Gender expectations, socioeconomic inequalities and definitions of career success

Author/editor: Michelle Ryan, Daniela Fernández, Christopher Begeny
Year published: 2023


Higher Education (HE) is seen as a tool to create job opportunities, and research demonstrates that students' expectations of career success in HE are an important predictor of their motivation and academic attainment. However, there is a lack of clarity about how career success is defined and whether individuals perceive that their experiences (e.g., gender) may be associated with these definitions.

In online written interviews with 36 university students in the United Kingdom, we examine how students define career success and how they perceive their identity (gender, socioeconomic status) experiences underpinning these definitions. We analysed three main definitional themes:

  1. Career success as personal development
  2. Career success as individual mobility,
  3. Lack of clarity about what career success is

Findings suggest that gender and socioeconomic experiences had an important role in students' understanding of career success, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, in the intersection of gender and socioeconomic status, inequalities persist: female students anticipated difficulties in terms of work-life balance and gender stereotypes that constrained their career success definitions. Moreover, family experiences were important to understand students' definitions of career success, particularly for disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. The current research sheds light on an important paradox in HE organisations: while students tend to define career success in relatively individualistic ways, such as individual mobility, financial success, or personal development, it was clear that their social identities (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status) and related experiences played an important role in creating definitions of career success. This further implies that when universities encourage a perception of career success as individual mobility, for example, having better job opportunities, or by espousing the belief that higher education and/or professional sectors are truly meritocratic-this will not always align with, and may create tension for, students from disadvantaged groups.

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