Friday, March 4, 2016

Impossible Selves: Image Strategies and Identity Threat in Professional Women’s Career Transitions

Read the working paper
INSEAD Working Paper 2016/12/OBH

This chapter extends our understanding of the paucity of women in senior leadership positions by identifying specific identity mechanisms that can hinder junior women’s transitions to more senior roles. We introduce the term impossible selves to describe these cultural prescriptions for leadership identity and behavior that many junior women found unattainable. In the two male dominated firms we studied the cultural prescriptions for a leader’s identity were associated with a traditionally masculine demeanor. We argue that second generation gender bias—cultural beliefs about gender, as well as workplace structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently favor men—inhibited women from engaging in image and identity work that would align them with these cultural prescriptions. This transformed organizational models of success into impossible selves for the women in these demographically skewed contexts. Instead of working towards the organizational model of success we found that women engaged in image and identity work to craft a leader identity that allowed them to feel authentic and avoid disapproval from clients and colleagues. Women’s efforts to remain authentic, however, undermined their ability to craft identities that were congruent with the kind of professional they aspired to become.