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CIOS - The Work-Life Relationship for “People with Choices:” Women Entrepreneurs as Crystallized Selves?
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Rebecca Gill
University of Utah

Abstract. Entrepreneurship in United States culture has been idealized as offering a flexible organizational identity, but has also been critiqued as subjecting individuals to organizationally preferred identities. An examination of work and life experiences for women entrepreneurs offers insight into the work-life relationship for people who ostensibly have more freedom and flexibility to make choices as to how to shape their material work-life as well as their work-life identity. In this empirical study, I apply Tracy and Trethewey’s (2005) theoretical concept of the crystallized self to explore the viability of entrepreneurship as a “solution” to work-life tensions and to draw out how women entrepreneurs discursively frame and manage their work-life relationship. I conclude that the crystallized self is evident in some women entrepreneurs’ conceptualizations of self, though they do not yet have a language to adequately express this. In addition, women entrepreneurs who over-identified with their businesses moved beyond the crystallized identity to experience a dis/integrated identity.

Feminist organizational communication and interdisciplinary scholars are calling for an increased focus on work-life relationships, specifically in areas that involve unconventional work situations, work-life relationships for marginalized populations, and people who embrace alternatives to the work-life dichotomy (Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003). Incorporating more multi-faceted populations and situations into the work-life canon is important to further this scholarship because until recently, much research has perpetuated a work-life dichotomy and has presented White, heterosexual, dual career couples as representative of work-life issues.

Academics and practitioners who write of the work-life relationship as a dichotomy to be “balanced” may perpetuate the notion that there is a “right way” for individuals to approach work-life. Indeed, Tracy and Trethewey (2005) note that organizational discourse promotes a real- self↔fake- self dichotomy that encourages individuals to suppress an authentic self in favor of an organizationally preferred identity. In place of the real- self↔fake- self dichotomy, Tracy and Trethewey suggest the “crystallized self” as a construct for understanding identity as faceted and complex. Such a construct creates space for individuals to conceive of their work and life identities as multiple aspects of one self, rather than as working in opposition to each other.

Tracy and Trethewey (2005; see also Trethewey, Tracy, & Alberts, 2006 [direct link to article]) encourage further exploration of ways in which the crystallized self is constructed and lived, and to this end, I explore the crystallized self vis-à-vis the work-life relationship for women entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs, as individuals who embrace a material business opportunity and the consequent financial risk, represent an ideal group to study because of the perception that entrepreneurship allows one to have control over or autonomy in her or his work-life “balance.” Entrepreneurs stand at the center of the real- self↔fake- self debate, as a discourse of entrepreneurialism offers unsurpassed freedom and flexibility, yet also requires individuals to adhere to strict organizationally preferred identities (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005). Women entrepreneurs are in a particularly complex situation because of the expectation that women work full-time and be responsible for the majority of home-realm responsibilities (Caproni, 2004; Clancy & Tata, 2005; Hochschild, 1989, 1997; Schor, 1991). Self employment is often noted as a potential solution to women’s work-life tensions in both popular discourse (e.g., Inc ., February 2004; Working Mother, Podmolik, June 2005) and scholarly discourse (Baines & Gelder, 2003; Edley, 2003), though others submit that working for oneself may actually serve to exacerbate work-life tensions for women (Baines & Gelder, 2003). Despite this, women in the U.S. have embraced entrepreneurship in astonishing numbers.

The Center for Women’s Business Research (CWBR, 2004) reports that women entrepreneurs currently represent the fastest growing segment of U.S. business owners (see also Moore, 1999), and in the years between 1997 and 2004, the number of women-owned firms increased at twice the rate of all firms (17.4% vs. 9%). In fact, a CWBR (2001, August) report identifies today’s woman entrepreneur as part of a new generation of women business owners, who are starting younger, have more professional experience and education, and who “have the same employment and revenue profile as the women who have been in business for 20 years or more” (p. 4). Edley (2003) and others (e.g., Shefsky, 1994) confirm this view of contemporary women entrepreneurs; she likens women entrepreneurs to third-wave feminists in that the entrepreneurial mother “is cyborg, role model, and active agent…she enacts third-wave feminism in her choices of multiple roles and responsibilities. She wants it all, has it all, and makes a difference” (p. 266). In this study, I focus on women entrepreneurs because of their unique desire to embrace work-life issues through entrepreneurship, as well as because of these impressive strides women are making in entrepreneurship. [1]

The entrepreneurial experiences of women are a rich site for the exploration of work-life issues and the crystallized self. Significant questions to ask of this population revolve around how the work-life relationship and entrepreneurial identity are framed and played out by women entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurship’s “true” ability to facilitate (or hinder) flexibility in the work-life relationship. In other words, what does the work-life relationship look like for women entrepreneurs, and how do they conceive of their identity? In this vein, I explore women entrepreneurs’ discursive framing of the work-life relationship and contribute to theoretical conceptualizations of work-life relationships and identity.

Literature Review

To ground this study in work-life theory and practice, I discuss key critical feminist work-life research, but then turn to more recent literature that complicates work-life relationships and identities. A more complicated understanding of the work-life relationship is necessary to ferret out the multiple possibilities and nuances of “doing” work and life. Specifically, I focus on discursive conceptualizations of work-life boundaries and “boundary work,” eventually adopting Tracy and Trethewey’s (2005) notion of the crystallized self as a useful framework for exploring the entrepreneurial work-life relationship. Next, I introduce literature on the work-life relationship for “people who have choices,” that is, entrepreneurs. I end the review of literature with a discussion of entrepreneurship and the “next generation” of women entrepreneurs as a growing population that can offer insight into work-life identities.

