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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 10 Numbers 3 and 4, 2000

INTERPRETING THE INTERSECTIONS OF WORK AND FAMILY: FRAME CONFLICTS IN WOMEN’S WORK*
 

Jane Jorgenson
University of South Florida

Abstract.  The reluctance of many workers to take advantage of flexible work schedules and other discretionary benefits is evidence of the continuing influence of "separate spheres" ideology and other traditional value premises in contemporary organizations. This article uses the concepts of "frame" and "framing" to examine the interpretive context of work and family practices in the lives of female engineers, a group whose occupational culture informally maintains a strong bifurcation of public and private domains. Drawing on qualitative interviews with twelve women who are engineers and mothers, this article examines the ways they negotiate various interrelated cultural and institutional expectations in their efforts to create a socially approved, professional identity.


Introduction

As increasing public attention is paid to the dilemmas associated with the multiple involvements of work and family life, work-life initiatives have gained heightened visibility. In the popular press, news and feature stories have detailed the strategies of individuals juggling worker and parent roles, and have tracked organizational trends giving workers greater flexibility with regard to family needs (Hammonds, 1996; Brownlee & Miller, 1997; Hochschild, 1997a). Many organizations have reportedly moved toward the implementation of more discretionary workplaces in which employees are being offered a range of options regarding the scheduling of work and the management of their time (Glass & Riley, 1998; Hochschild,1997a, 1997b; Goff, Mount & Jamison, 1990; Kamerman & Kahn, 1987). Such initiatives appear to be fueled by interrelated changes in new technologies and organizational structures that have enabled employees to work from home, thereby diminishing the importance of physical place in job performance (Goodmeasure, 1985).

This blossoming of policies more supportive to families appears to signal a transformational change, a serious rethinking of old segregations. It would seem that work and family are being reconceptualized as mutually related and even mutually enhancing -- rather than competing -- systems. Yet in spite of recent policy changes, there are clues that the segmentist assumptions of the industrial era that sharply distinguish between "home" and "work" as separate realms (Nippert-Eng, 1996), do not seem to have changed very much. In a recent Virginia court case, for example, an employee challenged her employer's right to fire her because she was pregnant. Although a judge ruled in the plaintiff's favor, a higher court overturned the decision citing Virginia's status as an "at-will" state in which either party may terminate the employment relationship for any reason (Davis, 1996). Women in academic environments are reportedly reluctant to "stop the tenure clock," or otherwise take advantage of so-called family-friendly options, anticipating that to do so will disadvantage them in the tenure process ("The best of both worlds," 1995). Nationwide, a much higher proportion of firms claim to offer flexible schedules than report workers of both sexes using them (Hochschild, 1997b; Christensen, 1989).

Even so, the much publicized boom in flexible work schedules and other family-responsive policies does not necessarily signify transformational social change around work and family issues because such change rests to a large degree on changes in the interpretive frameworks within which work-family policies in organizations are situated. The expanding array of options for alternative work arrangements may actually divert attention from other, less obvious kinds of compartmentalizing of public and private behavior as revealed, for example, in the persistence ofinformalworkplace norms emphasizing employees' full-time office presence and visibility as prerequisites for promotion (Perin, 1991). From this perspective, the discrepancy between the availability of family-friendly benefits and their actual use by workers might be a consequence of workplace cultures that unintentionally foster normative expectations of work life and family life as "separate spheres." "Separate spheres" thinking assumes a firm separation between the values associated with "home" and "family" as nurturing havens, and the alienating and instrumental values that are assumed to dominate in the realm of paid work (Coltrane, 1996; Nippert-Eng, 1996; Ferree, 1991). Originally a Victorian ideal, the imagery of separate spheres has continued to influence our views of working life in significant ways (Coltrane, 1996). Particularly in rational-bureaucratic organizations, this model has given rise to what Kanter 1977a) refers to as the "act as though" principle, which implicitly requires of employees that "while you are here [at work] you will act as though you have no other loyalty, no other life" (p. 15). It is this longstanding bifurcation of public and private life that may account for some of the current ambivalence among employees and their supervisors toward new ways of working such as flextime and telecommuting that appear to breach the traditional separations.

