To be or not to be a devoted mother, corporate executive—or both? These are the choices and challenges facing career women more than ever. In Competing Devotions: Career and Family Among Women Executives, former Washington State University sociology professor Mary Blair-Loy examines the lifestyles of two groups of women and the decisions they made regarding the delicate balance of raising children along with—or versus—the long hours they spend behind an executive’s desk.

The first group, made up of 56 predominantly white female finance executives, was called the career-committed group. The second group, the family-committed group, was made up of 25 white women who left full-time, promising, professional careers when they had children. Using cultural models, Blair-Loy’s family devotion schema is made up of a stable marriage and assigns responsibility for home and family to women. The work devotion schema requires intense time commitments and strong loyalty to one’s career. Both models promise different types of rewards that, when summed up, are the means to a life worth living.

Still, not all of the women in both groups fit neatly into their respective boxes of societal expectation. While some of the women in the family devotion group were unequivocally happy with their choice, others lamented the loss of their former lives. Some members of the career-committed group also expressed sadness over being away from their children. As a result, subsets of women who see themselves as both devoted mothers and committed professionals emerged from both groups. For instance, 15 of the 25 members of the family group carved out careers based on part-time hours, even though employers and coworkers define part-time workers as “uncommitted, second-class citizens.”

Of particular interest were the attitudes expressed between the two subject groups concerning children. Family women were criticized by the career women for regarding their offspring as fragile and producing less resilient, clingy children. Career women were criticized by family women for failing to provide intensive nurturing. When asked if couples ever seriously considered the father as being the one to quit work and stay at home, the response was always negative. These attitudes reinforced Blair-Loy’s assertion that cultural acceptance of woman as a child’s primary caregiver only serves to perpetuate gender inequality, because the end result was generally detrimental to the woman’s career. A certain percentage also expressed emotional dissatisfaction with the homemaker role.

The good news is, as Blair-Loy broke down the career-minded group into pre- and post-baby boomers, she uncovered hope that as time goes on, the issue of work vs. family will morph into a less conflicted scenario. The younger the women, the more likely it was that both mothers and fathers shared responsibility for the home and children, providing hope that society is working toward more satisfying compromises at home and in the workplace. Blair-Loy’s book serves as a handy benchmark for the gender-studies scholar, illustrating where society is with this issue and where we’re headed in the new millennium, and a trail guide for women aspiring to a high-powered career.


Mary Blair-Loy, former professor, sociology
Harvard University Press
Cambridge, MA