The Relationship between Work and Life

Central to a feminist critique of the work/life relationship is the acknowledgement that the “myth of separate worlds” (Kanter, 1977) creates and maintains a gendered and essentialist system, where men are expected to perform the role of worker/breadwinner in the public sphere, and women are expected to perform the role of homemaker/nurturer in the private sphere (Ferguson, 1984; Fraser, 1989; Hochschild, 1989, 1997; Kanter, 1977; Kirby et al., 2003; Schor, 1991). Though women have entered full-force into the public/paid sphere, the gendered myth of separate spheres has perpetuated, and women are still responsible for the “second shift” of housework and childcare/nurturing in the private/unpaid sphere (Hochschild, 1989, 1997). [2] The intersection of women’s full time paid work in the private sphere and women’s full time unpaid second shift has been described as role conflict, work-family conflict (Clancy & Tata, 2005; Kirby et al., 2003; Hertz, 2005), and negative spillover (when demands of one realm negatively affect demands of another realm) (Mennino, Rubin, & Brayfield, 2005). Scholars have offered diverse conceptualizations of not only the relationship between work and life (at times confirming or perpetuating the “separate spheres” myth), but also how individuals frame and approach work-life.

For example, sociologist Nippert-Eng (1996) makes a clear distinction between the work and life realms in her discussion of how individuals (a) segment/maintain discrete boundaries or (b) integrate/allow for permeable boundaries in these realms to varying degrees. In this work-life relationship, individuals can engage in “boundary work” that “consists of the strategies, principles, and practices we use” to determine the persons, objects, environments, and personal identities that should or should not be part of the realms of home and work (Nippert-Eng, 1996, pp. 7-8). Boundary work allows individuals to transition between work and home realms in order to perform their identities and material work in both realms.

Jorgenson (2000) likewise notes the tendency for individuals to segment the work and home realms and identities. The working mothers in her study chose to segment their work and life realms in order to create a workplace identity that challenged assumptions that, as women with assumed or actual home-realm responsibilities, they were less loyal to their organization. Participants in Jorgenson’s study felt pressure to suppress any spillover of the home realm into the work realm—and thus “masked” family commitments—and yet they were reluctant to identify such pressure as unfair or inappropriate, perceiving their segmented identities as essential to their success in their careers.

Edley (2001, 2003) helps us to understand how work-life boundaries are discursively created and negotiated, attesting to the centrality of communication tactics in segmenting or integrating home and work realms. Her research focuses on employed and entrepreneurial mothers and how they engaged both in mental/discursive boundary setting as well as physical/symbolic boundary setting. Rules created by women entrepreneurs allowed participants to both segment their realms by deciding that work can only take place at the workplace, as well as integrate their realms by believing that “collapsing…public and private boundaries [is] the only way to achieve balance between work and family” (Edley, 2001, p. 31). At-home entrepreneurial mothers discursively engaged in boundary work through framing their conflict in positive terms: working from home was an opportunity, segmenting and integration worked best around children’s schedules or rhythms, and boundary work was necessarily an aspect of time management and careful manipulation of time and space.

Conceiving of work and life realms as discrete realms to be transitioned between or negotiated as separate spheres is to be expected, given U.S. cultural norms regarding work. It is also evident how identity is inextricably bound up in the work-life relationship, as individuals may feel that they must “appear” as a certain type of employee, or in transitioning between realms, they also must adopt realm-appropriate identities. Research has continued to examine work-life identities and experiences in ways that have complicated work-life conceptualizations.

Rethinking the Work-Life Relationship

Work-life scholarship is beginning to break from such polarized views and instead challenge, problematize, and complicate traditional and “normalized” work-life relationships/experiences. While much research has attested to the permeability of work-life boundaries (see Kirby et al., 2003), Buzzanell (1997) in particular illustrates that in the case of dual-career couples’ experiences of work and life: (a) roles and realms are not discrete, (b) boundaries are permeable, fluid, and sometimes merged, and (c) roles are interchangeable. Buzzanell discusses a “triple focus” of life experiences among these dual-career couples that challenges the work-life dichotomy: career achievement, relational maintenance, and self-fulfillment. This triple focus does include the work (“career achievement”) and home (“relational maintenance”) realms, but adds the third realm of self-fulfillment, where one secures individual time apart from the other realms. Realms are “prioritized differently depending on couples’ circumstances, family decision making, parental role models, and partner roles” (Buzzanell, ¶ 21), though the career achievement realm is most often privileged in accordance with U.S. cultural norms. Identities and roles are managed to various degrees through emotional boundary work in order to “cross over” boundaries and transition between realms. [3]

Many times, conflict that occurs as a result of work-life tension is said to be best resolved through “balancing” one’s work and life responsibilities. Balancing is allegedly a holistic approach to the work-life relationship, suggesting that women (and some men) can and should “identify and pursue the right blend of activities [to] live a balanced life and be your best self” (Borysenko, 2004, p. 115). However, such advice could be considered a strategy for coping, rather than a strategy for change or empowerment, because Caproni (2004) critiques the metaphor of balance as reifying an unattainable goal that only serves to “undermine men’s and women’s ability to live fulfilling and productive lives” (p. 209). Borysenko and others suggest that balance itself is a myth (Caproni, 2004; Hammonds, Aneiro, Clayton, Korn, & Yankus, 2004), and that “juggling” is a better coping strategy, where one centers oneself and “[tries] to keep multiple balls in the air,” the emphasis being on a centered self (p. 115). Juggling, while still a coping rather than a change or empowerment strategy, offers individuals the opportunity to collapse the work-life boundaries and center themselves in an unbounded space.

This concept of a boundaryless individual, who is centered in her life and performs or manages work and life interchangeably, is intriguing, and calls to mind Tracy and Trethewey’s (2005) construct of the “crystallized self.” In their work, Tracy and Trethewey critique the dichotomized notion of an authentic or “real” self that exists apart from an organizational self or “fake” self as perpetuated in self-help books and the everyday talk of organizational members. They note how employees who perform “dirty” or blue-collar work “are frequently encouraged to consider their ‘real’ selves as separate from organizationally defined selves,” and white-collar or professional employees are “encouraged to align their seemingly ‘true’ or ‘real’ selves with the preferred organizational self” (p. 169).

