several of the careers that had been labeled as male dominated in the past (i.e., careers in which more than 75% of the positions are filled by men [e.g., attorneys and physicians; U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.-b]) lost that ranking in 2002. Presently, enough women (29% of those employed as attorneys and physicians) have achieved these positions to make the category gender neutral. However, when careers that were female dominated were examined, there were no major changes; positions such as teachers, nurses, and social workers were still more than 75% female (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.-a).

Professional Women’s Career Paths

Another thrust of current research in career development has been the exploration of experiences of a cohort of women in a particular chosen career field. Chiu (1998) analyzed results of an earlier study of lawyers that explored self-reports of factors affecting career satisfaction. Women reported that the limitations for influence/promotion opportunity, financial rewards, and time demands negatively affected their satisfaction. Krakauer and Chen (2003) also explored these barriers confronting women in the legal profession, because of their underrepresentation in private practice law firms and higher level of exit from the legal profession. Burke and McKeen (1996) conducted similar research in Canada for managerial and professional-level women in corporate settings, focusing on employment gaps, interruptions in work history, and career satisfaction. In their study, participants with more employment gaps were less satisfied with their jobs and their careers, less involved in their jobs, and less optimistic about career prospects. Burke and McKeen concluded that organizations have equated a woman’s temporary break in employment with low commitment to career.

Dreher (2003) examined the glass ceiling, attempting to identify the factors that have reduced the motivation and opportunity for women to achieve positions in senior management in the corporate world. Studies focusing on female faculty members have found that women were more often in nontenure-track positions, were tenured and promoted more slowly, and were paid less than their male colleagues (August & Waltman, 2004; Harper, Baldwin, Gansneder, & Chronister, 2001; Hill, Leinbaugh, & Bradley, 2005; Winkler, 2000). August and Waltman likened “the early experiences of newly hired women faculty to being thrown into the deep end of the pool” (p. 189), a harsh, frightening plunge into this career culture for women.

Work-Life Balance Issues

The conflicts women have with juggling the responsibilities of full-time employment and family have been explored by Crosby (1987); Kaltrieder (1997); and Moen, Chesley, and Shore (1998). Betz and Fitzgerald (1987) reported that many women’s careers have been interrupted by choice to focus time and attention on the care of children. Alon, Donahoe, and Tienda (2001) identified amount, timing, and volatility of early work experiences as strong influences on young women’s labor force attachment. Jackson and Scharman (2002) responded to this research by studying “women who construct their careers to allow them to spend significant time with their children” (p. 181). They found that these women preferred family-friendly careers that required less than 30 hours of work per week and that allowed for flexible work schedules and significant family time.

The Present Study

Our interest in the topic of women’s career development has been fueled by our professional roles as academicians and counselors working with young women designing and launching their careers and with midlife women reentering and redesigning their career paths. The objective was to examine the similarities and differences in the career paths of women in female-dominated careers (defined as more than 75% female in U.S. Department of Labor [n.d.-b] statistical data) and women who made career choices that were gender neutral. By eliciting a work history of full-time employment, we expected to gain an understanding of the significant issues facing women from their initial career decisions through to their current careers.



Participants (N = 27) were women in the following positions: (a) teachers and social workers, who composed the female-dominated group (n = 10), and (b) professors, physicians, and attorneys, who composed the gender-neutral group (n = 17). They were identified as in the maintenance stage of their careers (Super, 1990), with the selection criterion of working a minimum of 7 consecutive years full time in their current career. Participants were identified through our network of associates at local universities, schools, and religious affiliations in the geographical area of a northern New Jersey university. Demographics of this population are provided in Table 1.


After a review of the literature and extensive discussion of current thinking on women’s career development, we designed an interview guide to examine women’s career paths, the factors that affected their initial choices, and current influences on their careers. It consisted of six major questions with several subparts for further exploration.