The ideology of separate spheres has significant implications for the work and family strategies of working women, particularly those who are entering formerly male-dominated enclaves and laying claim to new kinds of work in management and the professions. According to feminist scholars, the separate spheres ideal has perpetuated the symbolic association of women with the "private" and men with the "public" domains of social life, and it continues to be manifested in the identification of women with domestic work and caregiving tasks (Martin, 1990; Reverby & Helly, 1992; Rosaldo, 1974). Women who work outside the home for pay, particularly those who are few in number among male peers, encounter unstated assumptions that their work in organizations is secondary to men's work and to the roles of wife and mother (Buzzanell, 1995; Kanter, 1977b). Thus, workplace interactions that draw co-workers' attention to women's identities as mothers and caregivers are likely to undermine women's legitimacy as committed professionals. Work and family issues represent an arena of "suppressed gender conflict" in organizational life (Martin, 1990) to the extent that an organization's work-family practices either formally or informally reify false dichotomies between public and private realms and thereby marginalize female workers.

Such dilemmas stand at the center of the present analysis, which focuses on the experiences of a group of women who work in a historically male-dominated occupational milieu. Relative to other occupations, engineering maintains a strong dichotomy between work and family concerns (Evetts, 1996; McIlwee & Robinson, 1992). This is undoubtedly due in some measure to women's continuing numerical underrepresentation in the field (women currently account for approximately 8% of the engineering labor force (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995), but it may also be attributed to occupational norms that maintain male-centered definitions of career success.

In attempting to explicate the value premises underlying the work-family dilemmas faced by women in engineering, the concepts of "frame" and "framing" offer a useful theoretical lens. A key construct in communication theory, frames refer to structures of expectations that enable members to construct meanings, to establish points of view, to answer the question, "what is going on here?" (Bateson, 1972; Goffman, 1974; Tannen & Wallat, 1993). For women in engineering, gender-based frames related to abstract, stereotypical notions of "women" intersect with normative expectations about professional (i.e., "male") conduct (Wood & Conrad, 1983) creating an environment of multiple role demands.

The present interpretive study uses frame perspectives to examine the contradictions between work and family in the lives of women in technical organizational settings, and to show some of the ways women negotiate these contradictions in their efforts to create a socially approved, professional identity. In analyzing women engineers’ accounts of their organizational participation and work and family practices, my goals are threefold: to make explicit some of the incongruent expectations associated with women's professional engineering identity and the various work-family conflicts that often result; to examine women engineers’ varied ways of coping with and circumventing these taken-for-granted assumptions; and to foster an understanding of these practices as appropriate, creative adaptations to the institutional constraints as these women perceive them.

Family and Career Identities in Engineering

In view of Bailyn's (1993)argument that different occupations propose different relationships between work and private worlds, engineering presents an unusually rich context for exploring the contradictory imperatives of "work" and "family" faced by female professionals. Engineering "is a masculine profession, if not the only masculine profession there is" in the words of the engineer protagonist in Max Frisch's 1959 novel, Homo Faber (p. 78) (also cited in Bergvall, 1996). Women's family responsibilities have long been thought to materially hinder their upward mobility in engineering careers. Research on the marginalized position of women in engineering and the sciences suggests that they have been discouraged by academic mentors and employers from seeing motherhood as compatible with continuing professional development and career achievement (McIlwee & Robinson, 1992; Evetts, 1996; Rossi, 1965).

Furthermore, recent work on the organizational construction of gender in engineering indicates that local workplace norms foster conditions in which women may find it difficult to voice their concerns about work and family issues. Engineering promotes a particular form of masculinity in which technical rationality is celebrated (Hacker, 1990; Massey, 1996) and technical expertise is valued over "business" or professional managerial perspectives (Kunda, 1991). Notably in high-tech, high-involvement engineering settings, the construction of masculine identities rests on the individual's intense emotional investment in work so that home and family become secondary (Mumby, 1998; Massey, 1996).

A recent case study (Eisenhart & Finkel, 1998) of scientists and engineers working in a nonprofit, environmental organization reveals more precisely the configuration of assumptions that constrain women's management of work-family conflicts. In this particular case, the small size of the nonprofit organization, coupled with a norm of hard work, left little opportunity for co-workers to take over the responsibilities of women who might seek a flexible or reduced work schedule. More significantly however, the organization was pervaded by a "discourse of gender neutrality," a way of speaking and behaving that promulgated the assumption that everyone was being treated "equally" and which, in the process, suppressed any acknowledgement of gender differentiation. This combination of elements worked against the integration of professional and family life because women who sought organizational support for their needs as mothers were seen as violating the gender-neutral discourse that said men and women are supposed to beinterchangeable.

