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The Lived Experience of Work and

Career: Women Whose Parents

Lack Postsecondary Education
Melinda M. Gibbons
Marianne Woodside
Christine Hannon
Jeffrey R. Sweeney
John Davison
There is a dcarrh ofrCSC;lfCh exploring the can::c r and work dcvclopmcnr of ad lilts
and the influence offumily of origin 011 that dcvdopmt::llt. In ('his qualitative study,
the authors llsed a phenomenological approach to examine the career and work
experiences of women whose parents have 110 education beyond high school and
the influences of famil y on th!:sc npcricnccs. findings n:vt:akd 5 invariant themes,
or cons[imcms, th.lI shaped the npcricnccs of these women: being a d;wglltl:r/
woman, supporr and encouragement, what matters, why I chose, and limits and
options. Perseverance was found to be a related underlying component, or essence .
Authors pn:scllt implications for working wi t h ;tdult women whose
parents bck postsecondary education.
As of2007, 86.4% of adult women had at least a high school diploma, and
28% had earned at least a bachelot's degree (National Center lor Education
Statistics) 2008). first-generation college students, or those studems whose
parents lack postsecondary education, account for about 16% of all 4-ycar
college students (Capriccioso, 2006) and 45% of all community college
snldents (Nomi, 2005). Many children of adults without a coll ege degree
arc not entering postsecondary education. Also, diHerences exist between
students whose parents have advanced education and those whose parents
do not (Gibbons, Borders) "Viles, Stephan, & Davis, 2006; Nunez &
Cuccaro-Alamin) 1998). This study describes the work and career expeli -
ences of adult women whose parents lack any formal education beyond high
school and explores the influence of 1mily of origin on those experiences.
According to Sharf (2010), work is defined as a "purposeful activity
to earn money or other reward and possibly to produce a product or
service to others" (p. 3), whereas career is a more general term describ-
ing the "roles individuals play over their lifetime" (p. 3) . We used both
terms interchangeably in our interviews for this study to create an easy
understanding of what we were asking ofthe participants. Because of the
phenomenological methodology lIsed in the study, however, participants
defined these terms in their own ways) and we provided no information
to t hem t hat might alter t heir perceptions of these terms.
Melinda M. Gibbons, Marianne Woodside, Christine Hannon, Jeffrey R. Swcc-
ney, and John Dapis01l, Departme'nt of Educational Psychology and CouHseling,
Unipcrsity of Tennessee, K1wxpille. Correspondence concerning this article should
be addressed to Melinda M. Gibbous, Department of Educational Psychology and
Counseling, University of Twnessee, 441 Claxtoll Complex, Knoxville, TN 37996
(e-mai/: mgibbo1J2@utk. edu).
() J OII l>y rhe National Catc<.'r De\'dopmmt Associ.uioll. All Tescn't:d.
The Career Development Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59 315
As appropriate with qualitati ve methodology, and specificall y phe-
no menology. it is important to understand what drives the researchers'
interest in the phenomena studied (Wertz, 2005 ). The first two authors
were primarily involved in both selecti ng the topic and analyzing the
data. The first author has an interest in first-generation college students
and wanted to continue research on this population. She is interested in
how the lived experiences of these adults might inform dlOSC working
with younger members of this group. She aJsa has an interest in career
counseling and how to incorporate the unique experiences of individuals
into practice. The second author comes to this topic primarily from an
interest in phenomenological inqui ry as a way to understand mo rc deeply
the experiences of others. She is also interested in how this information
relates to psychological principles and to counseling others and is commit -
ted to understanding those with less access to educational opportunities.
Women and Career Development
_ ______ _
The caree r development of women represents a significant focus in the
ca reer literature during the last 20 years. A shift offoclls occurred from
why women work to the role of work in the lives of culturally diverse
women (Phillips & Imhoff, 1997). Loveland, Buboltz, Schwartz, and
Gibson (2006 ) found that nearly 13% of all published articles in The
Career Development Q;tarterlyduring a 1 O-year period were abollt women
in the workforce. Previously, less than 2% of articles in the journal were
specifically about women. In addition, recent statistics show that women
make up nearl y half of the workforce and that number is expected to
rise in the next 10 years ( Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009).
Researchers have focused on various issues affecting women and their
career development including dual-career status (Shahnawaz & Ali, 2007),
multicultural factors and career (Gushue & Whitson, 2006; Lopez &
Ann-Yi, 2006) , nontraditional careers (Sax & Bryant, 2006), and career
decision-making selfeffi cacy (Quimby & O'Brien, 2004). Generally, the
results show that marital status, ethnicity, socioeconomi c status, and
career choi ce directly affect the career development of women.