A videotaped pilot interview using the interview guide was conducted to ensure that all questions were clear, relevant, and comprehensible. All of the authors of the current article reviewed the videotape. Only minor modifications were made to the content and structure of the interview guide. The videotape was also used as a training device to ensure that each author of the current article would ask the questions in a standardized manner, ask follow-up questions to the same depth, and approach the interview process with congruent expectations.


All interviews were conducted by the researchers (the authors of this article) who were trained in the interview process and in qualitative research methods. Interviews were conducted in sites chosen by the interviewee. Participants completed an informed consent form, a demographic questionnaire, and a 60- to 90-minute face-to-face interview.

All interviews were transcribed, distributed, and interpreted by the authors of the current article. A grounded theory approach was used in which each transcript was read independently, and a set of themes emerged from readings of the data (Dick, 2005; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). A series of research analysis meetings was held to review these themes and reach consensus. Themes identified by at least three of the five authors of the current article were retained and reevaluated in successive readings. The final six themes resulted from this process.


After successive readings of the transcripts, we identified six themes: (a) variations of career/family patterns, (b) career encouragers, (c) career obstacles, (d) personal compromises, (e) career changes (between and within careers), and (f) career decision making.

Variations of Career/Family Patterns

Three life patterns describing the relationship between participants’ career and family lives were identified: (a) unitrack, a career/work history without the added role of motherhood; (b) sequential, an initial career/work history followed by an interruption for a focus on the responsibilities of motherhood with a reentry to career and the world of work; and (c) multitrack, the juggling of the expectations associated with full-time employment with the responsibilities of motherhood (e.g., brief maternity leave with no break in career path).

The unitrack theme described the career path of 5 participants: 4 professors and 1 teacher. Three of the professors volunteered no information to explain the decision-making process for their career path choice. One professor explained, “When I found out that I was unable to get pregnant, I decided to throw all of myself into my career, and that was when I decided to go back to school and get my doctorate.” One teacher explained that the choice was her husband’s preference, not hers.

The sequential pattern described the life/work experience of 11 participants: 8 in the female-dominated group and 3 in the gender-neutral group. The following comments of a teacher illustrate this theme:

I began as a high school English teacher. I left in the middle of my

last year to go to Alaska to sit in a little condominium while my

husband built the pipeline. It was really good timing, because I

would have been leaving to have my family anyway.

The multitrack pattern was the choice of 10 women in the gender-neutral group and 1 woman in the female-dominated group. One professor who chose to integrate work and family responsibilities stated, “I planned both of my pregnancies during the summer so that I was able to continue my teaching schedule. I used child care for times of my teaching schedule. I spent nights up to midnight doing my research.”

Career Encouragers

Research in the area of career development has indicated the importance of positive reinforcement from significant others in an individual’s life. In our study, two very different patterns of encouragement emerged. Women who had chosen a female-dominated career noted that in their early educational years, their parents sent strong messages that teaching and social work were excellent careers for women. Women who ventured outside of gender-circumscribed roles indicated that they received support and mentoring from outside of their families, including from educational professionals such as teachers, professors, and guidance counselors. They also noted that coworkers and bosses had played key roles in motivating them to achieve success in their current career paths. Many women from both the female-dominated and gender-neutral groups stressed the importance of receiving support from their spouses, a finding that suggests that successful dual-career marriages rely on a strong marital partnership in which responsibilities are shared.

Career Obstacles

For the women in our study, navigating the path to a successful career appeared to be a developmentally complicated process, requiring creative negotiation. The women in female-dominated careers did not cite any notable obstacles in their career paths. In striking contrast, the women in gender-neutral careers reported frequent and surprising barriers. A participant stated, “It was difficult having to experience the tenure process [and I] foolishly did not negotiate for tenure as part of my package when I accepted the new position.” These women indicated that they were not given the skills early in their careers to effectively manage workplace issues such as negotiating a promotion or dealing with sexual harassment.

