Overcoming Obstacles: Opportunities of academically talented women in Iran

Shahla Alborzi, Ph.D.; Mohammad Khayyer, Ph.D. with the
assistance of Tina L. Johnston, Ph.D.

Abstract

The aim of the present research was to study the lifetime
obstacles and opportunities of academically successful women
working at Iran universities. Successful female academics in Iran
are concerned about the social and personal barriers to pursuing
successful careers in academia. These women continually work to
overcome these barriers in an ongoing process called overcoming
obstacles. This basic social process has five stages: perceiving
inequality, conflicting, dissolving, empowering and acting
purposefully. Throughout the process, these women have first
become aware of gender inequities and then worked towards
overcoming them using self-motivation properties and support
from external sources such as family, mentors and colleagues.
This substantive theory, though rooted in a specific country with
a strong male dominated social structure, is applicable to all
societies as they continue to work towards equitable access to
high-level career opportunities.

Introduction

For many years, researchers have studied the life and
contributions to society of academically talented persons around
the world. These studies have tried to increase knowledge about
their features, interests, motives and also, their success and
failures (Hulbert & Schuster, 1993). Many societies view the
support of talent development as critical to their nation progress.
Sociologists have noted that the progress and development of
each nation depends on the development of its gifted and talented
individuals (Kitano & Perkins, 1996).

Usually, giftedness in childhood is determined on the basis of
specific intelligence testing or performance criteria; however, the
process of identification of giftedness in childhood does not
accurately predict giftedness in adulthood, specifically in women
(Kerr, 1997). Fahlman (2004) describes the characteristics of
giftedness in adulthood suggesting that these gifted
characteristics are affected by social supports and interpersonal
relationships. Reis (1991) stated that human societies have
interpreted the characteristics of adult giftedness according to
individual performances and contributions to society. The
subjects of this study will be termed gifted or talented
interchangeably as each of them exhibits high levels of
performance and contributions to their families, university
positions and Iranian society.

From another point of view, throughout history, powerless
individuals and groups without voices have been recognized as
minority populations. These numbers include individuals with
low social and economic status. Women, because of their social
position relative to men, have been the focus of research (Bizzari,
1998). These researchers have studied and reported on such
problems as accessibility to jobs, wage comparisons between
males and females, the structure of family, demands of nurturing
children and educational access (Garrison, 1993; Hulbert &
Schuster, 1993). Despite the broad range of studies of women’s
issues, few studies have been carried out that focus on
academically talented women, particularly studies that have
shown the impact of socio-individual factors on the lives of these
women in Iran. Furthermore, the few studies that have been
carried out in Iran are highly quantitative in nature and,
therefore, have not examined the deeper cultural meaning of the
ongoing obstacles and opportunities of gifted women in Iran
(Alborzi, 1998).

The lack of research on this topic in general, and specifically
in Iran, provided a catalyst to conduct the present study. The
authors sought to better understand the obstacles, challenges and
also opportunities that academically gifted women have
experienced in Iran. A good understanding of life obstacles and
opportunities of academically gifted women must involve an
appreciation of the cultural context within which these events
and actions take place as well as an evaluation of their
significance from the perspective of the interviewees. Such is the
focus of this study.

The classic grounded theory research method, discovered by
Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1967) and further refined by
Glaser (1978) was chosen because the authors felt that this
research approach would reflect the view points of participants
and how they experienced their world. Uniquely, however,
grounded theory is a method that does more than just describe
events; it uses such description and other data to develop theory
(Glaser &Holton, 2004).

Methods

The aim of the present research was to study the lifetime
obstacles and opportunities of academically gifted (talented)
women in Iran. Sampling in the initial stage of the study was
purposeful with women who had earned PhDs or post doctorate
degrees and physicians who have specialized in various fields of
medicine selected as a focus population, as per Resi’s definition of
gifted (talented) adults (1991). In all, 40 individuals from two
universities in Iran were interviewed. The major fields of their
studies were human studies, agriculture, science, and medical
sciences. Three of the participants were professors, five were
associate professors and 32 of them were assistant professors.
The interviewees were between 38 and 56 years old. Thirty-two of
those interviewed were married and eight were single.

