November 20, 2014, by Lindsay Brooke

Tomorrow – Woman’s Hour talks to Professor Laurie Cohen

From the ’90s to now: shedding light on women’s careers

Professor Laurie Cohen from the Nottingham University Business School will be on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme tomorrow about her new book Imagining Women’s Careers.

Imaging Women's Careers


It is the story of 17 self-employed women and their journey from the recession-hit Britain of the ’90s to the recession-hit Britain of today has been told in a new book on careers. It illustrates how:

  • Certain rules and conditions – economic, technological, sectoral, social, ideological and embodied – both constrain and enable women’s career-making.
  • Values, commitments, material needs and identities underpin women’s careers.
  • These contextual features, preoccupations and aspirations play out in women’s career imaginations, defining and delimiting what is possible, impossible, permissible and proscribed.
  • Self-employment grants women autonomy, self-determination and the possibility of working into old age.

Laurie Cohen was studying for her PhD two decades ago when she first met the women, all of whom had started working for themselves in a northern English city. She interviewed them as part of her research into career transition – an area she continued to specialise in during the successful academic career that followed.

Seventeen years later, by then a Professor of Organisational Behaviour, she tracked them down and spoke to them again to find out how their stories had developed.

The result is Imagining Women’s Careers, an in-depth and often deeply personal examination of how women think about and enact their working lives over time.

Professor Cohen, of Nottingham University Business School, said: “In many ways, as might be expected in light of the timeframe, this is a book about change.

“It’s about women moving from young to middle age – and in some cases from middle to old age – and it’s about society moving out of and back into recession.But at the same time it’s a book about continuity. It deals with enduring relationships, commitments to people and places and deeply held values and identities.”

Although they represent a variety of occupations, Professor Cohen’s interviewees are united by a decision to move into self-employment in the first half of the ’90s. Many now look back on their earlier interviews and accept they might have been deceiving themselves when they first sought to justify their career decisions.

For example, some originally claimed they were acting in the best interests of their children but now acknowledge they were actually satisfying their own wishes.

Others admit they fulfilled other people’s prophecies, with one recalling: “The choice was to go to university or nurse training or be a secretary or work in domestic science.

“My father, who was a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, said: ‘Any fool can do domestic science. You will be a nurse.’ So they accepted me on nurse training.”

Her interviewees also offer striking insights into the greater “legitimacy” of self-employed women and how family, friends, work acquaintances and others perceive them.

One explains how she was viewed with suspicion when she worked from home in the ’90s but in working from home now is widely regarded as a success.

Professor Cohen, who discusses the book on the November 21 edition of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, said: “Each of the interviewees has a fascinating story to tell. It’s important to understand the contextual change between the two interview periods and why this matters in career terms, and they help us do that through their narratives.Many of them have flourished, despite the spectre of recession and the fact that even today women continue to face a number of hurdles in progressing their careers.

“The book also reflects the fact that for over 20 years now scholars have been questioning whether existing career theory is truly adequate in describing women’s lives.”

Published by Oxford University Press, Imagining Women’s Careers is aimed principally at academics and scholars of careers, entrepreneurship/SME and gender studies.

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