Personal Compromises

Gottfredson (1996) described compromise as a significant process “as individuals often discover, when the time comes, that they will be unable to implement their most preferred choices” (p. 187). As a result of the demands of external reality, women often adjust career aspirations to provide a compatible match with marriage and family responsibilities. In the present study, the women in gender-neutral careers made personal compromises more frequently than did the women in female-dominated careers. A university professor, the first female faculty member in her department, gave up her position to accommodate her husband’s job relocation. A physician did not accept an offer for partnership in a medical practice because of her husband’s expressed “hatred” toward her potential partner.

Career Changes: Between and Within Careers

The new millennium has been described as a time in which the workforce will experience rapid transformations, requiring workers to be agile in their abilities to adapt to new positions with new responsibilities. The participants in our study demonstrated two patterns of change: (a) transition from one career to a different career, which describes the career change pattern of 7 of the 8 women currently working in gender-neutral careers, and (b) changes within a career from one position to a different position, which describes the career change pattern of 8 of the 9 women currently working in female-dominated careers.

The women who transitioned from one career to another launched their initial career in a female-dominated career field (e.g., teacher, secretary, paralegal) immediately after college or before completion of college. With encouragement from spouses, parents, and mentors, these women continued their education, embarking on a new phase in their professional lives by transitioning into a gender-neutral career. This pattern suggested that as these women enhanced their self-awareness, self-efficacy, and understanding of the world of work, they gained the confidence to launch a new career venture. One participant stated that as she successfully satisfied her responsibilities as a paralegal and observed lawyers in the firm, she began to realize that she had the cognitive skills and abilities to be successful as an attorney. Another participant, working as a learning disabilities consultant, was encouraged by her mentor to complete her PhD so she could obtain a faculty position to train learning disabilities professionals.

The pattern of change of the women in female-dominated careers was quite different and was characterized by intracareer change (e.g., teachers changing grade levels and school systems and accepting additional school-based responsibilities, social workers moving from working in mental health agencies to working in their own private practices). The exception to this pattern was a woman who began her career as a secretary in a financial brokerage house and who, after a divorce, returned to school for her MBA and started a career as a stockbroker. However, after a second marriage and a second family, she chose to return to school and launch a third career as a teacher, realizing through volunteer work that this was her career passion. All the teachers in this subgroup (n = 8) added new responsibilities to their teaching assignments, such as administrative tasks, to continue their own career enrichment experiences.

Career Decision Making

Career choice decisions occur during different developmental stages. Research focusing on this process for women is critical, because the career patterns of women have shown the continuance of a restricted range of career choices. In the current study, the women who chose female-dominated careers more often made career decisions based on early developmental experiences than did the women who chose gender-neutral careers. Additionally, the women who chose female-dominated careers reported the strong influence of mothers and other female relatives who were teachers.

In contrast, the participants who chose gender-neutral careers tended to explore varied career options and did not make a decision until later developmental stages. New career insights were gained through interactions with college classmates, professors, mentors, and bosses.


The participants’ career paths reflected the different choices made as these women negotiated decisions related to the centrality of work and family responsibilities in their lives. The majority of the women chose the life pattern of both career and motherhood. Whether a woman’s career fell within the female-dominated career choices or outside of them appeared to be a critical determinant in the decision to blend career with motherhood or to complete them sequentially. Several women in female-dominated careers indicated that they had been discouraged from pursuing gender-neutral careers because of significant others’ perceptions that women could not achieve success in these areas and successfully manage career and family responsibilities at the same time. These women achieved their personal goals of constructing a life that allowed personal time for child care responsibilities and successful reentry into their careers. In addition, they acknowledged substantial encouragement from supportive husbands and children. This group of women was able to make the decisions required to have their family as their primary focus. Participation in the world of work had to accommodate those decisions.

The women who combined work responsibilities with the demands of motherhood experienced various personal challenges while attempting to creatively construct a lifestyle that integrated their two personal spheres of work and home. They experienced various work-home conflicts as they juggled full-time employment and child care, often maintaining a stressful and demanding schedule that allowed very little time for personal care and activities. These women made decisions for career advancement that required compromises and adjustments in the area of home and family responsibilities.


