Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives

Article excerpt

Competing Devotions: Career and Family Among Women Executives. Mary Blair-Loy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2003. 269 pp. ISBN 0-674-01089-2. $39.95 (cloth).

Despite the rapid increase in women's educational attainment and enhanced labor force opportunities, women continue to lag behind men in career success. Goldin (2004) estimates that only 21%-27% of recent cohorts of college-educated women achieve "work and family" success (babies and well-paid careers) by midlife; Mary Blair-Loy, in Competing Devotions, helps us understand why. Based on in-depth interviews with 56 women in top executive positions in the finance industry and with 25 women who left these high-powered careers to focus on children and family, she illuminates the factors that impede gender equality in the labor market and the home even among those with the greatest resources and ability.

According to Blair-Loy, two powerful schema help define the options of high-achieving women: the schema of "devotion to work" and "devotion to family." Schema operate at both the social and individual level: They are powerful not only because they offer shared understanding about how the world works and how it should work but also because they become internalized by the individual. The dilemma for high-achieving women is that they are caught between the widely shared belief that their profession is a calling, but so is motherhood. Under the devotion to work schema, market work is more than a job, it is a vocation. Work in these high-powered finance jobs requires single-minded devotion. In its extreme, only those who devote themselves totally to the job are worthy of the rise to the top. On the other hand, an equally powerful devotion to family schema sees motherhood in much the same light, as a life's work to which a woman must give herself over. One cannot be a "good mother" part time, and it is assumed that biology makes women, not men, the best caregivers of children. Because time is finite, it is difficult-indeed impossible for the most zealous adherents of both-to combine work and family.

Fully two thirds of the 56 women in Blair-Loy's sample of top finance executives do not have children. Blair-Loy sees these women as conformists; they do not challenge the devotion to work schema by trying to combine highpowered careers with childrearing. Instead, they forego becoming mothers. On the other side, the women who have completely given up careers to rear children also do not challenge either schema but rather reinforce the notion that occupational achievement and good mothering are incompatible. Interestingly, views of what children need differ for those who devote themselves to family versus those who continue in high-powered careers while also rearing children. …