The main data source of this study was derived from
interviews. Data collection and analysis was conducted over a two
and one-half year period. The first author of this paper conducted
all of the interviews, following Glaser’s (1978) suggestion that
initial data should be gathered from the individuals who are the
best informants in that area. Data thus gathered helps the
researcher decide where to gather subsequent relevant data.
Therefore, the first participant interviewed was interested in and
had knowledge of women studies. The selection of this participant
brought significant information to the researchers, helping them
to gather subsequent information. In the initial phase, the
interviews were open or unstructured, and then the structure of
the subsequent interviews changed to semi-structured interview
as previously collected interview data was coded. Each interview
took about between 2 to 4 hours. During each interview, field
notes were taken and then, after each interview, the field notes
were transcribed following which the researchers began coding
procedures.

Unrestricted memoing was carried used throughout the
analysis process seeking to capture creative ideas and meaning
making of the data and codes (Glaser, 1998; Glaser &Holton,
2004)). Memos were written for every code, concept, and category,
capturing ideas about the relationships between properties and
categories, creative thoughts and ideas for further sampling.
Memo sorting helped to organize the completed theory.

The Theory of Overcoming Obstacles

Using constant comparative analysis of the data, the theory
of overcoming obstacles emerged. Overcoming is a basic socialpsychological
process that enables women to tolerate obstacles in
order to meet personal and professional needs, goals and values.
The women in this study felt and perceived inequality in every
part of their society but, because of their specific characteristics
such as goal orientation, self competency and assertiveness, they
were able to tolerate and overcome or pass through the obstacles.

Stage One: Perceiving gender inequality

Perceiving gender inequality is the initial stage of
overcoming obstacles. At this stage, subjects mentally process or
feel inequality. Gender inequality is multidimensional for the
women in this study. They experience inequality between women
and men in their society from various points of view. It seems
that the root of this inequality is hidden in the culture and
tradition of the society. At this stage, the women feel and
perceive these inequalities: “The culture of our society and
dominant discipline causes obstacles; daughters have limitations
from a cultural point of view.” or “Unequal attitudes of societies
in relation to the role of women are not only in a traditional
society like Iran they also exist in other parts of the world.”
When perceiving gender inequality, these women perceive
meaning and challenge when they notice these social beliefs and
by facing the social interactions. These two properties of
perceiving gender inequality are noticing social beliefs and facing
social interactions.

Noticing social beliefs. As subjects notice the stereotypical
gender beliefs of the society around them, they gather
information regarding those social beliefs of gender inequality in
order to evaluate the society beliefs. They perceive these beliefs
over time from personal experiences: “Women’s credibility
depends on men. Society does not accept women except when
they are married, and men believe that they are the crown on a
women’s head.” or “The society believes that the man should be in
a higher position than women. Decisions should be made by
men.”

Facing social interactions. The results of social beliefs that
are widespread in the society are reflected in the social
interactions of the members of that society. The social relations
between the individuals in the socio-cultural milieu are based on
social beliefs of the society. Therefore, the individuals form their
initial impression of the discrimination being imposed on them;
they also consider the behaviours of other members of the society
in relation to the discrimination. These social interactions create
a framework of perception and help the subjects make meaning:
“Priorities in the society are first married men, and then single
men, then married women, and finally single women,
respectively.”

In social interactions, the man is seen as a dominant
individual, and the woman is seen as a defeated individual.
However, gender inequality in social interactions is presented in
gender relations, educational and vocational opportunities, and
educational and social expectations. Perceptions of social beliefs
and social interactions are a recursive process that enables
individuals to gain more clarity regarding the dimensions of
gender inequality. In this stage, emotions play a significant and
vital role in deciding to overcome obstacles. The stage is
associated by anxiety, indecision and perhaps fears.

Stage Two: Conflicting

The second stage of the overcoming process is conflicting.
When individuals perceive gender inequalities in society, they
face many conflicts in their life and are confronted with
uncertainty and imbalance with themselves. In the conflicting
phase, mental challenging of the individual takes place through
feelings of personal and social unbalance.