One explanation for the differences between the women in the female-dominated and gender-neutral groups lies in the concept of self-efficacy. Bandura (1997) introduced this idea more than a decade ago and described it as follows: “Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (p. 3). It appeared that, compared with the women in female-dominated careers, the women in gender-neutral careers were better able to conceptualize and execute plans for a career outside of the norm; that is, they were able to see the possibility of becoming a lawyer, physician, or professor at some point in their lives and proceed along the demanding and long educational path to make it a reality. They seemed to possess a more developed sense of their own career-related self-efficacy, which enabled them to follow through and attain a gender-neutral career. Their better sense of career efficacy may be a result of having received essential support from family and educators. The participants in the gender-neutral group received many more messages of support from a range of family members, particularly from their fathers, who provided them with emotional (as well as financial) support and encouragement. This may in turn have strengthened their belief that a gender-neutral career was not only possible but likely. In contrast, the women in female-dominated careers only heard about and were encouraged to pursue careers that were considered acceptable for women. Their career options were much more constrained, and thus their career efficacy was less developed than that of the women in gender-neutral careers.

Societal Messages

The women in our sample believed that today’s society is much more receptive to the idea of women combining a career and a family than it had been in the past. They clearly stated that society sends a plethora of messages to women about their careers, many positive but often with a negative counterbalance. The participants described increased promotional and leadership opportunities, but they were tempered by the challenges of glass ceilings and mommy tracks. The women in female-dominated careers did not believe that a woman could balance the responsibilities of career and parenting young children, offering advice to young women consistent with their career/family decisions. Most participants stressed the importance of women gaining financial independence and becoming financially savvy because of such factors as the high rate of divorce and the likelihood of outliving one’s spouse. Reflecting on the significant influence of family in their lives, the women of this sample also encouraged young women to follow their dreams rather than those of their families. They stressed that young women should take time to “know themselves” and look inward to discover their strengths and personal interests.

The Second Shift

Regardless of career choice, most of the women in this study still came home to a “second shift” (Hochschild, 1989, p. 1); that is, they still bore the major responsibility for child care and homemaking chores (e.g., cooking, shopping, cleaning, social engagements). Physicians, professors, and lawyers, who described many demands, challenges, and obstacles in their career advancement, including tenure requirements and partner track expectations, accepted primary responsibility for the management of family and home.

Directions for Future Research

Jackson and Scharman (2002) have stressed that a qualitative analysis is never completed. As our research was being completed, we became even more aware of the rich opportunities for expansion and extension of the current study to other, more diversified populations. Future research may explore the patterns within the same career instead of across careers. Interesting areas of exploration include women in the corporate world who have broken through the glass ceiling or women in higher education who have broken through the “Ivy ceiling.” Also, important research questions include determining the career patterns and salient factors for women in clerical, administrative, minimum wage, or service-intensive positions.

Future studies focusing on a comparison with men in similar career arenas may yield significant themes related to career encouragers and career obstacles. Further research is also needed to examine the influence of career encouragers and career obstacles on a more diversified, multicultural cohort of women.

Implications for Career Counselors

Career counselors have a unique opportunity and responsibility to provide enhanced career exploration for young women. Our findings suggest that oftentimes girls experience an early foreclosure of their career options, which restricts their horizons to female-dominated careers. Paradoxically, rather than confirming early career decisions, career counselors need to provide experiences that expand the exploration process. Counselors can organize career showcases, develop mentoring programs, and distribute career educational materials for young women and their families.

