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Reviewed by:
  • Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives
  • Susan R. Cody (bio)
Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives by Mary Blair-LoyCambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, 269 pp., $39.95 hardcover.

This work is a welcome addition to the growing body of sociological studies of working women. A significant contribution of this book is that it lends a qualitative consideration to a topic too often evaluated by quantitative measures. Blair-Loy uses the framework of "cultural schemas" to describe and interpret women's choices with regard to paid work and [End Page 223] family responsibilities. Cultural schemas are ideological constructs that serve to define what is normal, reasonable, or desirable. In this study, two cultural schemas are identified: the "devotion to work" schema and the "devotion to family" schema. These schemas are supported and reinforced within institutions as well as internalized by individuals.

This qualitative, sociological study is based on in-depth interviews with 81 highly successful career women, ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-50s. Blair-Loy describes the first group, made up of 56 women, as the "career-committed" group. These are women who have maintained a clear focus on their chosen careers as finance executives, not allowing personal obligations such as marriage and family to distract or detain from their professional ambitions. The second group of interviewees, made up of 25 women, is described as "family-committed." These are women who left their careers in finance, marketing, law, or other prestigious areas after having children. The vast majority of women in both groups have advanced degrees, many from the most elite universities.

There is, of course, much variation within each group, and Blair-Loy acknowledges that the career-committed women also are committed to their families, and the family-committed women to their jobs. In Blair-Loy's terms, the study "shows how people's actions are profoundly shaped by gendered cultural schemas that organize our categories of thought, belief, and emotions" (18).

The devotion to work schema, which emerged in the late twentieth century, emphasizes allegiance to the workplace, the promise of rewards, a source of identity, and requires a single-minded devotion to one's occupation. Many of the women interviewed for the study embraced the work schema and its benefits, especially financial freedom and social prestige. Many also were critical of the schema, however. They described the work environment as tiring, immoral, and unpredictable. A few women reported that they had been "blindsided" by an unexpected demotion or termination.

The devotion to family schema is also a modern invention, emerging most prominently after World War II. This schema is based on several assumptions, including the idea that women are naturally inclined toward marriage and motherhood and perhaps less obviously, that all mothers are heterosexually married to provider husbands. Although this schema has been challenged by the second wave of the feminist movement, social norms continue to exert enormous pressure on women to care for the home, even if they are employed full-time.

Blair-Loy found that many of these women were strongly compelled by the devotion to family schema. This was evident in their decisions to curtail professional responsibilities, either partially or altogether, soon after the birth of a child. Interestingly, a significant number of women in [End Page 224] the study remained childfree. Paradoxically, making this choice served to reinforce their belief in the family devotion schema and the need for intensive motherhood.

Like the work schema, the family schema offers many rewards to women, both tangible and intangible. For instance, women may view the financial support of a full-time provider husband as an important benefit. Many women were motivated by the intrinsic worth of the caretaker role. Despite expressing positive sentiments about the family schema, however, many of the women in the study relied on "negative examples" to reinforce their position. Hearing stories of working mothers with "out-of-control" kids served to abate any uncertainties about leaving one's career behind.

This research reaffirms our culture's emphasis on long work hours and restricted scheduling, while it also demonstrates how impractical such requirements are in a society largely built around dual-earner families...


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pp. 223-225
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