Feeling of personal imbalance. Individuals confront physical,
psychological and emotional imbalance in their everyday lives.
These imbalances have many dimensions such as protecting
family
: “The main responsibility of women is at home”. Gifted
women are pulled in many directions; to cope, they master the art
of performing multiple roles: “My time is completely managed,
men need less time management. In comparison to men women
need time management because they have several
responsibilities.” These women suffer from feelings of invisibility
as they are often passed over for job opportunities: “The women
are like the left hand, because they are not offered any
opportunities to use their abilities.” They voice feelings of sacrifice
as they juggled their many responsibilities at home and work:
“All of the responsibilities are my duties: housekeeping, taking
care of children, preparing for new courses, studying, and
meanwhile my salary has not been expensed for myself”.

Feeling of social unbalance. Individuals encountered
disturbances and challenges that are imposed on them from the
social context in which they live and work. These feelings of social
imbalance include psychosocial pressuring, confronting social
expectations
and justice administrating. Psychosocial pressuring
causes gifted women to feel socially imbalanced. They are under
constant pressure to get too many tasks completed but must live
with status quo social norms: “I am anxious about my ongoing
tasks”; “We are the victims of circumstances.” Women may
confront their social expectations, recognizing them and bringing
them to light: “Society has the same expectations of duties for
women at home and working women.” Gifted women push for
personal and societal change (justice administrating): “Nowadays,
women are completely aware about the things that are happening
around them, so they push for their rights.” In the unbalancing
phase, women recognize this imbalance and compare their
positions to those of their male counterparts and begin to push for
their rights.

Stage Three: Dissolving

Dissolving is an active phase of balancing, where the
intentions of the individual are to dissolve the imbalance in
various ways. In this phase, advantages and disadvantages of the
various actions are compared with respect to consistency of
personal logic.

Dissolving emerged in the present study as a mental model
used for the purpose of overcoming obstacles. It is the mental
activity in a decision making process, before choosing a course of
action. Therefore, dissolving is an interpretive and comparative
mental activity seeking to balance the imbalance, through a
motivational process. In the dissolving process, individuals decide
to confront the imbalance by resisting, self-reliance, committing
and taking advantage of the situation
. Gifted women display
resistance when recognizing the need to push back against
negative conditions: “If I would like to improve my situation, I
should fight.” They recognize that they are responsible for their
own success (self-reliance): “My husband or my boss said that
opportunities have been given to me-these are not opportunities,
A woman improves herself.”; “I have learned in this lifetime that,
if I lose something, I will acquire it again.” Talented women find
success by committing themselves to finding success: “Women are
successful in management, because they feel more responsibility,
more sensitivity, more precision, and more patience.” These
women find success by taking advantage of the situations they
get: “I do my job in this way to take care of my family and to
preserve my work.”

Stage Four: Empowering

The fourth stage of the overcoming process is empowering.
Empowering includes all of the factors that individuals utilize in
order to empower themselves. The sources of the process of
empowering are both internal and external to the individual. In
this phase, the individual responds to the results of perceiving,
conflicting and dissolving. In this empowering phase, women
enable themselves through self-empowering, perceiving support,
and perceiving socio-cultural changes
.

Self-empowering. Self-empowering is the internal aspect of
empowering. Self-empowering is the process of developing the
total abilities that women utilize in order to empower themselves.
Individuals develop their cognitive and emotional abilities to
overcome obstacles. Also, in this stage, they try to coordinate the
development of their cognitive and emotional abilities
simultaneously. In this process, logic and emotions work in
balance in order to prepare women to act effectively. A woman
said: “The women can prove themselves, because they are sharper
and more subtle”, or, “The presence of successful women in the
society is because of their abilities”, or, “The women can do
several things simultaneously and do them correctly”.

From emotional (motivational) aspects, individuals said: “I
do not feel any weakness; although the obstacles have negative
effects, but sometimes they will be the motive for improvement”,
or, “Self-believing and self-confidence is very important, they
believe that they can”, or, “It was difficult to swim upstream, but
I do it”, or “Feeling alive is important in me, I think when I am
alive I should move forward, I believe that anyone who is not
bright, but wants to go forward, can do it”. It seems that both
aspects of self-empowering (cognitive and emotional) are
complementary. In other words, it can be said that the
interactions of these two aspects of self-empowering shape the
process and develop the abilities of individuals, preparing them to
act effectively in order to overcome obstacles.