There are also various assessment tools that can be used in the career counseling process to provide appraisals and interpretations that can help young women explore career options. Scharf (2002) suggested that the Myers-Briggs typology may be “particularly appropriate to understanding populations that may be oppressed, such as women and people from different cultural backgrounds” (p. 146). Scharf explained that these groups have often accommodated to societal messages about their status and position and have created a facade that is incongruent with their internal personal schema of interests, needs, and values. A critical task for young women is the exploration of personal needs for family and career. These needs can be assessed by using the Values Scale (Super & Nevill, 1986), which measures intrinsic and extrinsic values. Brown (1996) suggested that people’s work values are actually a component of their life values, which are constructed throughout the developmental years through the interaction of their genetic template and their varied, complex life experiences. The Values Scale assists women in developing innovative strategies to effectively balance choices related to family and career, which is essential for personal and career satisfaction. The Campbell Interest and Skill Survey (Campbell, 1992) can also be administered to complement the assessment process because the individualized profile report assists young women in seeing potential opportunities to link their skills and interests in the world of work.

After initial career decisions have been made, career counselors can continue to encourage successful career development by identifying sources of psychosocial support available to female clients, including professional women in the community and professional organizations. Research has demonstrated that individuals who are mentored advance more rapidly in their careers, earn higher salaries, are less likely to leave the organization, and express more favorable work attitudes than do individuals who are not mentored (Allan & Eby, 2004). Allan and Eby also reported that “mentors feel compelled to provide greater psychosocial mentoring to women, because they believe that women need (or want) the friendship and affirmation aspects of mentoring to a greater degree than men” (p. 130). As their female clients search, manage, or change careers, counselors can stress the importance of this kind of support and identify workplace personnel and professional coaches who can serve this vital role for women. In conclusion, career counseling for women needs to include frank and factual discussions about the embedded challenges in balancing home and work demands.


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Lona Whitmarsh, Donalee Brown, Jane Cooper, Yolanda Hawkins-Rodgers, and Diane Keyser Wentworth, Department of Psychology, Fairleigh Dickinson University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lona Whitmarsh, Department of Psychology, M-AB2-01, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, NJ 07940 (e-mail: whit@fdu.edu).

TABLE 1 Demographic Data of Participants (N = 27)

Type of Career

% Female % Gender

Dominated Neutral

Demographic (n = 10) (n = 17) % Total

Sample size 37 63 100

Marital status

Married 90 71 78

Divorced 0 24 15

Remarried 10 6 7

Age (years)

31-35 0 6 4

36-40 0 0 0

41-45 30 24 15

46-50 0 24 26

51-55 40 18 26

56-60 30 6 15

61-65 0 18 11

[greater than or equal to] 76 0 6 4


Caucasian 80 88 85

African American 10 6 8

Asian origin 0 6 4

No answer 10 0 4

Highest degree completed

Master’s 100 0 37

JD 0 24 15

MD 0 18 11

PhD 0 53 33

EdD 0 6 4

Childhood religion

None 10 6 7

Jewish 20 18 19

Catholic 40 24 30

Protestant 30 41 37

Hindu 0 6 4

Other 0 6 4

Current religion

None 20 6 11

Jewish 20 18 19

Catholic 30 19 22

Protestant 20 47 37

Sometimes Catholic 0 6 4

Hindu 0 6 6

Searching 10 0 4

Have children

Yes 90 76 81

No 10 24 19

Number of children

0 10 24 19

1 10 12 11

2 60 29 41

3 10 12 11

4 10 18 15

Number not given 0 6 4

Primary responsibility

for children’s care

Yes 40 41 41

No 10 0 3

No answer 30 35 33

Shared 20 24 22

Personal annual salary range

(not family’s income)

$25,000-$49,999 10 18 15

$50,000-$74,999 10 29 22

$75,000-$99,999 40 29 33

[greater than or equal to] $100,000 20 24 22

No answer 20 0 7

Salary as primary source of

family income

Yes 10 35 26

No 70 41 52

Shared 0 25 15

No answer 20 0 7

Other sources of income

Yes 30 41 37

No 50 59 56

No answer 20 0 7

Note. JD = doctor of jurisprudence or doctor of law; MD = doctor of

medicine; PhD = doctor of philosophy; EdD = doctor of education.

Percentages do not always equal 100% because of rounding.

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