Tracy and Trethewey (2005) argue this dichotomy is problematic because it essentially puts the locus of control on the employees’ own identity management. Continuing to think and write in dichotomous or binary terms reifies and perpetuates the dichotomy, hindering the potential for “transformative resistance,” that may “free those who occupy both preferred and marginalized organizational positions to relate differently to and at work, home, and the spaces between” (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005, p. 187). To counter the real- self↔fake- self dichotomy, Tracy and Trethewey offer the crystallized self as a potentially empowering work-life or public self-private self identity. The crystallized self rejects the imperative to “fake it” for the benefit of the organization, and is an innovative way of conceiving of work-life identities:

The crystallized self is neither real nor fake…[it] is multidimensional—the more facets, the more beautiful and complex. Certainly crystals may feel solid, stable, and fixed, but just as crystals have differing forms depending upon whether they grow rapidly or slowly, under constant or fluctuating conditions, or from highly variable or remarkably uniform fluids or gasses, crystallized selves have different shapes depending on the various discourses through which they are constructed and constrained. (p. 186)

The crystallized self identity is applicable to our discussion of the work-life relationship because of the connection between one’s work-life relationship or decisions and one’s identity (Hochschild, 1997; Jorgenson, 2000; Kirby et al, 2003; Tracy & Trethewey, 2005). To further explore the relationship between the work-life relationship and the crystallized self, I turn to a discussion of the entrepreneurial experience. Entrepreneurship is often touted as offering choice and flexibility in the work-life relationship that conventional employment does not offer. Thus, there are implications for the theoretical crystallized self that emerge from an empirical examination of this unique work-life relationship, and the crystallized self, in turn, serves to inform our understanding of the work-life relationship for entrepreneurs.

“People with Choices” and the Work-Life Relationship

The entrepreneur has been a distinct figure in the U.S. economy and culture (Bruni, Gherardi, & Poggio, 2004), and for some time, entrepreneurship was very specifically defined in terms of venture creation and product marketing (Bygrave, 1997). Definitions of the entrepreneur have increasingly broadened, however, and a contemporary definition states that an entrepreneur is “[any]one who starts a new business…the person who perceives an opportunity and creates an organization to pursue it” (Bygrave, 1997, p. 2). Babson College, a leading institution for entrepreneurship, now even defines entrepreneurship in a manner that is divorced from the action of venture creation, as “ a way of thinking and acting that is opportunity obsessed, holistic in approach, and leadership balanced” (“Entrepreneurship,” n.d., ¶ 1). I examine the work-life relationship for material entrepreneurs (though I consider below the entrepreneurial/enterprising subject), and define an entrepreneur as one who embraces a business opportunity and shoulders the financial risk regardless of what type or kind of service or product is being offered. [4]

Reported benefits of entrepreneurship often involve the desire to “humanize the balance between…work and personal lives” (Baines, 2003, p. 90) by offering choice and flexibility in blending, blurring, and managing the realms of life (Baines & Gelder, 2003; Hardill & Green, 2003) and fostering positive spillover between the work and life realms. Common reasons women give for becoming entrepreneurs include: (a) the desire to have work-life flexibility, including working from home and providing childcare (Buttner & Moore, 1997; Edley, 2003; Hopkins, 2003; Moore & Buttner, 1997); (b) the desire to follow one’s passion; and (c) because they are attracted by the autonomy, opportunity, and self-expression that entrepreneurship potentially offers (Edley, 2003; Gill & Ganesh, 2006; Hisrich & Brush, 1986; Moore, 2000; Moore & Buttner, 1997; Shefsky, 1994). For example, Edley (2003) argued entrepreneurial mothers often chose at-home entrepreneurship because it allowed them to negotiate the material realms of work and life in a manner that was “interrelated with their construction of mother/professional identities, their desire to be role models, and their inspiration to instill in their children a sense of self-esteem and pride in their work” (p. 270).

Entrepreneurship is not a panacea, however, and it may, in fact, exacerbate work-life tensions. Entrepreneurs are responsible for increased work obligations, which may include: (a) physical and psychological ownership; (b) employee training and supervision; (c) customer service; (d) marketing; (e) ordering and inventory; (f) planning and scheduling; (g) receptionist duties; (h) financing; and so on. This may be why entrepreneurs are more likely to work longer hours and to work more on weekends and in the evenings than are their employed counterparts (Baines & Gelder, 2003). Also, role conflict may occur when a self-employed person is called upon to be in two places at once, and yet ignoring one realm may jeopardize one’s success in that realm (e.g., closing the business to attend to home needs or prioritizing business obligations before family and friendships). Even entrepreneurs with employees, business partners, or support networks are still subject to working late and traveling for business. Moreover, self-employment can constrain the work-life relationship through pressure involving financial security and project deadlines.

It is important to note, too, that the work-life relationship may be more troublesome for women entrepreneurs because of the “imperative of maintaining a dual presence at home and at work” (Bruni, Gherardi, & Poggio, 2004, p. 416) that force “many women [to] construct their identities in the midst of contradictory and competing social expectations about career success and [woman]hood” (Medved & Kirby, 2005, p. 436). Since men are typically not responsible for the home-work and care giving associated with the home realm (Clancy & Tata, 2005; Hochschild, 1989, 1997; Schor, 1991), they may be more likely to work out of the home and to have discrete work-life boundaries (as with a conventional job), thus reporting less work-life tension than women entrepreneurs.

Despite the purported benefits to entrepreneurship, there does not seem to be a clear consensus on the extent to which entrepreneurship facilitates (or hinders) the work-life relationship. Rather, some recent literature suggests that such work-life autonomy is an illusion, because ultimately, the discourse of work and organizational expectations will impinge on the life/home realm (see Tracy & Trethewey, 2005). What is clear, however, is that at least initial motivations for entrepreneurship, especially for women, include the desire to have more work-life autonomy and flexibility to manipulate the work-life boundaries (Edley, 2003; Moore & Buttner, 1997).