Perceiving support. Perceiving support is the external aspect
of empowering. It is the effective spiritual, mental, psychological
and physical supports and assistances that talented women have
received for their development. The sources of this supporting can
be family, spouse or others: “My family climate was supporting, I
am psychologically secure.”; “My husband creates opportunities
for me, because he helped me, he did not act jealously, and did
not create obstacle.”; “I had effective teachers in my schooling,
they encouraged me, and they were my model.” Therefore,
support is an external source of motivation that individuals
perceive. Perceiving support facilitates the empowering process in
talented women. With strong external support, women feel
increased self-empowerment; perhaps too, their selfempowerment
aids in increasing their external support.

Perceiving socio-cultural changes. The women in this study
see that positive changes have occurred in gender equality across
worldwide societies. This understanding motivates them to move
towards their own empowerment. This idea, called perceiving
socio-cultural changes
directly affects the conditions of women,
particularly talented women in Iran: “Worldwide changes have
affected women, now they know that they have the abilities that
should be seen in their behaviour.” Or “The views of the world, in
relation to women have changed.” These worldwide changes have
occurred in Iranian society too; therefore, the perception of
Iranian women has been changed positively: “I am optimistic
regarding the future of the women in Iran; our society is moving
in this direction, these changes have occurred in other societies as
well.” or “The conditions of women are better now; the social
barriers have been decreased from before.” Both the support from
various sources and perceptions of socio-cultural change
facilitates and positively affects the empowering process. At the
end of this stage, individuals decide to confront logically and
constructively the obstacles in their lives.

Stage Five: Acting purposely

In order to overcome the obstacles the individuals act
purposely. The effects and the results of empowering are reflected
in various ways in the purposive behaviour of individuals. The
behaviours that talented women show are based on their logical
thinking and motivational beliefs. These purposing behaviours
have two general aspects. Gifted women make efforts to meet
their goals and employ communicating, planning and managing
skills to stay on track to reaching their goals.

Making efforts. Making efforts are the activities and
resistance of the individuals in order to attain their goals, or to
overcome their obstacles: “Higher expectation of others leads to
more efforts.”, or “My perseverance is good, I do everything on
time.” Or “The obstacles should not be a reason for stopping.”

Communicating, planning and managing skills. The women
in this study are skilled in interacting with others, making
arrangements and organizing. They know that effective
communication, planning and management skills are key to
overcoming obstacles. Also, these skills have a mutual
relationship with making efforts. When individuals have been
acting on intended efforts, these skills are firmly shaped in them.
The feedback that talented women receive as the result of their
actions leads them to increase their efforts: “Women are
imprinted, and the emotional aspects of their behaviors cause
their relationships to be positive.”; “Women develop positive
relationships.”; “I utilized my social skills and showed my
abilities.”; “Women have the planning abilities. They are more
subtle and more regulated, and they have and ability to
organize.”

In summary, purposing behaviours lead women to overcome
obstacles that may originate from within the empowering
category. There are mutual relationships between acting
purposefully and empowering. In other words, when abilities are
developed, they are reflected in actions. Acting purposefully
based on these abilities can, in turn, be developed through both
cognitive and emotional abilities. The results of the interactions
among these five stages or categories, leads women to overcome
obstacles to academic success in their lives.

Discussion

The results of this grounded theory study indicate that,
despite gender inequalities, women find ways of succeeding and
overcome gender inequity obstacles. Overcoming obstacles is a
psycho-social process that motivates women to struggle more and
become more aware of their life opportunities. The women in this
study have confronted gender inequality. They have felt it in
social interactions. They have faced inequality in gender
relations, educational and vocational opportunities and
educational and social expectations. They perceive the root of this
inequality in the culture and tradition of their society. In a study
carried out in China, Yang (2000) mentioned that it is often
impossible for women to gain access to high occupation levels
because it is difficult for them to obtain jobs which are related to
political, economic or leadership decisions. They must expend
more effort than men to find success. The reasons for this are
socio-cultural beliefs that view men as stronger than women,
therefore men are favoured to represent society. More critical
indices are used to evaluate women. These attitudes, constructed
on unrealistic opinions, extensively limit a woman’s position in
influential decision-making positions in society. As a result, in
the lifetime cycle, men continue to feel superior and women to
feel inferior. This kind of thinking influences the kinds of
relationships and the roles played by men and women (in work,
marriage, etc.). Men often feel that they are in positions such as
“superior gender”, “high achiever” and “innovator”, and women
continue to maintain a status of “inferior gender”, “admirer” and
“aide” (Yang, 2000). This point of view, which is rooted in Chinese
culture, could be considered when talking about gender
inequality or talking about lack of contribution of women in
important decision making. The authors felt that the role of mass
media is significant as it can present women with all of their real
abilities and help to undermine gender inequality thus modifying
public ideas in relation to women (Yang, 2000). However, in the
present study, participants mention that the role of mass media
in relation to women in Iran is not only is not positive but is, in
fact, negative.