Frame Perspectives on Gender and Organization

The present study draws on the concept of "frame" in an effort to examine some of these characteristic perspectives within engineering, particularly as they play on and recreate taken-for-granted oppositions between work and family. A deceptively simple term, a frame can be broadly understood as an epistemic device guiding the construction of experience. To frame a subject, according to Fairhurst and Sarr (1996) is to choose one particular meaning or set of meanings over another. In interpretive studies of organizational life, frame-based approaches, along with other "paradigm" models (Czarniawska-Joerges, 1992) have revealed how organizational actions and decisions are anchored in these taken-for-granted, largely tacit, structures of expectation.

In communication, frame and several closely associated concepts have been useful to researchers interested in constructing accounts of the gendered basis of organizational practices. This work suggests that assumptions about gender pervade the culture of an organization in relatively subtle ways. In an early article, gender-based frames in the form of "social myths about women" were seen by Wood and Conrad (1983) as giving rise to the multiple, interrelated constraints or paradoxes that characterize professional women's experience (see Jamieson, 1995 for a related conceptualization). Although "frame" and "framing" remain largely implicit in Wood and Conrad's (1983) discussion, these concepts figure in their analysis of paradox and double-binds, for, as they point out, it is through communicative framing or metacommunication that the gender-specific premises of interactions are negotiated.

Frame perspectives also permit exploration of the extent to which people have access to different sorts of power in shaping their experience. Even when women are demonstrating their abilities to succeed in traditionally masculine domains such as science and engineering, they must work to counter the assumption that women and men hold different relationships to paid work. Women's success in the occupational sphere, and especially in the scientific/technical arena, is strongly linked to the repression of gender identities that might be associated with competence in the feminine domain of home (Nippert-Eng, 1996). For women in male-dominated fields, the most commonplace expressions and activities can acquire gendered significance (Nippert-Eng, 1996; Hunt, 1984). A manager’s family photographs perched on her desk can serve as informal reminders to her colleagues of her other lives and responsibilities. The findings of the present study are intended to illuminate the ways in which female engineers seek to "frame out" gender along with its associated particularistic family ties, and how, despite these efforts, gender and family identity can be selectively introduced by professional co-workers into everyday interaction, serving as subtle mechanisms of control by the dominant group.

In such situations women appear to consider carefully the consequences of challenging separate spheres and other logics of bureaucratic organization; in some cases they acquiesce to expectations but in others they demonstrate their reluctance to adapt to current norms, instead reframing and redefining the received world in which they operate. Frames and framing, thus, offer a way of reading and clarifying a wide range of organizational activity on the part of female professionals and their co-workers.

Participants and Research Design

This research was accomplished through qualitative, open-ended interviews with professional engineers who are also married and the mothers of young children. Following the lead of previous exploratory research into the meanings of women's work experiences (Grossman & Chester, 1990), my goal in recruitment was to identify women for whom the topic of the research would strike a responsive chord, who would be inclined to be reflective and candid about their experiences. The purposeful selection of "information-rich" cases (Patton, 1990) creates the possibility for truly in-depth study of the experiential dimensions of working life. My job as an adjunct faculty member teaching graduate-level organizational communication courses in a College of Engineering facilitated my recruitment of some participants for this project. Initially, I approached two recent female graduates of the Master's program, neither of whom had been students in my classes, and described to them my interest in work and family concerns of women in engineering. The first two alumnae I contacted eventually became participants in my project and provided introductions to several others. Using a snowball, or chain-sampling process (Patton, 1990), I eventually obtained interviews with twelve women.

All were practicing engineers between the ages of twenty-nine and forty-four, working in a variety of engineering specialties including civil, aerospace, marine and geotechnical engineering. Although three of the women had shifted to part-time work schedules following the birth of their children, the remainder had worked full-time continuously except for maternity leaves. There was variation in the kinds of engineering work environments represented. Four individuals worked for large firms engaged in federal contract work in shipbuilding and aerospace engineering, five others worked for state or city agencies, and one for a large, diversified electronics company. Finally, two worked together in a small, female-owned and managed engineering firm, in which one participant was a partner and the other a staff engineer.