Implications for entrepreneurship also extend to discussions about the enterprising subject (du Gay, 1996). As reflected in Babson College’s definition, entrepreneurship has become to be recognized as a mentality and not just as a particular career or business decision. Individuals in conventional job positions are encouraged to be enterprising subjects within their organizations (du Gay; Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000), as the post-entrepreneurial revolution “provides the possibility for every member of an organization to express ‘individual initiative’ and to develop fully their ‘potential’ in the service of the corporation…[offering] the individual the opportunity to feel ‘in business for oneself’ inside the modern corporation” (du Gay, p. 62). Though the enterprising subjectivity is idealized, we must remember the enterprising subject is still bound by “capitalistic discourses that materially reward entrepreneurs” (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005, p. 181) and as such, is susceptible to governance and judgment, and must engage in self-discipline and control (du Gay). The material entrepreneur is in the same situation: idealized, and yet bound by organizational discourse and gauges of “success.” So, though the enterprising individual and the entrepreneur are ontologically different, the crystallized self construct can not only illuminate the entrepreneurial work-life relationship, but can also offer implications for the enterprising subject. I propose two research questions to explore these issues:

RQ1: How do women entrepreneurs discursively frame their negotiation of work-life relationships?

RQ2: In what ways does entrepreneurship allow for shaping of the work-life relationship?


To address the research questions, I engaged in an empirical qualitative analysis to explore the narratives, experiences, and emotions associated with women’s entrepreneurial ventures.


In the spring of 2003, I interviewed 23 women in the Western part of Montana who self-identified as either entrepreneurs, business owners, or self-employed. All participants were either sole proprietors or they co-owned the business with one or more other women (usually a family member). I recruited participants using a snowball method, making initial contacts in various local Chambers of Commerce, and located ensuing participants through participant referrals. I sought women entrepreneurs who met the following criteria: (a) they were between the ages of 18 and 65; (b) they relied on their venture as their main personal income (or their share of monetary contribution in a dual-career couple); and (c) their businesses were entirely women owned.

An array of personal situations and businesses were represented [5]: home health care (4%), salon/spa (13%), retail (17%), consulting (17%), adventure travel (4%), food/beverage (13%), manufacturing (13%), construction (4%), automobile sales (4%), bicycle maintenance (4%), and print shop franchise (4%). The mean age of participants was 43.6, with a range of 18 to 58. Sixty-five percent of participants were married, engaged, or in committed partnerships, with 17% single, 13% divorced, and 4% widowed. Forty-eight percent had no children, 39% had two to five children, and 13% had one child; the youngest child of all participants was approximately 10 at the time of the interviews. Thirteen percent had no paid employees, 83% had one to 25 employees, and 4% had over 25 employees. Seventy-four percent of businesses were out-of-the-home businesses, 13% were at-home businesses, and 13% were run with home as a base, yet most of the work occurred outside of home. Median income (N = 18; five participants declined to report their income) was $47,777, with a range of $10,000 to $150,000. Two participants explicitly identified as lesbian. Though I made repeated attempts to contact women of color, I had to stop data collection for logistical reasons and I was ultimately unable to meet with any entrepreneurial women of color. This surprised me, as Montana has a statistically high growth rate of minority women-owned firms (CWBR, 2001, December), though I submit that this points to the relative invisibility of women of color and minority women’s ventures, a problem that is exacerbated in a largely White state.


All interviews were recorded and lasted between 40 and 80 minutes, averaging one hour. Interviews were generally conducted in the participant’s place of business or in a local coffee shop. An exception to this is two interviews conducted after a Women’s Entrepreneurial Network (WNET) meeting (I attended two WNET meetings, each in a different geographic location, in addition to the interviews) where I interviewed participants in the meeting conference room. I used a semi-structured interview schedule which allowed me to follow lines of inquiry particular to each participant. I asked approximately 15-20 questions of each participant; the questions relevant to the portion of the data analyzed for this paper revolved around challenges with balancing work and family and perceived family support (see Appendix A). Additionally, immediately after the interview, I either voice recorded or typed my reactions to and reflections on the interview (Miles & Huberman, 1994).

I began transcribing interviews while still in the process of conducting interviews. In the process of transcribing, I assigned pseudonyms and engaged in orthographic analysis (Wood & Kroger, 2000), where I paid attention to themes and key patterns or experiences that emerged. This allowed me to revisit and update or shape the interview schedule as I proceeded with the interviewing process. Despite this early focus on emerging patterns and issues, I maintained a semi-structured interview schedule, and participants at times dictated the interview flow or direction, a principle of feminist interviewing (Trethewey, 1999). After transcribing all interviews, I had 276 single-spaced pages of interview data.

I coded the transcripts using an open coding method of data analysis (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995). My first complete read-through was to get a general sense of the data. In my second complete reading, I began to make marginal notes identifying emerging themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994). I began a lengthy process in the third read-through of the transcriptions, where I identified specific codes that were both emergent from the data as well as informed by my own feminist agenda of wanting to explore gender and the work-life relationship. Clustering the codes together, I sought themes across the interviews that complied with Owen’s (1984) threefold thematic criteria of recurrence, repetition, and forcefulness. Among other themes, codes addressed the participants’ reasons for starting their business, the “creation stories” that the participants told about actually starting the business, participants’ use of networks and support outlets, and participant experiences with negotiating work and life. This data has been used in a different way in Gill and Ganesh (2006); for this project, I revisited the interview data and codes, and focused the analysis only on discourses of the work-life relationship. My results speak to the discursive framing and material engagement of this relationship for women entrepreneurs, the crystallization (or not) of identity, and the viability of entrepreneurship as a work-life solution.

Results and Interpretations

Women entrepreneurs’ discursive framing of the work-life relationship ultimately presents a complex picture of work-life. [6] On the whole, these women maintained the myth of work and life as separate realms and discussed their experiences as a segmenting of realms. Yet, a few women’s voices emerged from the data that critiqued the myth of the separate sphere; these voices stand out as particularly passionate or emotional. Simultaneously, some women entrepreneurs, while framing work and life as separate realms, moved between the realms with relative fluidity, whereas others had more difficulty with this. In the following section, I combine my results with interpretations in light of prior literature and the theoretical frame of the crystallized self.

Work and Life Realms are Separate

Eighteen of the 23 women framed their home and work as two separate realms, indicating that they preferred these realms as separate either because it simply was easier for them to balance life and work, or because it was necessary (due to the nature of their businesses) for work and life to be independent of each other. These women entrepreneurs conceived of these realms as inherently being in conflict with each other, at times specifically referencing the fact that as women, while they were expected to perform double responsibilities, they were unsure of how to get it all done and/or they were exhausted trying to get it all done. Segmenting emerged as a strategy to set boundaries in order to maintain the realms as separate, and the participants set boundaries in the following ways: (a) setting rules and personal boundaries; (b) creating physical boundaries between home and work; and (c) relying on a network of third-party help for childcare and housework.