Kerr (1994) and Reis (1991) identified external barriers to
talented women, such as attitudes of parents, schools, others in
their environment, discrimination in work. They suggest that
possible internal barriers such as self-doubt, self-criticism and
lower expectations have existed in the lifetimes of talented
women. When the women in this study perceive gender
inequality, they are faced with many conflicts in their lives and
feelings of imbalance. Women who are ambivalent about
parenting or career roles face internal crisis and those who
strongly desire to commit themselves to creative endeavours in
sciences are faced with social disapproval because of their
atypical gender role. In contemporary society, exceptionally able
women experience considerable stress related to role conflict and
work overload (Noble, 1989). Cognitive dissonance theory
assumes that people are motivated to resolve inconsistencies
among their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours to provide
justification or rationalization for their actions and experiences
(Festinger, 1957; Narmon-Jones and Mill, 1999, in Jost, Pelham,
Sheldon & Sullivan, 2003). Dissonance theory is widely
interpreted as an egoistic theory of the self; when a person
reduces his dissonance, she defends her ego and keeps a positive
self-image. It seems that the women of the present study use
dissolving as a mental model to reduce cognitive dissonance in
overcoming obstacles.

Tirri and Koro-Ljungberg (2002) suggest that women
sometimes have to give up the activities that they really love in
favour of family. In other words, the women care about their
families; they prefer to spend time with family and devote
themselves to family rather than personal interests. While these
women have as much potential to take part in decision-making
roles as men, they are not provided the opportunity. The women
in the present study regard their responsibilities to family in
balance with their personal needs. They work hard to manifest
their potential and utilize their responsibilities to promote their
professional careers and successful social relationships. Even
women who are highly prestigious professionals or who are
involved in occupations that are male-dominated try to establish
equilibrium between their home responsibilities and their
occupations. Arnold (1993) pointed out that these women cope
with the system as individuals, instead of addressing the existing
institutional barriers in the structure of the labour force. They
obtain an ideal equilibrium between their internal and external
lives (home-duties and occupation). This theme shows the
importance of social valuing of family and spousal roles in
societies.

In a case study of four distinguished Polish women,
researchers found that talented women exhibit traits of selfreliance,
ability to resist, dominant trends, and risk-taking
behaviours. These successful women show career motivation,
interest in education and lively feelings. Like the results of the
present study, these findings suggest that academically talented
women from various nations – particularly those from developing
countries – share personal characteristics of determination, love
of learning and an indemonstrable will to achieve their goals. The
Polish women, like those in Iran, attributed their successes to
internal factors as well as familial support (Kitiano and Perkin,
1996).

A number of studies have reported intrinsic and extrinsic
factors that motivate a gifted woman to achieve her goals. Their
success is attributed to external factors such as support of
influential teachers, financial aid, advisors, families and faith as
well as internal factors such as resilience and courage (Al-Lawati
& Hunsaker, 2002; Kitano & Perkins, 1996). According to
expectancy learning theory, (Atkinson in Al-Lawati & Hunsaker,
2002), individuals are motivated to act either from a desire to
approach success or from a desire to avoid failure. The women of
the present study wanted to do what they feel is right by creating
some sort of changes in their lives. According to this theory,
motivation to act is a function of the interaction between a
particular goal and the motive of the individual’s expectancy that
will lead to purposeful actions.

In the present study, the process of empowerment identified
by the life cycle process of overcoming obstacles suggests women
manifest behaviour in accordance with their emotions and
cognition. Through their abilities and by their hard work,
women overcome obstacles and attain a constructive balance
between their vocational commitments and family lives. Talented
women believe that in order to reduce discrimination and acquire
balanced lives for all women, they should be seeking remedies in
various domains, individually and socially.