Another focus is the role of family on career development. In their
literature review, Whiston and Keller (2004 ) identified several trends
related to women and career development. Parents influence the career
choices of girls and boys, especially prior to adolescence. For teenage
girls, the level of support in the ho use hold and the strength of the
mother- daughter relationship influence career decision making. For
those who attend coll ege, family of origin continues to be an influence
on occupational exploration and selection. The few studies that Whiston
and Keller found on adults indicated that family variables continue to
influence career development. One noted concern of these authors was
the lack of research on adults who do not attend college. Whiston and
Kell er also suggested that because family affects the career development
of women, a second concern was the lack of studies examining the ef-
fects of family-of-origin influences o n the work and career of adults.
More recently, a few studies attempted to address the research gap regarding
the effects offamily on adult careers. Huang and Sverke (2007) concluded
rrom a longitudinal s[tldy that parental career paths directly affected the
career paths ofdleir children well into adulthood. Also, Bosco and Bianco
316 The Career Development Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59
(2005) found that maternal work patterns directly affected work choices of
young adults. Schoon, Martin, and Ross (2007) examined two cohorts of
aduJts and learned that the socioeconomic status and educational support of
their parents directly affected later occupational achievement of these adults,
although this was less so for the younger participants. Still, more research
is needed regarding the influence of family on the career lives of adults.
In addition, a small number of qualitative studies examined several topics
related to women's career development, including African American college
graduates (Pearson & Bieschke, 2001 ; Richie et aI. , 1997), women with
disabilities (Noonan et aI., 2004), and women entering traditional versus
gender-neutral careers (Whitmarsh, Brown, Cooper, HawkinsRodgers,
& Wentworth, 2007). Similar to the quantitative studies described earlier,
findings in these qualitative studies suggested that background, career
choices, and culture have effects on women' s career development. For
example, Richie et al. ( 1997) found that women demonstrated persistence
in their career plans and believed the positive messages received from family
and friends regarding their ability to achieve those plans. Most of these
study parti cipants perceived famil y support for career planning and had
a mentor in t heir lives. Participants in the Pearson and Bicschkc (2001)
study identified as their motivator their lack of financial resources while
growing up. They also mentioned a strong work ethic and family support
as fi.lrthering their education. Whitmarsh et al. (2007) found that women
who chose gender-neutral careers detail ed multiple barriers in their career
development and mentioned receiving mixed messages from peers, family,
and society about working 'while parenting. These qualitati ve studies help
researchers better understand the career development experiences of unique
groups of women and set the stage for further research on culturally and
demographically diverse women. However, to date, there is no specific
examination of the phenomenological meaning of the effect of parental
educationallcvel on the work and career experi ences of adult women.
Fi rst -Generation Coil ege __ .uSCLt.ull ... ______ _
Another group that is the focus of research related to career develop-
ment is prospect ive first -generation college students, or students who
would be the first in their fa mil y to attend coll ege. Some students whose
parents have nO college education make the same choice not to conti nue
their education. Until now, most research focused on first -generation
students who do continue their education, and these students appear to
differ from their peers who are from college-educated families.
Much of what we know about prospecti ve first-generation college
students focuses on demographic differences and college transition is-
sues (Pascarell a, Pierson, Wolniak) & Terenzini, 2004). For example)
fi rst-generation college sntdents tend to be from lower income fami lies
(Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998) and are more likely to represent an
ethnic minori ty (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005 ). In high school, t1ley take
fewer advanced math or advanced placement courses (Warburton, Buga-
rin, Nunez, & Carroll , 2001) and report lower perceived family support
for college-going (York-Anderson & Bowman, 1991 ) than their peers
do. Once they arrive at college, the differences continue; first-generation
students earn lower first -semester grade point averages (Warburton et ai. ,
2001 ) report more problems with time management and understanding
The Career Development Quarterly June2011Volume59 317
assignments (Collier & Morgan, 2008), and are more likel y to drop out of
school ( Nunez & Cuccaro-AJami l1, 1998). First -generation students who
do persist in college are 1110rc likely than other college snldents to want to
attend graduate school (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005), become involved in
extracurricular activities (Pascarella et aI., 2004 ), and establish a mcntor-
ing relationship with sorneone at their college (Reid & M.oorc, 2008).
Little is known, however, about this population's general career develop-
ment after high school or abollt their careers after college graduation. The
few studies examining postcollege activities f(>Lllld that first-generati()I) college
students choose occupations as diverse as those of their peers and make si milar
saJarics (eha)" 2001 ). A modest amount of literature focuses on the dlt:cts
of tamily of origin on career development in adults, but there is a dearth of
litnature on adults whose pan:nts lack postsecondary education once these
adults enter the world of work (\Vhisron & Keller, 2004). Bccause studies
indicate that womcn seem to be influenced by family background (Richie
et a1., 1997; Whitmarsh et al., 2007) and lower parental educational levels
atlcct first -generation college students, we wondered if there were combined
dlects with these two demographic groups. The lack of information in the
literature led us to question the meaning of work and career experiences tor
adult women whose parents lack postsecondary education. Using a phenom-
enological approach, ollr areas of inquiry were (a) What is the meaning and
essence of the experience of work and career for women whose parents have
no education beyond high school? and (b) What is the meaning and essence
of the influence of f..1.mily of origin on that experience?
