Career progress of various groups is one of the central concerns in organizations, occupations, and work. People choose careers for different reasons. Chief among them are occupational prestige, rewards, and prospects for advancement. People are constantly making conscious decisions on career progress in light of their own interests and circumstances. At the same time, multiple factors shape a person’s career aspirations and career trajectory.
The factors and circumstances leading to the career success of men may be different from those for women. Due to differences in historical experience, the educational and career opportunities that are available to men and women are invariably different. For example, in the United States, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in federally assisted education programs. This legislation has had the single most dramatic impact on the presence of women in the sciences.
The gender role socialization thesis has been used to account for gender differences in career orientations. Because of their traditional upbringing, men and women are inclined to choose different careers. For instance, school counselors may encourage male students to pursue science careers but advise equally talented female students to choose careers in nursing or teaching. Because of competing commitments to family and work, educated women may avoid positions with rigid career lines and prefer less demanding jobs. Compared with male workers, women are more likely to interrupt their careers owing to marriage and family responsibilities. This is probably why women are disproportionately found in part-time or temporary positions.
Employers’ stereotypical views of members of different groups (statistical discrimination, “profiling”), although reducing “information costs” may bias their hiring and promotion decisions. Employers may hold the (appropriate or inappropriate) belief that personal attributes such as race or gender are related to a person’s performance or productivity. These subjective judgments would have an impact on the employers’ hiring preferences. For example, because of family obligations, women are more likely than men to interrupt their careers and are therefore perceived as less dependable workers. To reduce training costs and worker turnover, employers would probably favor men over women, all else being equal. All this suggests that women are less likely than men to receive on-the-job training that is firm specific or to be put on the “fast track.”
Gender is also embedded in executive succession; not only does top management affect the selection of successors in an organization, but workers can also play an important role in leadership change. Employees of a company could potentially mobilize themselves to support or challenge an incumbent or an outsider for the executive position. Research has also suggested a conflict of gender and professional roles even for female bosses. For instance, the founder’s maternity leave could lead to workers’ collective effort to increase the firm’s independence and weaken the female founder’s role.
According to human capital models, productivity-enhancing factors are the key determinants in career attainment. Theoretically, there should be a positive correlation between human capital endowment and a person’s productivity. Based on “The more you learn, the more you earn” argument, those with higher investments in human capital, through education and training, are expected to fare economically and occupationally better than individuals with less human capital endowment. Research has shown that the effects of education, work experience, and professional training on career attainment may be weaker for female, minority, and immigrant workers. This is because they tend to have insufficient social capital.
Successful people tend to have the ability to build important, long-lasting relationships. They take bold and strategic actions to become part of the “old-boy” network. It is widely held that “who you know” (social capital) is generally more important than “what you know” (human capital) in career moves. The role of social networking on building one’s career cannot be overstated. Due to their marginal status in mainstream society, women, racial minorities, and foreign nationals have a more difficult time than do men, Whites, and natives in developing and expanding their network ties. Organizational memberships and cross-gender/racial networks can become critical when many job openings are filled by word-of-mouth.
The societal norm of homosociality tells us why women have difficulties in gaining entry into the old-boy network, a form of “social capital” that is essential for career advancement. Aside from similarity in background, men as well as women have more to gain professionally by associating more with men than with women, all things being equal. Due to their master status in the society, men generally have a greater control over a wide range of resources. By comparison, due to women’s subordinate role in the society and limited access to resources, they are in a weaker position to offer professional assistance or support to others. Men who associate with women as equals run the risk of being marginalized. As the gatekeepers of resources for career mobility, men become the preferred choice of social interaction and professional collaboration. In contrast, female networks are less useful. For one, women generally control fewer and less important resources in the society. This can be attributed to their not being part of a much larger pattern of a male, homosocial world. Women’s lack of resources and crucial information makes the “new-girl network” a less valuable asset relative to the old-boy network. In addition, it has been suggested that women tend to have a hard time building up their reputations in the workplace because male-initiated actions tend to be taken more seriously than those initiated by women. The same can be said about the relative status of racial minorities in the workplace. To make up for a deficit of social capital, members of minority groups may need to work harder to demonstrate their worth and to gain acceptance from their peers.
Researchers have also underscored the importance of language use and proficiency for minorities and immigrants in social networking. For both native- and foreign-born minority workers, the language network is one of the most important dimensions of human resources for career mobility. Members in the dominant culture can not only offer one another career information, support, and employment opportunities in mainstream society but can also shape each other’s attitudes, orientations, and approaches to career advancement. Being in an English-speaking network facilitates the assimilation of minorities into the mainstream and improves their career prospects. Conversely, participating in a predominantly non-English-speaking network suggests dissimilation and fewer opportunities for advancement in mainstream economy. For racial minorities, jobs obtained through segregated networks tend to have less desirable outcomes in terms of rewards, job security, and prospects for advancement. Most of the jobs in immigrant enclaves (i.e., areas with a high concentration of coethnic employers, workers, and customers) tend to be low paying and low skilled.
Being plugged into different channels is a crucial ingredient of career success for educated workers. Networking and sponsorship confer potential career benefits. For example, having a friend in the hiring firm is a decisive influence on salary negotiation outcomes, regardless of the job applicant’s racial background. An employed friend can provide sensitive information and influence in the hiring firm and in the negotiation process. Referral often results in favorable outcomes for the job seekers and employers in terms of job offers, satisfaction, performance, and turnover compared with those obtained through formal methods. Specifically, the exchange of informal information about the job or offers between job applicants and prospective employers via an intermediary reduces uncertainty and risks for both parties. All this suggests that young people should begin to cultivate communal and professional ties early on. They should attempt to build their reputations and gain access to different channels through relationships with peers, teachers, mentors, sponsors, or colleagues.
