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The Careers of Professional Women: Commitment and Conflict

reviewed by Patricia M. Fannin - 1981

coverTitle: The Careers of Professional Women: Commitment and Conflict
Author(s): Alice M. Yohalem
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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In 1966, Eli Ginzberg and his associates published Lifestyles of Educated Women, a survey of 311 women who pursued graduate studies at Columbia University between 1945 and 1951. Selection was limited to students in all of the graduate faculties and professional schools (except engineering and dentistry) who met three criteria: "Pursuit of education beyond college, demonstration of a high order of intellectual ability, and membership in a generation with markedly broadened options."1 The original data were collected in June 1963, and represented one of the earliest attempts since the advent of the women's movement to assess the nature of women's participation in the labor force; their commitment to the role of work in their lives; the relation of their marriage and family constellations to that work role; and their expectations, satisfactions, hopes, and frustrations. The researchers concluded that, despite the prevailing myth to the contrary, educated women do not lead constricted and discontented lives; do have multiple options, with strong commitments to work; and are able to balance family and career successfully, despite discrimination. It was possible for the reader to imagine a middle class, individualistic "superwoman," and a relatively unconflicted working, loving, achieving, traditional mother who, although she was committed to her career, took breaks from the work force to have children and to view her career as secondary to her husband's.

It was also apparent, however, that discontinuities in the work force exacted a toll. Women (with children) who did not work continually were less likely to be high achievers. These women worked when and where they could, depending on the opportunities that remained after accommodating to the needs of their families. Often women who were high-achieving, continuous careerists expressed regret at the absence of husbands and/or families, while those who followed a more traditional female path expressed regrets about their achievements at work.

It is important to note that this study was done before the women's movement had attained its current impact. Although Betty Friedan had just published The Feminine Mystique, Ms. magazine was as yet unborn, and Working Woman had not appeared. Germaine Greer had yet to radicalize her audience, and the E.R.A. had not captured the attention of many women. The movement had not yet been identified by the media and most women had not had their "consciousness" raised. It is as likely that die responses of Ginzberg's subjects were based on prevailing norms as it is likely that today's women are responding to more egalitarian norms. The Careers of Professional Women: Commitment and Conflict by Alice Yohalem is a follow-up study of those women. The data were collected in 1975, and it is to be expected that much would have changed. In 1963, most of the participants were between 35 and 45. Thus, although they were raised before die movement became popular, many of their decisions about working and childbearing would have been made since.

As in the earlier work, the data are largely demographic, so the psychological states of the participants, if mentioned at all, are inferred from their solicited and unsolicited comments. And yet, although it is important to know the facts and figures about women's participation in the labor force, these data represent only the tip of the iceberg. Attitudes about work, the satisfactions and frustrations of participation may, in large part, determine the extent of commitment to a career, especially in high-income professional families. In these families a second income is so highly taxed that the woman can be said to be employed essentially for the intrinsic satisfaction the job provides. It is probably equally reasonable to assume that intrinsic satisfaction motivates most of the women in the sample. The pursuit of graduate education is, after all, not an entry requirement for participation in the work force. Thus, the focus of this review will be on some of the issues that may be raised by or inferred from the data rather than on the organization of the data themselves.


"Women who were in their late fifties in 1974 were more than twice as likely to have worked during each year after college than those born a decade later."2 Sixty percent of those women had always worked full time throughout the year and respondents with medical or law degrees were most likely to be in this category.

It is clear from the data dial discontinuity in die labor force was less a result of lack of career commitment than of family responsibilities, for once the children were grown, the women who were intermittently employed returned to a continuous work pattern. One is tempted to be relieved by these data, to say, "See, you can do it all—there is lots of time for you to have both a family and a career." Yet these data mask some of the costs. Women with interrupted work histories had harder times finding full-time employment and their achievement level, relative to their training, was substantially lower than that of their counterparts who were never interrupted.3 Of course, the same can be said of men with interrupted employment.4


To what extent are these women freely choosing their patterns of achievement? Only high achievers expressed satisfaction with their schedules. The only strong correlate with high achievement was the variable assessing extent of labor force participation: full-time, full-year employment. Yohalem describes the typical high achiever: "A recipient of a first professional degree or of the Ph.D. in a social science who had always worked full-time, full-year; was earning more than $20,000 a year in public employment or in a male-dominated occupation, and who had either never married or, if married, had borne no more than one child."5

And yet, if you ask young women what they want out of life, over 90 percent say they want marriage, and most college women indicate they want careers as well. This was probably as true of the sample studied as of today's college women, although their early career commitment may have been somewhat uncharacteristic for their time. As in die 1963 survey, high-achieving women with three or more children expressed some disappointment with their careers, while some high-achieving single women expressed disappointment with their family status. In the middle range (married women with 1-2 children), the major issue appeared to be the availability of adequate child care. That is, women who were less heavily involved in homemaking were about as likely to be high achievers as were their single counterparts. From the comments of the participants, the conflict emerges. Although these women were more or less willing to use help with home and children and could afford it, the quality of child care was of concern to them. It stands to reason that the most educated families in the society would be the most attentive to preschool education, and dissatisfaction with available day care was evident.