Phenomenology, as a research method, seeks to explore in detail and
understand participants' lived experience- the invariant C011stitucnts
and the eSJencc of an experience (Creswe ll , 2006; Moustakas, 1994; van
Manen, 1990). The philosophical perspectives of Husserl (193 1) and
Merleau- Ponty (1962) ground phenomt:nological research: suspension
of judgmt:nts, intentionality of consciollsness, rejection of the division
of the subject and the object (Creswell, 2006; van Manen, 1990). Hus-
st'rI suggested that the meaning and essence of a phenomenon could
be known by putting aside current personal perspectives, reducing a
description of the lived experience for the indi vidual and across individu-
als, and developing an essence (Moustakas, 1994) of the experience.
In our study, we uscd three methods to enhance the intt:grity of t he
findings: identityillg and setting aside researcht:r framc of rdert:nct:
Uv1oustakas, 1994), providing concrete descriptions of participant ex-
periences, and t ri angulation (Patton , 1990). Mt:thodology limitations
incl ude the difficulty of researchers to be bias free, the ability (or lack
rht:reof) of the interviewer to elicit full descriptions of t he phenomena
tiom participants, the willingness of participants to talk about their
experiences, and the reality that data analysis and understanding afthc
phenomena is a never-cnding process (Creswell, 2006; Moustakas, 1994).
The II women participants in the current study are onc set of data
gathered from 17 participants ( ll women and six men ) whose parents
had no education beyond high school. T he women were from a si ngle
318 The Career Development Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59
southeastern state. Our primary interest foc ll sed solely on t he experi -
ences of women whose parents lack postsccondary education, with no
constraint related to t heir age, their own postsecondary experience, or
the type of career t hey held. Although we hoped for an ethni cally di verse
participant group, the phenomenological area of inquir y focused solely
on parcntal educati onal level. This was a purposeful sample, reflecting
the desire to intervi ew participants whose characteristics (parents who did
not have postsecondary experience) and experiences (work and career )
matched the research inquiry (Merriam, 1998). Alt hough t he interviews
of both women and men were conducted si multaneously, we thought
it vital to exami ne experiences by gender, so we analyzed the data from
the women indepcndently from the data from t he men.
Two participants cOlllpleted high school only, one had SOme college
but no degree, onc was currently an undergraduate student, and seven
graduated frol11 coll ege, including one who held a master' s degree and
education specialist degree, one with a master's degree who was work-
ing on her doctoral degree, and one with a completed doctoral degree.
Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 50s. Ten of the parti cipants
were Caucasian, ,\nd one was African American. Four came from low-
income families , although none of the part icipants came fron") wealthy
or upper-income households. Three worked as administrati ve assistants,
two worked for nonprofit agenci es, three were educators, two were
currently students, and one was at home rai sing her children full time.
Participants received a $15 gjft certifica te for thei r fu ll participation in
th<:: project. The human subjects review board at the university where
it took place approved this study_
We distributed flyers to faculty colleagues and posted them 011 bulletin
boards throughout the campus and the community. One of three doc -
toral student interviewe rs (the third , fourth, and fifth authors) made
initial contact by telephone to participants who had indicated an interest
either bye- mail or phone in participating in the study. Prior to th<:: in-
the doctoral student interviewers received 10 hours of training
and supervision in the phenomenological interview technique (Thomas
& Poll io, 2002). During the initial telephone contact, the interviewer
described the purpose of the research, the interview, and the benefits
and risks of parti cipation. The participant chose a private and quiet place
for the intervi ew. Each interview took about 60 minutes to complete
and was audi otaped. Following the guidelines of the phenomenological
interview proposed by Thomas and Polli o (2002), the intervi ewer used
the followi ng questi ons or statements with each participant: "Tell me
about your experience of work and career; how did you get to where
you arc now?" "Tell me about your experience of the influence offam-
i!y on your work and career." All follow-up questions directl y related
to participant refl ections and prompted participants t o go into detail
about their work and career experi ence and development. These prompts
were "Can you tell me more about t hat?" "When you think abollt that
experience, what sta nds out for you?" "Can you describe an experience
where that happene.d to you?" Once the tapi ng was completc) we cre-
ated a complete t ranscripti on of each intervicw.
The Career Development Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59 319
Method of Analysis
The methodology included phases of transcendental-phenomenological
reduction and cpoche; imaginative variation; and synthesis, in this case
represented by the findings (Moustakas, 1994; Wertz, 2005). A detailed
description of the analysis follows.
