Class Matters: The Role of Social Class in High-Achieving Women's Career Narratives

by Judith A. Clair, Kathleen L. McGinn, Beth K. Humberd, and Rachel D. Arnett

Overview — This analysis of interviews with 40 female executives and entrepreneurs highlights five distinct types of career narratives that high-achieving women employ to explain their own career success. These narratives vary with the women’s family-of-origin social class. Among its contributions to practice, the study sheds light on the diversity of approaches possible in a successful career.

Author Abstract

Our study explores the career narratives of women from diverse social class backgrounds as they describe how they ascended to elite organizational roles despite severe gender underrepresentation. We illuminate the varied ways that high-achieving women understand and retell their career stories, identifying five broad approaches to narrating their ascent against the odds: serendipity, competence, social ties, maneuvers, and aggressive action. We demonstrate the role that social class origins play in shaping the career narratives of these high achieving women. Women from lower social class backgrounds employ highly agentic narratives to fuel their success against the double obstacles of gender and class. In contrast, women from middle- and upper-class origins were constrained in their use of agentic narratives and were more likely to describe their success in terms of serendipity. The present findings shed light on the variation in women’s career narratives and demonstrate that some women deviate significantly from gender stereotypes by narrating their success using extreme levels of agency typically associated with men.

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