Family Rules. The use of family rules to delineate the home realm from the work realm was common among the entrepreneurs and reportedly aided in reminding them of their priorities. Examples of rules included establishing “family time,” holding weekly family meetings, prohibiting business phone calls in the home, and banning work-talk in the home. Melanie and her husband have weekly meetings that help them to discursively define their work and home realms; this is particularly important to Melanie, as the business is a home-based business, and with her husband as her employee, she feels that they need to work to keep the realms separate. As she described, “We have bi-weekly meetings for work, quick meetings…And then, once a week, on Monday mornings, we do that for us. For our lives. And it really keeps things separate” (emphasis hers). Melanie’s emphasis on for our lives indicates that segmenting the realms is not a superficial task. In Christina’s case, she made sure to separate the realms with an eye toward personal time and self-fulfillment. She explained,

I exercise and that’s my time, and actually I’m training to run a marathon, so they know, when I go do my exercise and I run, my family gives me a lot of space. And that there is the key to my balance. I usually set my boundaries, you know, how I eat, how I sleep and how I exercise are very important to make everything work.

Finally, women who were sole proprietors often insisted that work was not allowed to be discussed outside of the workplace in order to protect the non-work space. However, an interesting contrast to this rule emerged for participants whose business partners were family members; these entrepreneurs were comfortable with workplace discussion outside of work, with other family members, and at family gatherings. Unlike the women entrepreneurs who banished work-talk from “other” realms, those in business with a family member seemed to perceive their partnership as an extension of their familial bond, and so it was “natural” for them to engage in work-talk outside of work. This may speak to a more integrated, holistic identity, where there is not a “work self” and a “non-work self,” but rather, a crystallized self.

Personal Rules. Participants also kept work separate from their home lives by establishing personal rules for themselves, as did many of the women entrepreneurs in Edley’s (2003) research. Many of the participants found it useful to establish set days off for personal time and also to invoke a “no bringing work home” rule. Yet this boundary was ultimately permeable for many entrepreneurs as they were not comfortable leaving their business in the care of another while they took a day off or a vacation. Thus, the struggle to take time away from work was an ongoing process for many, and I can best analogize this process to a parent leaving a child with a babysitter for the first time. Similarly, entrepreneurs reported bargaining with themselves on how much work they would let themselves take home each evening, though some were quite strict about not taking work home at all. Clearly, personal identities and feelings were built into the businesses, and while women thought they should segment, they seemed to want to collapse the work-life boundaries even more.

Physical Boundaries. Several entrepreneurs worked from home and explained it was especially important to them that they find a way to physically separate the work and home realms. Such separation not only served as a physical boundary, but also served as a symbolic separation of realms. Elinore, for example, does not insist on complete separation of her work and life; she has always run her business out of her home, but she has also always ensured that her workspace and living space are in entirely different sections of the house. This segmentation of boundaries is contrary to popular literature that advises at-home women entrepreneurs to keep work and home spaces in close proximity so one can “hop in and out of your domestic and business roles as needed,” and also to keep children’s toys and furniture in the home office space (Lent, 1999, p. 88).

When Christina, general contractor and construction company owner, and her husband (who is an employee of hers) built their house, she designed the first floor for the business, and the second floor for the family. To ensure a physical boundary, the house was constructed so that there is no way to move between the floors without going outside. This serves as a reminder to the family and the employees that work and home are separate spheres; to symbolically remove the labor from the home sphere; and as a work commute for Christina and her husband, giving them time to transition between work and home. This kind of boundary management operates in service of segmenting work and life (Nippert-Eng, 1996), but Christina explains that it is to preserve the home realm:

I designed it that way, because I wanted that separation because it was too easy, you know, for me to go into the office, and that’s not fair to my family. My family doesn’t need to be exposed to the high activity/stress of a construction company. We need to separate that, so we walk in from a high-stress day and it’s a very peaceful environment.

Using Networks and Hiring Help. Women entrepreneurs also hired help or relied on networks of support to ensure the segmentation of work and life. Forms of hired help most utilized were childcare, home cleaning, and personal assistants, and networks of support were most often parents, other family members, business partners, and friends. These “volunteers” would cover days off and provide occasional childcare or even help out in the business for a day or two. This type of assistance aided the entrepreneurs when they (or their domestic partners) just simply could not attend to all of the responsibilities in both the home and the work realm. Childcare was a specific concern of entrepreneurial mothers and was posed as integral to their success in the workplace.

For example, Sunni tried to integrate her young daughter into her salon, but her daughter would not behave in an appropriate manner for a “professional” work place. Sunni eventually had to set up a rotating community-based system of care (i.e., a mix of paid day care services and more informal “friend” services) for her daughter during the workdays. This system was helpful for Sunni to keep family separate from the workplace, but she reflected on having “a tremendous amount of guilt. When she was sick, I had to take her to [a hospital day care program]…so they could care for her, because I had to work.” Sunni’s experience with feeling guilt is not akin to only her; many participants, and most often those with children, felt varying degrees of guilt for allowing their work responsibilities to overshadow their home responsibilities. This kind of “mother-guilt” is reflected in the literature as well (Ehrensaft, 2001; Hochschild, 1997; Seagram & Daniluk, 2002).

While the women entrepreneurs in this study did not explicitly speak to class issues in hiring childcare, it is important to note that it is a “product of our time” that professional women often rely on hired networks of care in the domestic sphere in order to ensure their own success in the labor sphere (Flanagan, 2004, p. 111). Flanagan makes the case that domestic workers, often times lower-class immigrant women, are the stepping stones to (privileged) women’s success. The feminization of migration (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003) has ensured a steady labor pool of classed women who have little choice but to do the “dirty work.” Likewise, “volunteer help,” like that utilized by participants in this study, is often provided by family members who are called in to do the “work-I-can’t-get-to.” Such help is oftentimes unpaid and undervalued, considered to be “just helping out.” Gender remains at the center of invisible and undervalued labor, as men are often perceived to be “peripheral figures” in domestic networks (Hansen, 2005, p. 182). What this indicates is a cycle whereby men often remain free from the second shift, and women are responsible for arranging for and overseeing other (lower class) women to take care of it, perpetuating a cycle of oppression against women.