Respondents were offered the opportunity to give advice to younger women, and, although by and large they endorsed the dual paths of family and careers, many had reservations. The reservations were about husbands' attitudes toward the dual role and about the stamina the two paths require. Here, as elsewhere, it becomes clear that without husband support, it is extremely difficult to be liberated. A third recommended caution was the necessity for the sacrifice of perfection in one sphere or the other, a warning that one probably would have to settle for less in one or both domains than one had originally aspired to.


If one were to consider the demands placed on any individual by the dual full-time roles of family and career, it could be said that one need look no further for adequate explanation of less than top achievement. But it is precisely in the labor market itself that discrimination occurs so that female rather than male parents have so much difficulty.

In the Yohalem study, discrimination was measured only by perception thereof; that is, women were asked to assess the equality of treatment with male peers. More than half of the respondents identified discrimination; moreover, superior achievers did so more frequently than did their lower-achieving peers. These data suggest that even extraordinary career commitment is no safeguard; that, despite many assertions that it is lack of commitment that leads to discrimination, this is not perceived as being true. It is hard to imagine what sacrifice is made under these circumstances: Perceiving the need to make an either/or choice in career and family, some of Yohalem's subjects restricted their nonprofessional lives; having done so, they may have expected the system to reward their efforts equally with men. Of the subjects in nontraditional careers for women, about two-thirds experienced problems, although many referred to past rather than current jobs.

More than nine out of ten of those who were currently employed in business or professional firms reported discrimination in employment as did three out of five whose current or most recent employment was in higher education, hospitals, and government agencies. In contrast, half or more of the respondents working in schools below the college level, social agencies, voluntary membership organizations and libraries were inclined to believe they were treated equally.6

These data are somewhat misleading, as Yohalem points out, for "women's jobs" are far less rewarded in the society at large, both in financial and in prestige terms.


The data reported here are unique, representing the only longitudinal study of women of high education and motivation in the labor force. As educators become more aware of the salience of career goals for women, it is likely that larger numbers of women will make similar choices. Precisely because of the importance of these data to future generations, one would have wished for more; these are outcome data, based on only three antecedent conditions: opportunity, educational attainment, and motivation at the time of initial study. Large differences were found between women who chose careers as their primary objective and those who chose mothering; between full-time, full-year participation vs. part-time, part-year; between high achievement and low achievement. To what extent are these differences reflective of the labor market, to what extent do they reflect prior socialization and psychosocial development? It is, of course, unreasonable to assume that any single study could encompass more than a few relevant variables; even with computer assistance, sample size and the escalating complexity of analysis with increasing numbers of variables are prohibitive. And yet, one wants to talk with these women, find out more about when they chose, how, what factors they consciously considered, what conditions facilitated/obstructed change, what some of the parental antecedents of their behavior were. To what extent were choices actively made and how often did chance seem to be the major factor in their lives? Despite problems, more than three out of five respondents endorsed graduate or professional training7 and about one-third of the respondents felt that the women's movement had had a positive effect on their attitudes about their lives if not always on employment opportunities. Despite these assertions, the conflicts of these women remain remarkably similar to the conflicts expressed in 1963. Yohalem suggests that sex discrimination remains a major obstacle to satisfaction, as does age, and that policies regarding the availability of "flex-time" and child care be explored. It is this last item that appears to be both the problem and the solution, for it is the time and energy needed to raise children that forces discontinuity, that demands part-time employment, and that is unlikely to be assumed by large numbers of males in our current social system.


1 Eli Ginzbergetal., Lifestyles of Educated Women (New York: Columbia University, 1966), p. 15.

2 Alice M. Yohalem, The Careers of Professional Women: Commitment and Conflict (Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld Osmun, 1979), p. 15.

3 Ibid., p. 134.

4 Donald E. Super, The Psychology of Careers (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).

5 Yohalem, The Careers of Professional Women, p. 142.

6 Ibid., p. 147.

7 Ibid., p. 163.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 82 Number 4, 1981, p. 689-693
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1019, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:03:24 PM

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