Transcendental-phenomenological reduction and epoche. Wertz (2005)
described the approach to the study of a phenomenon as establishing
an "attitude of wonder" (p. 172). This means participant experiences
are viewed from a fresh perspective, and researchers empathi ze with
participants as they enter their world. To accomplish this, we articulated
OUf preunderstandings of the phenomena by writing a description of our
perspectives and participating in a bracketing interview (Wertz, 2005).
For the bracketing interview, we interviewed one another following
the same procedure used with participants. For the first author, themes
that emerged included importance of education, parental support, and
work-life balance. For the second author, emergent themes included
support from parents, lack of support from parents, working hard, and
struggles between family and work responsibilities. We reviewed the
description of o ur preunderstandings regularly during data analysis to
maintain a fresh perspective throughout the process.
Next, we ttlrned to the participants' interview transcripts and determined
what information was horizontal and thematic. We rcad aloud each of
the transcripts to mark meaning units. A meaning unit ends when the
participant shifts the focus of the conversation. Horizontalization means
that each meaning unit has equal value (Moustakas, 1994). Because
participants did not separate their work and career experiences and the
influence of f.:unily during their interviews, we decided to consider each
interview as a whole, or as a single phenomenon.
We independently read the individual transcripts and marked meanings
and themes representing each meaning unit. We each developed a list of
possible invariant constituents (meanings or themes) for each participant
and constructed written summaries for each participant. The written
summaries included what occurred, how the experience occurred, and
an initial understanding of how the constituents related to the whole
of the individual 's experience.
As part of the process of triangulation, or consideration of multiple
meanings, we then mct together to develop a negotiated set of invari-
ant constituents for each participant and reach agreement on how each
participant described the experience of work and career and the influencc
offamily on those experiences. We met together multiple times to negoti-
ate the invariant constituents represented across the 11 participants. We
continued to meet together and also worked independently, examining
the data and renegotiating the constituents until we reached agreement.
A second part of triangulation occurred as participants were contacted
and asked to review the constituents and provide feedback. Participants
responded positively but provided no new ideas. One participant stated,
"The summary reflects a lot of my own feelings and experiences," while
another said, "I am fascinated by the wide range of the findings."
Tmaginative variation. Next, we rcturned to the constituents and sup-
porting data and posed the questions "What does this information tell us
about the meaning of the experiencc of work and career and the influence
offami ly on the experi ence?" and "What perceptions or understandings of
320 The Career Development Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59
work and career and infl uence of famil y does t hi s suggest ?" This process
is similar to looking at the whole of rhe indi vidual experience rather t han
t he indivi dual meaning units. It includes viewing the whol e of t he ] 1 in-
terviews instead of each individual intcrvil;w. VVe studied the relati onshi p
between constituents, what the experience as a whole looked like, Jnd
diffcrent:cs between indi vi dual descriptions and the contexts in which they
occurred. This process all owed us to suggest essences of the txpericnec
and describe the phenomena for these participants.
Findings, __ _
The participants grounded their di scussion of work and career experi -
cnce and influences of family with detailed background intormation and
chronology of their work. The five constituents that we identified-being
a da1tlfhter/lI)()'JIIla1t, support and ctl coltragpnent, what 11UUters, J))hy! chose,
and limits and optious-describe the of the experience of work
and career and ta mil y infl uence. Consti t uents are pri mary t( >e i or themes
of t he participants, while a subconstituent is o ne component or aspect of
a total consti tuent. It is common for the label ofa subconsti t uent (e.g"
support/no support) to be si milar to the name of the overall constituent
(e.g., support and encouragement) but still tCKuS only on one aspect of
that overall theme. In the case of the interview for this study, the com-
monali ty, or essence, is captured by the concept of pcrsc))c1'ft1tCc.
The Constituents
Bei1Jg a daughter/womall. Each won1;1n talked about work experiences
and fa mily influences frOIll t his perspective. Being a daughtc. r signifi ed
the influence (or lack ofinAuence) of the tamil y; the place in t heir own
fami ly of origin; Jnd spouses, partners, and children . The subconstitucnts
o f educatiON, being a mom, ! alit different/! tun alike, and relatiowhips
Jl'ith sibliNgs fr amed thei r experiences. Ni Ile participants Gdked about the
importance ofeducat ioll ( both fc) rmal and int(")rmal), lack of sc hool ing,
ambivalence about school, and/or commitment to learning. O ne woman
stated, I've always wanted to go to coll ege ... I want to be sllccessful. "
Parcnts of eight of t he women did not encourage school ing or their
choice of careers. One woman said, " I we ll t to college and became a
home economics maj o r. ' . my fat her really hated it ."