The majority of women entrepreneurs in this study discursively framed work and life as separate realms to be segmented and managed, despite their ostensible ability to make different work and life decisions than conventional employees (Edley, 2003; Podmolik, 2005). Most of the entrepreneurs who tended to segment, however, did allow for spillover or a blurring of boundaries from time to time or when necessary to accomplish work. Overall, the connection between their identity(ies) and the business was apparent, evidenced in an unwillingness to take time away from the business and also in allowing oneself wholeness of identity through work-talk outside of work. This may point to a liminal situation, where entrepreneurs desire to collapse their work-life relationship and identity, but the organizational imperative and lack of examples on alternative ways of living the work-life relationship are scarce.

What is particularly interesting is that segmenting was framed as necessary to protect the home realm, rather than to protect the work realm; a minimum of segmenting behavior was for the benefit of the work realm (e.g., acquiring childcare to maintain a “professional” work place), but entrepreneurial women indicated they most often segmented work and life out of respect for their partners or families at home, though fewer participants reported wanting to protect individual time or the “self-fulfillment” realm (Buzzanell, 1997). Such a privileging may be gendered, in that women, culturally identified as domestic nurturers, may feel an imperative to protect the home/family realm; however, it also speaks to empowerment and choice in work-life decisions. These women entrepreneurs are challenging cultural and organizational expectations that individuals privilege the work realm and adopt an organizationally “preferred” self (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005). These participants may be seeking a crystallized self, but may not know how to achieve or describe such an identity.

Work and Life Realms as One

To varying degrees, women entrepreneurs also discursively framed the work-life relationship as a singular, crystallized realm. Integration of the realms was not as significant as attempts to segment the work-life realms, with only a handful of the 23 entrepreneurs speaking to integration. Unlike the “ segmentors,” the “integrators” did not view the work-life relationship as inherently dichotomous or conflicting, and in fact, these women specifically chose entrepreneurship so that they could personally craft the relationship between their work and life. In this way, we see explicitly how entrepreneurship can allow for shaping one’s work-life relationship. The participants collapsed boundaries by: (a) crafting their workspace and (b) explicitly identifying with the business.

Shaping One’s Work and Life Space. Some women entrepreneurs talked about the work-life relationship as an opportunity to exercise choice and flexibility by designing their own workspace, and they reported explicitly choosing entrepreneurship in order to embrace this opportunity. In much the same manner as those who perceived work and life as separate realms, these women highlighted the importance of protecting the home realm or self realm in their experiences. As Julie confidently explained, she intentionally crafted her business ventures to incorporate her children, with the explicit intention to raise her children to understand and to have experience with entrepreneurial practices. Julie purposely chose ventures where her children could not only be present but also welcome. She explains: “My whole business was the kids went with…it was never a problem because I did business where it wasn’t a problem.”

At the time of the interview, Julie’s entrepreneurial identity was as a life coach, and her children had since grown up, but she explained that when they were young, she fostered a greenhouse business and a horse training business explicitly in order to collapse work and life realms and, I submit, to embody a crystallized identity that rejected the real- self↔fake- self dichotomy. Julie also discussed her commitment to “self care” as a facet of her experience, as she attempts to schedule weekly massages and can always find time to engage in a favorite activity such as riding horses. Julie’s narrative marks a shift in how people and activities that ostensibly exist in different realms can be conceptualized as existing as part of a multidimensional identity and experience.

Identifying with the Business. While all but one of the entrepreneurs claimed a personal identification with her business, some more than others evinced a deep personal bond with their work. I was particularly intrigued at how Cinda’s deep identification with her business led to the integration of home and work. Not only was Cinda integrated into her workspace, but her family was comfortably integrated into the workspace as well; Cinda called her business the family’s “second home.” Cinda’s children often use the large workroom of the sisters’ manufacturing business as an after-school meeting place where they can call friends, do homework, or lie down on the couch if they are tired or sick. In addition, Cinda’s business partner is her sister, and Cinda’s husband meets the family at their business after school gets out (he is a high school teacher). Cinda’s sister explained that, “since it’s ours, we have the freedom to work around [traditional workplace cultures].” As with Sunni, however, Cinda also expressed guilt because she, at times, privileges work over “life,” explaining, “If anything, I feel guilty sometimes because I struggle more personally with my guilt about not being home because I enjoy being here so much.”

Cinda’s narrative confirms the entrepreneur’s choice and flexibility in shaping the work-life relationship, but her entrepreneurial identity is reflective of sexist essentialist discourse that binds women to the home realm. Cinda’s identity is not entirely confident in its crystallized self; as noted earlier by Tracy and Trethewey (2005), entrepreneurs are still bound by organizational and entrepreneurial discourse. In other words, though entrepreneurs like Cinda may work towards integrating and crystallizing their work and life identity, they may have feelings of inadequacy or guilt—in Cinda’s case, mother guilt—because they are ultimately still subject to the competing discourses of motherhood and organizational life.

Over-Identifying with the Business. I found myself moved by the experiences of two women entrepreneurs who framed their work and life identity as one in the same. These women expressed emotional pain at the extreme extent to which their work and life realms and identity were integrated; in these cases, I would say these women had long forgone a beautiful, multi-faceted crystallized identity, and instead returned to a planar identity unlike the real- self↔fake- self dichotomy, into what may be conceptualized as a dis/integrated identity. The term dis/integrated plays with the notion of realm integration by suggesting that over-integration has resulted in the dissolution of realms and identities. This dissolution ultimately limits one's possibilities to craft an identity for exactly the opposite reasons that the work-life dichotomy limits the possibilities of identity formation. Wheras the work-life dichotomy offers bounded work-life choices, dis/integration offers virtually no work-life choices.