Several comments can be made about the demographic features of this group of interviewees. Clearly, such a recruitment process generates a selective sampling of female engineers. Although the range of organizational settings was wide, there were marked commonalities in race and education. All were Caucasian, and a large proportion, seven out of twelve, had started (and in several cases finished) graduate degrees in engineering management or related fields.

The experiences they reported and the themes I present here are not intended to be representative of all female engineers. Rather, my purposes are consistent with those of qualitative research that seeks to describe the experiences of a small group of people in enough detail and depth that readers can "connect to that experience, learn how it is constituted, and deepen their understanding of the issues it reflects" (Seidman, 1991, p. 41).

The interviews were designed to explore the ways in which women engineers formulate their experience of work and family, focusing on their perceptions of the relationships between these roles. In an effort to elicit stories of critical incidents, or particularly significant experiences of work-family conflict, I designed several open-ended questions to guide the informants' reflections in the following areas: personal history and academic choices leading to the selection of engineering as a career; current organizational position and activities; and perceptions of the climate for women in their organizations and in particular for women who are combining career and parenthood.

My approach in the subsequent conversational interviews was to proceed gradually at the woman's own pace from initial questions concerning education and and career decision-making to daily routines and struggles, and eventually to more sensitive areas concerning professional self-image. To some extent, specific questions emerged through the interview process itself. For instance, early in the interview phase of the study, the subject of alternative work schedules, including part-time work and flexible schedules, surfaced as a common concern among participants. This topic was incorporated into subsequent interviews in the form of questions about the feasibility and implications of adopting alternative work schedules to accommodate family responsibilities. Another unanticipated but energizing issue was the Society for Women Engineers (SWE), a national organization dedicated to serving the interests of women in the profession. Because one of the earliest participants expressed strong feelings (largely negative) about the organization, and because the topic related to issues of women’s collective identity, I also incorporated questions about participants’ views of SWE in subsequent interviews.

The interviews lasted an hour and a half to two hours, and were tape-recorded and transcribed. These transcripts were read repeatedly and thematically analyzed with specific attention to several "sensitizing concepts," categories that orient the qualitative researcher by highlighting the importance of certain events, activities and behaviors (Patton, 1990). The sensitizing concepts used here includedfeelingsandstrategiesassociated with working in a nontraditional, male-defined field, and thelogicsof bureaucratic organizational processes. The analysis attempted to organize and develop interpretations or detailed "thick descriptions" (Geertz, 1973; Emerson, 1988) of the associations and contexts relevant to the experiences they described. In the following description of findings, I give excerpts from the interviews in order to convey the nature of working life as the women themselves understood and evaluated it, and to allow readers to search further for multiple and possibly divergent interpretations (Emerson, 1988). Participants' names and other identifying information have been changed to protect their confidentiality.

Findings

The Blurring of "Public" and "Private" Frames

A choice between an engineering career and family is no longer an official requirement as it was in an earlier era when marriage was grounds for a woman's retirement from a professional engineering position (Pursell, 1993). Nevertheless, the women who participated in my study, by tacitly comparing themselves to the "ideal" engineer, continued to experience these as irreconcilable pulls. In several interviews, women invoked polarized images to describe the tension they experienced between the competing commitments of work and family. One summed up the work/family dilemma as it appeared to her early in her career: "I didn't want to try to be the perfect engineer because I knew I wanted a family." In this succinct formulation, her definition of herself as a less-than-perfect engineer was based on the implicit recognition that she could not meet the conditions of full-time work and an uninterrupted career. A remarkably similar conclusion was drawn by another participant, a civil engineer working full-time, who told a story about receiving a call from her son's daycare center after he became ill suddenly:

I was in a meeting [when the call came]. I called my husband; he's gone. I got one of his employees (he's a friend of ours) to go and take my kid to the doctor. But that happens. That happens. And part of that's the whole perfectionist thing . . . I cannot be . . . I just have to realize I cannot be the perfect mother and the perfect engineer. Childcare and health emergencies such as this, in which parents must improvise on-the-spot solutions, require working mothers to reckon with culturally approved notions of the "good mother" (Hays, 1996). Such keenly-felt experiences intensify the ambivalence many women -- in engineering as well as in other occupations -- feel about assuming work roles that interfere with their single-minded devotion to their children. The notion that a good mother is available to her children was suggested in another participant's discussion of whether or not to accept a desired promotion knowing that it would lengthen her working day from four p.m. until six or seven in the evening. Here, too, professional and family roles are sharply dichotomized: You've got this scale of your priorities, your family being 100% and your job being zero, and your job being 100% and your family being zero. And at least where I am, it's scattered, there are people on every level on that scale. . . there's certainly no right or wrong answer, it is an individual decision but the hardest part about making that decision is that no matter what you choose you are judged by society, some way, shape or form we're judged. . . I think society puts a lot of guilt on us. To me, if I ever started to feel guilty then it's time for me to stop. This participant, Amy, was a full-time marine engineer and supervisor of ship construction as well as the mother of a four-year old daughter. She indicated to me her willingness to accept the promotion if it was good for her career "and if it's something I enjoy . . . [as long as] I know that I've taken care of what I need to take care of at home." High in promotion aspirations, Amy emphasized that these are "individual" decisions, rather than collective problems, whose resolution involves strenuous, personal effort not to feel guilty. She seemed to say, in Buzzanell's (1998) words, that she has "only [herself] to credit for making, or blame for feeling badly about" her choices (p. 16).

Insofar as engineering, as Frisch's (1959) protagonist says, is representative of masculinity, it is not surprising that the identities of mother and engineer were felt by the research participants to be mutually incongruous, and that female engineers prefer to "leave gender at the door," of the workplace. Even so, these efforts were sometimes stymied by male colleagues who attempted to arbitrarily frame in women's marital and family status to work encounters. When these particularistic, nonwork aspects of identity were introduced by others into the day-to-day office context in order to justify exclusionary practices, they could be difficult for women to counter.

For example, Kate, an engineer and mother working part-time, described an incident in which she had made inquiries about a soon-to-be-vacant position elsewhere within her own organization. She was the mother of a three-year-old and had argued successfully the previous year for the option of working part-time. After hearing of her interest in the upcoming vacancy, a senior manager made the following remarks to one of her peers, a male, who later reported the conversation to her: "She wouldn't be a good candidate [for that position]. First of all, she's a female; second, she's part-time; and third, she might have another baby." The incident was significant to Kate, in part, because it was a direct expression of gender prejudice in a legal-bureaucratic organizational context where, she believed, overt prejudice was generally regarded as inappropriate. Upset by the comments, she subsequently reported the incident in writing to her own supervisor who agreed to support her formal complaint against the senior manager. Although the supervisor was later reprimanded for his remarks, Kate chose not to pursue the vacant position further.

The manager's remark about Kate is significant for its unspoken yet potent assumptions about the relevant criteria of organizational fitness. Her initial inquiry about the vacant position cued for the manager a gender-specific frame highlighting the purported fragility of women engineers' commitment to their work; her inquiry reinforced his belief about the kinds of jobs women want and are willing to put up with -- those that enable them to fulfill domestic commitments but provide neither security nor challenge (Apter & Garnsey, 1994). In drawing the connection between her presumed organizational effectiveness and her gender and family status, the manager's comments are striking evidence of how "tangential indicators" of organizational commitment, rather than performance or merit, can be used in the assessment of employee contributions and the distribution of rewards (Bailyn, 1993; Kanter, 1977b). Furthermore, his comments, apparently offered in a man-to-man conversational context, reveal the presence of intraorganizational barriers encountered by women moving into nontraditional fields, where informal conversations among men sustain "micro-level boundaries" between insiders and outsiders (Gerson & Peiss, 1985, p.320). Of course, Kate does not share the manager's frame; nevertheless, the reported remark is effective in stimulating her awareness of being different.