For the six women with chi ldren, being (l mom represented the prot()lllld
interElCe between children and work and included balance, mothering
a career, and ways that children framed their mother's work (day to
day) and caree r choices. One woman stated, "I raised my kids, rhat was
my career. " r aUl' of these mothers chose to work par t-rime , but one
srated, " there wc re conAi cts wit h that ... guilt because YOLI cannot be
two places at once." Each mother descri bed making choices between
children and work.
Participants di scussed ways that t hey wcre alike and different from the
members of their families, with some of these discllssions being conflictual
while others were mo re positive. One woman described her love oflearn -
ing and spoke of how she inheri ted t his from her dad . Another shared
the values related to hel ping others that she inherited fi' om her mom.
Each participant talked about how she defined herself in relat ion to
her f.:'l mily's wishes and val ues; this str uggle wi th family incl uded choice
The Career Development Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59 321
ofcarcc:rs. Om:- spoke of her f a t h c r ~ " He and I l13.vl.: a real sort of polar-
itv bt':twl.:en LI S ... I kncw he would never understand it ... I was not

'gon na' work for him." Siblings also played an important part in each
\\'oman's story and choice of career. Several participants indicated there
wcre different rules or expcctations about education, such as who should
pursue higher cducation or who needed to do well in school, and that
choice of careers was linked to gender. Siblings also provided support
for each other regarding career choice and education. One participant
described her sibling's role as "supporting ... working ... providing
sounding boards tor each other." Roles in the tamily also played a part
in career p:Iths, with One participant describing herself as the " rebel-
lious one,'" while another was seen as a "doer" rather than a "thinker."
Support and enco1tragnncnt. Supporr and encouragement came from
the areas of both work and tamily, could be positi ve or negative, and
included both giving and receiving help. For instance, one woman talked
about help that she had received from a speech pathologist and stated,
"1 figured I can ... help children 'cause that's how I got help." Com-
mitted to providing assistancc to others, om: woman stated, " I love that
word support, it about shores everything lip."
The subconstitucnt of' mentors fl1Jd role models represented the otlu:rs
who hdped :Ind encouraged participants in their careers. According to tour
of the women, mentors "cared" and asslImed family roles or represented
"bther" or "'mother" figures . As one woman stated, "They arc who I
aspire to be." Mentors also "'pushed" and "'opened doors." Being helped/
1/ot bcil1g helpcd is a su bconstituent that represcnted the effort others made
to assist these women throughout their lives. }-:or example, one woman
told a story of a coworker taking care of her while she was very ill. She
considered t his help as "one ofthl' good things'" about the job she had.
Finally, the su bconstituent support/no support focused on the emotional
backing (or lack thereof) that participants pcrceived trom others. Nfany
talked about what little support they received, especiall y related to fam-
ily. Support was not always soft: and gentle. For two \\'om<;n, it 1l1eant a
"push" to pers<;vere through college. One WOman stated that her parents
told her, "'You're not leaving school. 1 don't care what your grades are. "
What 1IlatterJ. All participants talked about what made a diftcrencc in
the ir work. Pcrso1Jal cOllllcctio1Js, fccHngJ about ",ark, being valued, and
pcrsonal expcctatiollJ arose as subcollstitucnts t()f this category, PerJonai
conncctiollsprovided both positive and negative ways for participants to
relate to those with wbom the>' worked. ReiJcionships stood out be.cause
they characterized bosses, c()\vorkers, and customers as "m3king you feel
uncomfortable," "Iurassing," as thinking "'you're J girl, you're young,
3nd you don't have expe rience," or 3S inspiring the response that "they
confide ill you" and arc "'supporti ve."
Work evoked the subconstituent Jt1'01lg feelings about wtn-It, inc luding
joy, sorrow, anger, regret, and happiness. One woman shared her strong
tcclings about the people she met in her work. "'I met people who im-
pressed me .. . 1. loved the writers." Another expressed both positive
and negati ve feelings about working at her job. ""I loved working at the
post otlice ... there were bad postmasters ... where I got se nt ... he's
the reason I left."
Participants also tal ked about being lJalncn, encompassing both their
appreciation t()r recognition and disappointmcnt from the lack of it, and
322 The Career Devdopment Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59
having permnal expectations, including personal standards and beliefs
about career and life. Some felt undervalued; one \voman stated, "Well
you just don't feel like they feel you are needed as much as you are."
Other participants described work as a place "vhere "1 got credit for
doing a good job" and "He respected nlC and we were friends." One
participant defined her o\vn value stating, "You are the onty one who
can see the value in all that you do." Personal expectations varied greatly.
Three women "didn't put a whole lot of thought into" their decision
making or choices about careers and family. Four other participants al -
ways assumed they would go to college, graduate, and enter the world
of \vork. "I don't want a job if it doesn't matter if I am here or not or
if I do it well or not," stated one participant. This statement expressed
t he personal expectations of many of the others.