Elinore, though making attempts to segment her home business from her personal life by relegating them to different parts of the house, claims that she “married this business 21 years ago, and that’s what I’ve done for 21 years.” I asked Elinore if she made a conscious choice to not remarry or have children, and she elaborated,

Um, I guess it wasn’t necessarily a choice. It was that I ended up being married to my business…I never chose not to have children, but once I started this business, it just wasn’t an option. Even having a relationship; I’ve had relationships in the meantime, but I’m gone all the time. It’s very difficult to maintain a relationship and not be around…I’m deciding to change my life…I don’t want this business to consume me. (Emphasis hers.)

Elinore explains her business is consuming her, and that she is losing a semblance of a personal identity. This may be indicative of a dis/integrated identity, since her level of integration has reached such a saturation point that she has receded into a single-track identity with no facets and crystals and she receives little fulfillment or identity from either her work or life activities. Elinore’s identity was no longer integrated in any sense and had in fact, disintegrated, in essence, a subsumption of “life” by (entrepreneurial) “work.”

Like Elinore, Carrie expressed being overwhelmed with her work-life relationship. Carrie’s level of integration has lasted throughout the 25 years that she has been an entrepreneur; according to her, she is just now accepting the fact that she identifies more with being an entrepreneur than with being a mother and wife, and that she has always put her business before her family. Carrie evidences her privileging of her work self in her explanation of wishing that she could live in her business (in a lofted meeting space), coming in on weekends off, and watching movies (generally a “home” activity) in her store when working late at night. She also admits guilt in putting her business before her family. Carrie admitted realizing at some point that she “should” take up golfing and gardening, that she “should” get out of the business more. But Carrie is the business; she joked that she used to say, “I’m going to die at the front counter” but then changed it to “I’m going to die at the front counter when I’m 85” because she did not want to necessarily die tomorrow at the front counter. Carrie’s identity is collapsed with her business to the extent that she happily envisions her death occurring at her workplace.

Carrie’s narrative presents an individual who chose to integrate the work and life realms, and embraced entrepreneurship to accomplish that integration. However, after 25 years, Carrie’s identity has eroded to the extent that she is only the business. This may not be a problem, as individuals ideally should have more choice about how much they want to engage in work and “other” activities, but for the fact that Carrie feels immense guilt and pain as a result of her dis/integrated identity. It is ominous to hear Carrie’s painful narrative of organizational over-identification, especially when realizing that such an over-identification, or privileging of the organizational self, is often unquestionably idealized in organizational discourse (see Kirby & Krone, 2002; Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000; Tracy & Trethewey, 2005). Carrie’s narrative calls into question organizational work-life discourse, as well as discourses about women and mothering that are influencing Carrie’s feeling of failure and guilt and how she “should” manage the work-life relationship.

Only a handful of women entrepreneurs in this study framed work and life as one realm, but their narratives were moving and engaging. Entrepreneurship, as ostensibly offering work-life flexibility, clearly seemed to give way to multiple decisions and choices on how to shape the work-life relationship. Along with the integration of work and life, the integrated, or crystallized, identity appeared as a way of conceptualizing oneself, though not in explicit terms. In Julie and Cinda, we see women who do not conceptualize themselves in the dichotomous terms of work vs. life, but rather have collapsed the work-life boundaries to achieve a multifaceted wholeness or completeness —crystallization. Elinore’s and Carrie’s discursive framing, on the other hand, are striking in comparison, suggesting that too great a fusion may dis/integrate the many facets of one’s identity and leave one with little diversity of experience from which to develop an identity. Does this suggest that a person cannot develop a holistic or crystallized identity based solely on her work? This would seem to be corroborated by research that attests to the degree that we can(not) experience stress and emotional burnout from work (Miller, Stiff, & Ellis, 1988). Yet the dis/integrated identity is not hopeless; Carrie and Elinore reported recognizing their unhappiness and they were taking steps to foster change and (re)build an identity.


In this study, I endeavored to explore the work-life relationship for “people with choices,” and specifically, women entrepreneurs, to assess if the notion of the crystallized self (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005) may be a useful way to conceptualize the entrepreneurial work-life identity. Though the majority of entrepreneurs maintained the real- self↔fake- self dichotomy through their framing of work and life as separate spheres, there were some challenges to the dichotomy that indicate that entrepreneurship may allow for more personalized shaping of the work-life relationship and the ability for individuals to craft an identity that transcends pervasive organizational discourse.


Applying the frame of the crystallized self to the work-life relationship for women entrepreneurs, I found this metaphor does indeed (implicitly) appear in the discourse and identities of women entrepreneurs. Though women entrepreneurs do not articulate themselves using the language of the crystallized self, they are striving towards designing a space where they are not subject to traditional organizational discourses. This was evident for the entrepreneurs who both segmented their realms and integrated their realms. That some women were still bound in some ways by the organizational and entrepreneurial imperative, as well as by competing discourses about motherhood, implies that this is an ongoing process, and that in the crystallized self “there are always new facets…ready to be polished, cleaved, or transformed” (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005, p. 189). Indeed, instances when the life/home realm was privileged over the work realm are ways in which the participants resisted dominant discourses and shaped their crystallized self.

Two participants, however, evidenced a dis/integration of their work-life identity because of the excessive over-integration of work and life to privilege the work realm. Entrepreneurship may offer flexibility in work-life, but can concomitantly have consequences for the entrepreneur who neglects a non-work identity. This suggests the crystallized self cannot simply be theorized as the total collapsing or blurring of realms and identities, as much entrepreneurial literature suggests is an advantage to entrepreneurship, but the crystallized self must be discursively and materially maintained as Tracy and Trethewey (2005) describe it: multi-faceted and nuanced.