Conclusions

Stereotypes are tools that serve to disempower
disadvantaged groups (Jost and Banaji, 1994). Once these
stereotypes are internalized, group members may begin to believe
that their lower status is legitimized and consequently they do
not fight against it (Foster, Arnt, and Honkola, 2004). In the
grounded theory of overcoming obstacles, when academically
gifted women experience gender inequality, they try to dissolve
the imbalance by various means in their desire to overcome
personal obstacles. Rather than disempowering themselves, as
system justification theory suggests, they empower themselves.
This reaction is more in accordance with social identity theory
with women, as a low-status group, responding to negative social
identity by choosing to redefine characteristics of their identity in
order to attain a more positive, empowering identity (Tajfel and
Turner, 1979).

Group consciousness theories (Barky, 1977; Bovles and
Klein, 1983; Stanley and Wise, 1983; Wilkinson and Schneider,
1990) have been explicit in redefining women’s social identity, so
that it is empowering rather than debilitating. In particular,
these theories suggest that social groups be defined along the
historical experiences of the group rather than by stereotyped
traits. (In Foster, Arnt, and Honkola, 2004).

Research Implications

Larry (1998) stated that the development of a comprehensive
theoretical framework for recognizing obstacles and challenges of
gifted women should be preceded by studies that lead to an
emergence of theory. This study’s grounded theory highlights the
problems related to female career success and how successful
women overcome these problems. Gender inequality in
educational, cultural, professional, legal, and employment
backgrounds continue to exist in Iranian and other developing
societies. This gender inequality is tied to domination of men and
socio-cultural expectations in society that cause challenges for
women. The results of these challenges sometimes lead capable
women to give up their social activities. However, in spite of these
conditions, some women have utilized their abilities according to
their responsibilities. They have exhibited motivation, expended
great effort and, with external support and socio-cultural
changes, have developed their abilities to try and overcome the
obstacles in their paths.

This study, although focused on female academics in Iran, is
applicable to all societies. Even in countries where gender equity
appears to exist it is important to monitor public opinion and
value systems that may indicate decreasing equities (Yang, 2000).
The implications of this emergent theory suggest that young
women can be helped by counselling and planning to better
understand their abilities and assist them in self-empowerment.
Societies and responsible persons in these societies should pay
more attention to the needs of women in order to decrease
societal and career challenges and obstacles.

The results of this study show family and other external
supports have significant roles in the lives of successful women.
These external supports should be fostered and developed to
better meet the needs of developing women. Programs should be
developed that foster family, school and societal relationships for
women. Individuals who are responsible for educating women
who show academic promise should be prepared to foster and
support these interests. Finally, responsible authorities in
society need to lead nations in helping women take positive steps,
eradicating obstacles and facilitating accessibility to their lifetime
aims.

Relevance and Rigor

In grounded theory development, academic rigor is measured by
the extent of a theory’s fit, relevance, workability and
modifiability (Glaser, 1978). This theory fits as it emerged from
data drawn from the words and ideas of talented women working
in a male dominated society. It is relevant to those living in
societies with open gender bias but also to societies with hidden
biases. This theory works as it explains how gifted female
academics manage to succeed in their careers while balancing
social demands that are not always equitable. The theory of
overcoming obstacles is readily modifiable, based on new data
that might arise through additional theoretical sampling. The
theory would remain fairly stable given new situations, however,
categories or properties of categories may emerge as additional
populations, such as those in other countries or other minority
populations are sampled for data.

Authors’ Note

The authors wish to acknowledge and thank Dr. Barney Glaser
and Dr. Judith Holton for their guidance and advice in the
conceptual development of this study. We also wish to thank Dr.
Tina Johnston for her assistance in the preparation of the final
draft of this paper.

Authors

Shahla Alborzi, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
College of Education and Psychology
Shiraz University
Shiraz, Iran
Email: shahlaalb@yahoo.com

Mohammad Khayyer, Ph.D.
Professor
College of Education and Psychology
Shiraz University
Shiraz, Iran

Tina L. Johnston, Ph.D.
Department of Science and Mathematics Education
Oregon State University
Corvallis, OR
USA

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