Why [ chosc. The primary foclls of this constituent was the rationale
or description of how participants came to their work experience. The
subconstituents were life happens, jlut because, encouragement, where 1
am supposed to be, and it/eels. The subconstituent l ~ f c happcl1srepresented
times when family, health, or job loss directly determined work and
career choices. One participant indicated that she had always wanted to
move to the beach, but then she had her daughter, her daughter had a
child, and the other grandparents lived elsewhere, so she was "here."
In explaining \vork and job trajectory as jmt because, three of the women
attributed their path to lite being \vhat it was or "It has always worked out
that way." They presented the facts without evaluation and did not assume
responsibility for optjons or choices. One participant indicated, I wasn't
told what to major in ... being a teacher ... wasn't necessarily better or
worse than anything else .. . this is \vhere I am." Three of the participants
sa\v their work and career trajectory as accidental, and one indicated, "I
never mcant to end up here." They took a particular path that was open
because it looked like the next step or it was \vhat was offered them.
Encouragement and believing they were where 1 am suppa.led to be also
played a role in work and career, as well as job trajectory. Participants
received encouragement from parents, friends, mentors, professors,
and others. Through the encouragement, they believed that others had
confidence in them and their abilities . For four of the \vomen, work and
career \vere a calling. They spoke with assurance about their jobs, "I
never wavered on what my degree \vas 'gonna' be ." One saw spiritual
guidance in her choice, "God just fulfilled me with that opportunity
. .. \vent back to get trained." Three others described t he work as a
"niche" or a "place" where they felt comfortable.
For many, the feelings (i.e., subconstituent it feels) associated with a
job or career determined if they chose a job and if t hey stayed. One
talked about how the environment in a job influenced her. "I'm just
the kind of person, I soak up everybody's energy around me ... [the
job 1 it stressed me out . . . that's why I took off." Another stated, "I'm
getting older, it's like I'm not going to stay in a job where you're not
treated well ." Career choice for another had a different feeling, "How
I got to where l am now is I am a risk taker. I am fearless."
LiN1its and options. The participants discussed the restrictions (limits)
or limitless options for choices made in their lives. For example, onc
participant detailed how her age limited her options to move to another
career or another job. In the current job, she described what mattered
The Career Development Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59 323
(positive and negative) to her, Jnd explained that she had chosen to
remain in her current job on the basis of her s.lLlry and benefits. Another
wOlllan focllsed on her many options, declaring tilat when wlut mat -
tered to her was compromised, sllch as being treated unfairly or being
bored, then she moved on to another job.
The Essence: Perseverance
For the participants, pcrJcJlcrancc is the essence of work and career and tht:
influence of t:lmily on these expeliences. In phenomt:nological rescarch, the
essence is the underlying, ;md oftcn unstated, message that pervades the
overall t:xperiences of thc participants. The women described times of over-
coming, succeeding in spite risk taking, moving torward, :md achieving
th'lt served as the tC)lJndation for their stones. One participant stated, "I've
been working since [I was J 18 and trying to go higher and higher ... cvcry
year," while another said, "'I nevcr wavcrcd fi'om the minute I decided to
go b;)ck to school." Each WOmaJl described difficult times and ;)n ability to,
in thc words of one participant, "stick it out."
Pcr.lcl'crtutcc was linked to all of the major constituents. Rcbting pcrscver-
ance to bcilwa daughtcr/Il'01ntrtt, thc particip:mts detailed bmily influenct:s
that strengthened thcir resolve. The positive reactions increased dctermination
to work or go to school, whilc thc ncgativc reactions were seen as obstacles
limiting thcir options or as baniers to overcome. The women recountcd times
when they received help trom others, rdating thcir struggles to sttpport and
cncouragcmcnt. One particip,mt talked about "not having anyone to encourage
me, help make decisions," while another stated she continucd in school because
she was receiving "lots of encouragement ... very aggressive encouragement."
Each told a story of independence. One woman stated, "I tried to care fix
myself by myself ... I'm used to doing that." All related perseverance to be-
ing part of l!'hat rnattcrs, especially whcn wlut was important was absent. For
example, all talked of working in ditlicult environments and how they survived.
The women tied reasons tcx choosing their career and educational path, why I
chosc, to their ability to persist, whether they talked abollt jobs or school. When
things were ditficult, they used their own confidence, support from others, or
spiritual guidance to sustain them. In tact, one mentioned, "Lite is too short,
you've just got [0 be happy." Finally, these womcn discussed perseveling even
when their litnits and options stood as obstacles to their goals or plans. Thcy
did not give up in the bee of barriers or limits.