Tracy and Trethewey (2005) urge scholars and practitioners to develop the language associated with the crystallized self metaphor, and this study has contributed to this by indicating the language that entrepreneurial women use in describing their own work-life relationship and identities. Specifically, the participants offer ways for other women and men entrepreneurs to begin to relate to and voice their own work-life experiences not as dichotomous realms or identities, but as spaces where one can “shape” one’s own identity and work space. Included in this is the language of privileging of the home realm and a warning to keep one’s identity multi-faceted as a way to encourage nuanced and crystallized selves and avoid dis/integration. Practical and instructional literature for women entrepreneurs can pick up the entrepreneurial language and experience of the crystallized self and begin to encourage women and men to think outside of the work-life dichotomy. This is particularly important for contemporary women entrepreneurs, who are becoming major economic players and may be seeking examples of how women entrepreneurs can differently approach work and life. Furthermore, this study maintains that a clear consensus as to the extent to which entrepreneurship hinders or facilitates the work-life relationship is not yet apparent, though it does indicate some level of flexibility.

Suggestions for Future Research

Tracy and Trethewey (2005) offer us a new metaphor for conceiving of organizational identities, and the possibilities for exploration are many. In terms of this study, I would highlight three areas of future research. First, as the work-life relationship for women entrepreneurs is arguably unique, the work-life relationship for men entrepreneurs vis-à-vis the crystallized self is worth examining as well. Specifically, such a study could tie into the organizational imperative and notions of masculinity, which are perhaps more entangled for men than for women. In addition, more men are making attempts to take on some of the home realm responsibilities (Goward, 2005; Hochschild, 1997; Moore, 2000; Petroski & Edley, 2006, direct link in this volume), which may serve to complicate their work-life relationship in interesting ways.

Second, entrepreneurship is not the only career that ostensibly alleviates a work-life tension. Teleworkers and telecommuters are another group of “people with choices” who may offer more insight into crystallized selves. Of course, telecommuting is allegedly more restrictive than entrepreneurship because employees are contracted as well as bound by a specific workplace culture (Baines & Gelder, 2003). Edley (2001) has begun research on work and life experiences of telecommuting women and Hylmö and Buzzanell (2002) also discuss teleworkers’ home and work boundaries, suggesting that future research focus on the “gendered aspects of telecommuting” (p. 351).

Finally, as the study of entrepreneurship has implications for the enterprising self and vice-versa, continued research in entrepreneurship can offer insight into the “organizational entrepreneur” who is encouraged by her company to feel ownership, and yet who still must discipline herself according to organizational metanarratives. It would be interesting to explore if employed crystallized selves also a) made choices in order to privilege the home realm, or b) experienced some level of dis/integration, and if such choices and experiences are dependent on sex/gender, work-life, loyalty to the organization, position, length of time at the organization, and so on.

Ultimately, research on entrepreneurs, and specifically women entrepreneurs, will continue to prove fruitful. Women entrepreneurs’ increasing role in the economy and in culture will provide insights into alternative ways to understand or engage with the work-life relationship. Moreover, engaging work-life responsibilities via the crystallized self will continue to push scholars and practitioners towards exploring more nuanced and intriguing work-life relationships, allowing for individuals to reclaim the organizational self.

Author’s Note: Rebecca Gill is a doctoral student at the University of Utah. Data for this study were drawn from the author’s master thesis completed at the University of Montana and directed by Dr. Shiv Ganesh. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2005 Western States Communication Association, San Francisco, CA. The author is grateful to Shiv Ganesh, Erika Kirby, Brenden Kendall, and the three anonymous reviewers for their encouragement and feedback on this essay.


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[1] I would argue, also, that women may be better positioned to engage in entrepreneurship; though men have historically dominated entrepreneurship, women are less confined by public sphere expectations that might communicate to men that entrepreneurial failure is not acceptable, or that “good male employees” are loyal “organization men” (Whyte, 1956). Of course, on the other hand, women are also denied open access to the public sphere in terms of job advancement and access to funding and resources (CWBR, 1993; Hisrich & Brush, 1986; Moore, 1999; Shefsky, 1994) which may create more obstacles to entrepreneurship for women.

[2] Women’s wide-scale influx into workforce participation beginning in the 1950s and picking up steam in the 1960s began to reinforce as well as expose the myth of separate worlds, though it is important to note that women of class and color had been invisibly participating in the lower echelons of the public sphere for some time (Flanagan, 2004).

[3] Kirby et al. (2003) critique the label of “boundary” itself, noting that it “connotes an image of walls or barriers between distinct territories” (p. 5).

[4] It is important to note that entrepreneurship is not always an autonomous choice; individuals may find they must embrace an entrepreneurial sensibility due to changes in the nature of work (du Gay, 1996; Nadesan & Trethewey, 2000) or engage in actual entrepreneurship in order to maintain/advance in their career (Cheney, Lair, & Gill, 2002; Smith, 2002). Class and immigration issues also may determine the extent to which individuals can make the choice for or against entrepreneurship. As Shefsky (1994) points out, many immigrant women and men “start businesses because they can’t get jobs due to language and culture differences, or bias and bigotry” (p. 44).

[5] Statistics are rounded to the nearest whole number.

[6] I recognize that in discussing the work-life relationship, I am creating a dichotomy that suggests that work is not life and life is not work, when it is very clear that for many, work is very much a “life” experience. As of now, I am reliant on this language, however, as I do not want to use work-family or work-home (implying that there are no other alternatives than home/family), and work-life seems the most inclusive. This problem with defining phenomena speaks to Tracy and Trethewey’s (2005) claim that language that resists a dichotomy still needs to be teased out.

Appendix A: Schedule of Questions for Women Entrepreneurs

Socialization and Support

  1. Is this your first business? What gave you the idea to start your first or current business?
  2. What, if anything, made you feel like you could own a small business?
  3. Do you know any entrepreneurs, or did you engage in research before starting your business?
  4. Is your business successful? Why?
  5. Do you have employees? Do you work with or rely on anyone in your business?
  6. Where do you physically work? Describe your work area.
  7. Where do you currently get support?

Family Responsibilities /Conflicts

  1. Do you have any family or home responsibilities? Generally, what do they entail?
  2. Is your immediate family supportive?
  3. Do you ever feel pressure from your immediate family? What is the nature of that pressure?
  4. Give an example of how easy or hard it is to balance home and work responsibilities.


  1. Are there any particular problems that you think the woman entrepreneur faces?
  2. Can you give an example of your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur/small business owner?

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