“Gender” is a relationship in a particular social context, that is acted, reproduced, thus it can also be transformed…

12 May 2013 20:49 | Armelle Loghmanian

 “Gender” is a relationship in a particular social context, that is enacted, reproduced, thus it can also be transformed…

By Alessandra Zocca



Maria del Rio Carral

Post-doctorante FNRS - boursière UCL

Maria, you won a prize for academic excellence from the Lausanne University. Could you tell us more about that?

My PhD thesis about the well-being among senior women managers was awarded this prize by the Social and Political Science Faculty (SSP-UNIL), because of the originality of the methodology that I developed and of the practical implications of my research for women, health and work issues…I must admit it was a beautiful surprise, a wonderful reward for my work.

Why and how have you been inspired to research on women and business?

For many years I have been interested in women and work, in particular in how their work responsibilities & duties fit into their lives alongside their private priorities (family, but also social and personal lives). For instance, a long time ago I conducted an exploratory study on women working as “housekeepers” in Mexico, admiring their capacity to cope with their children, their jobs, their housework, etc… A few years later I was completely fascinated by understanding how women - that have succeeded in breaking through the “glass ceiling” in the private/public sectors in Switzerland - cope with multiple responsibilities and manage to respond to simultaneous requests stemming from different contexts (family, social, work, personal lives).

What is your job about?

After my PhD, I was given a grant by the Belgium FNRS (Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique) as a postdoc fellow at the UCL (GIRSEF-CIRFASE Department at Université catholique de Louvain on Academia.edu) to continue my analysis on work-life interference issues.
My research coordinator and I are now studying work-life interferences amongst young highly skilled women and men at the beginning of their career, holding precarious positions in the academic “greedy”, demanding and competitive institutional context.

Maria, do you teach as well as doing research? Are you doing your post-doctorate research straight after other study or have you instead worked in business yourself for a few years and then gone back to do the research?

I have taught seminars and courses at Bachelor and Master Level, mainly in Qualitative Methodologies and in Health Psychology at several Universities in Switzerland. By the way, I enjoyed doing it very much! Within my current job at the University of Louvain I have also been a “student coach” for a practical seminar in Sociology, which was a great experience for me too.

The research you conducted concerns work-life interference and subjective well-being among female senior managers. Could you explain to us what triggered this research and what the main findings indicate?

Although there is an undeniable increase in the number of women holding executive functions in Switzerland, this population is still a minority (10-15%), considering that 46% of the total workforce is represented by women. Unfortunately some of the main trends tend to focus on either a “pathogen” approach of work-family conflict as a source of stress and fatigue.
However, there is a lack of scientific literature concerning women senior manager’s well-being by taking into account their concrete life conditions from their own perspective, in a non-reductionist fashion. My study tackled this challenge through the analysis of these women’s everyday activities using a qualitative method.
Our main findings suggest that subjective well-being is a changing process involving the body, the social and the psychological levels of a person.
By making sense of their experience, women develop original resources when being frequently confronted by contradictory and conflicting priorities, responsibilities, values and norms in four “realms”: work, family, social and personal lives.
Among these women’s resources we have identified:
  • Supports giving a feeling of control, such as organisational devices to respond to multiple obligations (paying for childcare, making to-do lists, etc.)
  • Supports meant to let go of the feeling of control such as: relaxing and resting by creating spaces of “one’s own”; taking a 15 minute break in silence, breathing, having a drink, going to the movies, reading a book, going swimming;
  • Social-affective supports, that is participation in several social groups (the workplace, family life, friends, clubs, political commitment, etc...).
Overall, even though women senior manager’s professional and/or family responsibilities demand a great amount of energy and time, their lives are not reduced to these two realms. Subjective well-being emerges from participation in a plural, changing and often conflictive social context. Difficulties impeding this process were also identified.

Have you also spent time in a business working alongside a female manager or is your research conducted by interviewing female managers, possibly away from their workplace?

My methodology was characterized by an original interview device. Women were interviewed at their workplace, or at any other place, depending on their choice. The method involved two interviews separated by a six month interval:
  • The first one consisted in a detailed description of “a day in the life” from a subjective point of view of the interviewed women: it was an interesting way to access routines, habits, gestures, in other words, every taken for granted detail that is apparently without importance but happens to be essential in the end.
  • Six months later each woman was interviewed in a reflective way to discuss the activities described during the first interview.

What are the practical implications of your research?

Finally, my research allowed me to create a method and a tool that has been shown to be of great use for women senior managers to work on different life realms in everyday life, on the supports that can contribute to their well-being in their life situation or, on the contrary, what may be impeding this process. Such a tool is based on concrete situations and uses reflection as a key element to “slow down” and think about one’s own life conditions and experiences.

What is the situation for women in the academic world, based on your experience? Is there the same sort of problems with the academic pipeline as women face in regular business, or is the power more equally distributed?

This is a very interesting question, Alessandra.
Whereas there are a large number of women at the beginning of the scientific career (PhD, postdocs), this number diminishes dramatically among higher positions (e.g. Professors, Head of research departments, etc.). We observe the opposite trend among male counterparts…
I am very proud of being part of a research project where we focus on the first stages of the scientific career in order to better understand:
  • How the selection process of academic excellence might operate,
  • How everyday practices in the academic field ‘deal with’ men and women differently,
  • How gender plays a role in work-life among women and men.
Gender differences vary among disciplines as well.

In the regular business, it depends on the field. There have been debates concerning this topic. Moreover, efforts have been made at political and institutional levels to promote women’s careers, their well-being, and work-family balance, aiming to reduce the “gender gap index”.
However, women are still under-represented. I believe that in the future we should not focus only on women, because this may paradoxically stress their position as if they were “the problem”…
Men can also be concerned by these issues. For example, there is no reason to believe that “family priorities” are important to women only. By focusing on such a belief, we may indirectly reinforce the “traditional female role” and consequently, the male role as the main “breadwinner” too. Where women are still under-represented, institutions should take responsibility to improve gender inequalities.

Gender is not an “entity” belonging to people, but rather a relationship in a particular social context, that is acted, reproduced, but thus can also be transformed through practices in concrete everyday life contexts.

Short Biography

Maria del Rio Carral was born in Mexico City. When she was 18 she travelled to Paris to work as an au pair, where she learned the French language and attended a French Culture and Literature Course at La Sorbonne.

This life experience awoke her curiosity and led to her moving to Switzerland, where she obtained her Bachelor and Master degree in Psychology and in Sociology.
She has worked in different sectors involving research, project management, international relations and teaching activities (University of Fribourg, Geneva and Lausanne), as well as the media industry, where she worked as a “speaker” (French Swiss Television).
In October 2011, she obtained her PhD in Psychology at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. Since January 2012, she has been working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Louvain in Belgium.

Concerning her professional perspectives, Maria would like to evolve her research work, but also to focus on the practical application of her findings on work and health issues in order to improve work-life conditions across different professions.

Maria is fluent in Spanish, English and French.

In her personal life, her favorite activities are yoga practice (and teaching), arts and cinema. Married recently, she lives with her partner and his son in Brussels.

Contact Details: 
Post-doctorante FNRS - boursière UCL


Université catholique de Louvain (UCL)
Place Montesquieu 1 bte L2.08.04
1348 Louvain-la-Neuve
T : +32 475.85.58.21

Disclaimer - Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.

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