As an example, one woman, who works in the administrative field, described
nun)' times of perseverance in her lite. She described much of her work as
"kind of degrading. You work hard all d;)y, you don't teellike it's ap-
preciated at all." She later said, "I've worked since I was 18 to get to where
I am now, which is nor even where r wanna be." Even with thesc feelings,
though, she believed, "I've \vorked hard and I've put everything I've got
into it what I do." Shc was able to recognize some good about her job,
I uk..: th.u hOllle ;\ lot evcry d,l) but no\\' (hey try tn, t h..:), really try to
1ll,lkc you kd 'lppn:ciat..:d (h..:re _ ! hav..: an dd..:dv Illother ,Illd I know th,1t
1 (,Ill k.IIT when! l1..:ed to, to take h..:r to the doctor, do Ilh,ltn..:r .. , ,llld the
h..:ndits greH and your..: told thank you."
This same woman
even discllsscs pcrscverance related to family

324 The Career Development Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59
The boys wt're pu\"hecl to go to l'ol1cge; the gi rl s were not. '\IO\\' working, we
Iwre expectecl ,IS soon :I;' you turned 18 YOII gOt Ollt of school you go to work
... Now I Imked out :lnd h:lppetled to go to a high M.:hoo l rh:lt h;l.d 4 hO\l rs of
business chsses j d ,IY Illy senior year, so I lOok those ... so I graduated ready
to go to \\ork ... I st arted working at tho.: ,Ige of 18 right out of high school
in the so.:cro.:taria l fidd.
In this example, perseverance in stressful times and throughout her work
experiences guided this woman's path. Overall , the cssencc of per sever-
ance pervaded the stories of all the womcn.
Discllssion and Impiications, ____ _
This study f(xused on adult women whose parents had no t()]"Jllal educt-
tion beyond high school. These women described their work and career
experiences and the influence of famil y on those experienccs through
phenomcnologi(al interviews . Overall , the participants' storics varied
greatly, each having unique and individualized experienct:s in t hei r li ves.
Nevertheless, common themes emerged.
On the basis of the results, it appears that the combined dkcts of be -
ing a woman and being fi-om a fllnily without college education lead to
commonality of experie nces in work and career. Overall, this study adds
to the current literat ure on both cart:er experiences of women ,md thc
effects of parental educational level on career. First, it fills the gaps in
the literature noted by Whiston and Keller (2004) by providing details
about the cftects of family of origin on adults as well as adding to the
litcraturt: on adul ts who do not attend college. Second, t he research
gives a voice to wome n who arc rarel y studied in carecr research. Third,
the results help us better understand t he effccts of parental educational
level on working adults, addressing another gap in the research. Fourth,
this study highlights ways in which counselors might better connect with
womcn whost: family background is simil'lr to that of the participants
ill the study. Finally, through its qualitative ICIlS, the study provides a
holistic perspective of the career experien(es of this group of womt:n,
tht:reby helping counselors and educltors bettcr understand the li ved
expe riences of womell fi'om low-education house holds.
As tht: essence, the importanct: of perseve rancc, especially when great
difficulties arose , stood out in the analysis. Also, the influences of gender
and family pervaded the experit:nce across constituents. The constitue nts
also guided our thoughts about impli cations of the study. The idt:as
of giving and receiving support, matteri ng, and reasoning l-or choices
made all influence how counselors might work with this population. \Ne
discuss each of these ideas in detail.
The women described how they persevered despi te great odds. Similar
ro women in othcr qualitative studies t hat have examined the career
experiences of women from at-ri sk groups (Pearson & Rieschkc, 2001;
Richit: et al., 1997), the participants in the current study pt:rsisted in the
workforce, striving to achieve their career goals with or without family
support . Research on first -generation college stlldents (t:.g., Lohfink &
Paulsen, 2005; Reid & Moore, 2008) has demonstrated the risk factors
faced by this population, such as high college attrition levels and lack
of career role model s. Counselors call recognize that t hese women may
face barriers affect ing their career developme nt and build on their teei-
rl'hl: Career Dl:vclopmcilt Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59 325
ings of perseverance to overcome t hese barriers. Counselors can help
women stor.v the ir lives so they speak clearly, a technique often lI sed in
narr.ltive Jnd constructivist carccr cou nsel ing.
Genl"kr in general and being a woman in particular infllH.:nccd the
study participants. They discllssed their work and career development
in thl' context of being women- from rules regarding gender Set forth
by parents, to diffen.:nces in beliefs about schooling based on gender, to
their attempts to balance work and children, to their feelings about how
they were trcatcd at work because of being a woman. It is clear that t() r
these women, being a woman affected their career developmcnt. The
obstacles encou ntcred (e.g., gender roles, lack of tamily support,
pressures of caring f()r family and/or children) evoked a determination
to make their own way. They taced limits and discussed these as they
told stories about \Vhy they chose their job and career paths. Counselors
n1.1y need to tap into the strong desire many women have to find their
place in the world of work and help them to assess how to balance their
commitments with the realities of their multiple responsibilities.