For women and racial minorities, finding something in common with the gatekeeper or sponsor, such as values or experiences, would be useful in career mobility. The notion of “homosocial reproduction” has been used to characterize the hiring or promotion of someone who has a background or characteristics similar to those of the employer. It is understandable that individuals are more comfortable having people around them who think and act alike. Despite having formal rules of selection and succession in a corporation, “people who are different” are less likely than “people who are similar” to be potential internal or outside candidates for executive positions. If there is an internal labor market for CEOs in a corporation, women and minorities are less likely to be contenders for the top posts. They are less inclined to be groomed as the heir apparent to gain on-the-job training, knowledge, and experience about the firm. The expression “glass ceiling” has been used to describe the artificial barriers against the mobility of women and minorities beyond a certain point in their careers. Thus, women and minorities generally are at a disadvantage in selection and succession, all things being equal. The accumulation of social capital would be an important means of circumventing these structural barriers.
To create the perception of similarity with the majority, women and minorities can develop social ties with members of the majority group. In addition to developing ties with coworkers, women and minorities ideally should have prior experience in functioning in a statistical minority role in decision making. Members of the majority who have experience occupying a statistical minority role in decision making can also enhance the influence of minority workers in organizational settings.
To build personal relationships or maintain support in workplaces, people can use “soft” (ingratiation and persuasion) or “hard” (coercion) forms of influence. The use of political or interpersonal influence tactics is contingent on one’s relative status and power in the organizational hierarchy. People can rely on their specialized knowledge or technical expertise to maintain control over decision-making outcomes. On the other hand, they may use friendship ties with peers and superiors to obtain political backing or minimize challenge in decision making.
Careers can be conceived of as a sequence of competition: The winner advances to the next level for further competition, while the loser is denied the opportunity to compete for higher levels. According to this “tournament” model, the outcome of each competition has enormous implications for a person’s chances for mobility in subsequent selections. This system may eliminate some very talented workers from advancing to the top, perhaps especially young female workers who are expected to demonstrate their abilities and achieve their best performance at a time when they are most pressed with family and domestic responsibilities.
Combining career, marriage, and family responsibilities poses a challenge for professional women. It is nonetheless possible for women who are highly committed to family to pursue career success. Such individuals tend to have supportive spouses and enjoy reliable child care assistance from relatives or hired employees. For example, it is not necessary to take the linear career path by giving priority to work in order to achieve success. There is more than one way for young people to get ahead. In fact, the traditional, single-minded focus on career is losing its appeal to a new generation of workers. There is a growing desire for a balance between personal and professional lives among young male and female workers alike.
Being at the right place is also essential for career advancement. First, career prospects can be affected by structural arrangements in the workplace. Women and racial minorities may perform better and have better opportunities for advancement in bureaucratic settings where guidelines for job assignments, evaluations, and promotions are more formalized. Furthermore, compared with the private sector, the government may be more committed to recruiting, retaining, and promoting members of underrepresented groups. Civil services offer well-educated women and minorities job security and attractive employment opportunities. There is also greater sanction for affirmative action at higher levels of government.
Second, organizational cultures have a strong bearing on career processes and outcomes. The impact of workforce diversity on productivity or performance is context dependent. In academic settings, women in “relational departments” tend to fare better occupationally than their counterparts in “instrumental departments.” Relational departments have a positive influence on one’s career because their culture is characterized by cooperation and collegiality. This kind of atmosphere encourages collegial interaction and communication. In contrast, instrumental departments can have a negative impact on women’s careers because their culture is characterized by competition and hierarchy. This kind of departmental culture discourages intellectual exchanges and fosters professional isolation among female faculty. Therefore, instrumental academic departments can be detrimental to women’s career development. Similar situations are observed in other settings. Demographically different people are more affected by organizational culture than are demographically similar people. Collectivistic organizations promote creativity and productivity among diverse workers. Despite their demographic differences, workers in these settings share common organizational interests. In contrast, organizations that emphasize individualism and distinctiveness minimize interaction and collaboration among diverse workers.
Third, restructuring and downsizing have calibrated the relationship of workers with their employers and the job markets. Recent trends of external outsourcing and proliferation of contingent work have profound implications for the prospects of workers at entry-level positions and upper-level management.
Uncertainties in the markets have compelled employers to reduce fixed costs (e.g., job- or firm-specific training, wages) and to increase flexibility of the workforce (e.g., contingency work, subcontracting). Lifetime job security, attrition based on seniority, and job ladders are a thing of the past. Workers who are able to cross organizational boundaries, to handle complex and interdependent projects, and to operate in team-based environments would be assets to any organization. On the other hand, workers have become less attached to and less identified with their organizations, and employers are less inclined to make investments on upgrading the skills of the workforce. Internal development of employees is less common when more advanced and different skills can be acquired easily from external markets. As a result, it is not uncommon for individuals to self-manage their careers as subcontractors or entrepreneurs.
In sum, to cope with market and technological changes, one is expected to be self-motivated, independent, and innovative. Upwardly mobile people augment their skills and knowledge through self-education and training. For free agents, building up “reputational” capital (i.e., resume enhancement) is of paramount importance in an increasingly competitive labor market. Even for entry-level clerical jobs, there is a rising demand for basic “hard” and “soft” skills. Many of these jobs are customer oriented and require competent use of computers as well as good communication and social skills. Thus, regardless of the types of jobs, applicants or incumbents need to continuously enhance their credentials, such as education, training, work experience, and references.
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