The messages t hese women received about school fi'om their tamilies
were specific and, for some pa rricip;lI1ts, directly related to the educational
level of their parents. Some discussed being wid that college was t()r
men or mentioned that college was never really pushed in thcir
For others, their parents guided them to college because they never had
that opportunity. Other participants stated that college was expected of
them, bur rhey had little guidance related 1"0 choosing a career path or
navigating the college system. Given the strong influence that family
has on career developme nt (vVhiston & Keller, 2004), it see ms impor-
tant for counselors to be aware of the mixed and varied rnessages that
women from families wit hout postsecondary education may encounter.
Overall, the influence of tamily was significant tor these participants.
Similar to findings in other research (Hargrove, Creagh, & Burgess,
2002), the results of this study indi cated that the quality of family
relationships and family support tor academic and career achievement
affect ca reer planning and goal attainment. These results can be used
to help remind cou nselors to consider thl..: effects that family-of-origin
issues may have on ca reer decision -making self-efficacy bclids .
Till: cHeer of support and encouragement (or lack thereot) was another
signi ficant [lCtor in this study. j\l1.entorship played a key rotc for the par-
rkipants \Vho went on to college, a support system clearly found in reccnt
research (Cramer & Prentice-Dunn, 2007; Cronan-Hillix, Gensheimer,
Cronan-Hillix, & Davidson, 1986). In addition, being helped by others in the
workplace represented a common theme. The importance of receiving both
emotional and physical support from others clearly affected these women.
Often, this concept was coupled with the desire to pay it by helping
others as well. Participants, especially the older women, mentioned altrui sm
and giving back to the comillunity. Counselors GlIl help WOIllen who are
families wid10llt the college experience by identif)ring role models and
Illentors to help them navigate college and the world of work. Counselors
may also want to bui ld on the desire to give back by encouraging women
to consider altruism alllong other factors when making career decisions.
The participants also discllssed what mattered for them in their work ex-
periences. They mentioned it was important to have personal connections
and feel val lied at work and discussed how work felt to them. The\' linked
326 The Career Dcvdopl11cnt Quarterly June 2011 Volume 59
these fee lings with the expectations they had for themselves, which often
incl uded personal perspectives about school and f.lI11ily. These concepts
relate to the literature on matteri ng. Researchers defi ned mattering as "the
perception that . .. we are a significant part ofthc worl d around us" (Elliott,
1<.ao, & Grant, 2004, p. 339) . Mattering is based both on being recognized
by others and on the strength of relationshi ps in the workplace. Aspects of
mattering incl ude being noticed and recognized, feel ing attended to and
C:1n.:d about, and being seen as important or vallH.:d (Elliott et al. , 2004). For
t hese women, work was more than JUSt a way to pay the bills; in tact , they
talked little about finances as ;;111 important aspect of t he work experience,
alt hough they did mention their financial str uggles. Clearl y, t hey wanted
to feci connected and valued in their work and career.
Pinally, the participants discussed why they had chosen their current career.
They mentioned happenstance, or jll st t:1lling into a career, and disclI ssed
how li fe circumstances led their way. Others talked about encour"..1ge ment by
others or a teding of bt.:ing in tht.: right career path. For all, the experience
of why they chose was discussni, unprompted, in the interviews. Counselors
may do wel l to pay attention to the decision-maki ng rationale for clients
like these women; why t hey chose as they did appears to be an important
f.:"Kct in the career development process. All of the women also fclt d1e in-
fluence of options and limits on their work and career choices. Barriers and
supports played a large role in t heir choict.:s; otten, decisions were based on
the restrictions placed on them, sllch as geography, finances, family obli ga-
tions, or lack of education. At other tim(.;s, freedom from responsibilities
or the abil ity to make their own choices provided more options for these
women. Counselors must help their cli ents idcntif)! their li mits and optio ns
and help tl1em make in ti:>rtl1ed and healthy Career choices.
Ell til re Research
This study examined rhe work and care(.;r development of \\IOI11(.;n whose
parents had no education beyond high school. The descriptions of their
expcrienct.:s and the effect of tamily on those expniences will ultimately help
counselors berter understand and serve t he needs of this group of women.
hltllre research might f<x us o n the effects ofcthnicity, socioeconomi c sta-
tllS, and postsecondary educationallevcl of participants on their career and
work experiences. For example, researchers could interview women f)om
low education households who rcsidt.: in urban or rural areas, who became
rhe first in their fami lies to earn a college degree, or who represent a specific
age group such as young adults or women nC:1ring retiremcnt. rn addition,
longitudinal studies cX:1Jl1ining the influence of tamil y educHionai level
on the career and work of adul ts might help in d1C further understanding
of its long-term impact. Finally, more q ualitative intervicws with women
si milar to the participanrs in this study might expand the knowledge of thc
chall enges and iSSlll:S unique to this popubtion.
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