According to another engineer, it is not only one's status as mother, but also one's performance as mother that is open to appraisal by colleagues. Amy, the full-time construction supervisor in shipbuilding, emphasized the interrelationship of public and private performances in describing how her male boss objected to her periodic absences to care for her asthmatic daughter:

He never said it to me but he said it to people who worked for me. There was no question -- in his opinion, if you've got family obligations, if you've got a kid who's got pneumonia, then you need to have another job. You need to take care of your family and let men build ships, and, you know, even so, we had a good working relationship, he had a lot to offer me in the way of experience . . . [but] I was late one morning cause I had to wait ‘til she woke up to see if she was still wheezing, and he said, "She should be home with her kid." As in the previous example, the comments are evidently uttered in the "private" context of casual conversation to a third party, which serves to amplify its emotional consequences because of the difficulty for women to anticipate reliably when such ascriptions will be made by others. This symbolic identification of women with family responsibility makes a normative leap (Schon & Rein, 1994) -- from "she is the mother of a sick child" to "she ought to be at home" -- in such a way as to make it seem compelling and obvious. The story not only reflects the "below the surface" sexism that has been found to characterize engineering settings (Frehill, 1997), but it also reveals a broader irony underlying the gendered construction of separate spheres. In the context of the organization's dictates to its members to "act as though" work and family are different, mutually exclusive domains, a woman's professional performance nevertheless offers colleagues the grounds for scrutinizing her performance as a mother. Here, "public" and "private" frames of interpretation overlap, for, as phrased by Meyrowitz(1990), "an individual's front region behavior in one role is . . . an indirect back region to other roles" (p. 79).

"Everyone here works full-time"

In negotiating the conflicting frames suggested by the labels, "mother" and "engineer," women must grapple with prevailing organizational assumptions about the centrality of work in their lives. The particular configuration of these expectations obliges them, in practice, to conceal their family involvements, while displaying their organizational commitment through extended hours of visibility at work. The longstanding organizational premise linking an employee's performance appraisal directly to their extended office presence, which Perin (1991) has identified as the "office imperative," emerged as an especially significant issue for Kate. We saw this earlier in the manager's dismissal of her as a "part-time" and therefore non-serious job applicant and it came up again in another conversation in which her own supervisor cautioned her that her part-time status would seriously limit her long-term prospects. "Look around you," he told her: "Everyone here works full time." The devaluing of part-time professionals rests on a traditional, bureaucratic system of supervision and appraisal in which performance of employees is read, explicitly or implicitly, in terms of face time, i.e. time in the office. The assumed self-evident connection between organizational advancement and full-time work derives from an assumption that the amount of time at work is a prime indicator of commitment and productivity, especially for engineers and other salaried professionals, who exercise a high degree of conceptual control over their work and whose output is difficult for supervisors to gauge; given the relative indeterminacy of their work processes, time provides one of the few straightforward "measurables" (Bailyn, 1993; Perin, 1991).

Kate eventually came to question the assumption that face time is a reliable indicator of performance but her story is evidence of the powerful emotional reach that such value premises exert. She recalled that after switching to part-time status she felt embarrassed at no longer being seen as "a significant player." Then, inspired by the advice of two female colleagues, who told her, "You can no longer base your success on the forty to fifty hour week," Kate went back to her manager for help. She told him, "I want to feel like I'm doing a good job. You'll have to help me when I'm feeling down." The manager responded with a stronger show of support, including more frequent meetings, more "positive stroking," and Kate was able to recover her sense of contributing to the organization.

The office imperative also seemed to underlie another informant's practice of working forty to fifty hours a week even after switching to part-time status (down from her previous schedule of sixty to eighty hours). After making the decision to adopt a reduced schedule following the births of her three children, Judy, like Kate, worried that part-time jobs were not seen as mainstream. Whereas Kate openly questioned the office imperative and succeeded in influencing her supervisor to take seriously her concerns, Judy seemed to endorse the premise of face time as a valid performance measure. She defended the system that differently rewards the contribution of full- and part-time workers: "after all, think about it. You're working half-time you probably should advance half as fast because you haven't put in as many hours to accumulate the experience."

One implication of the office imperative is that as long as extended hours can be read as valid indicators of worker involvement, organizations are justified in limiting the availability of flexible arrangements to those who have demonstrated their commitment through extended office presence. Thus Judy noted that in her electronics firm, "people who are higher performers are given more options [for alternative work schedules]." This logic leads her to offer the following -- seemingly paradoxical -- deduction: "If you work part-time, you're more committed to the job." Within an organizational context that casts the use of flexibility and reduced hours as career liabilities, Judy has arrived at a counter-interpretation of working part-time that, at least in her own eyes, maximizes her legitimacy as a dedicated employee.

Variable Responses: Accepting, Defying, Reframing

As these accounts have suggested, women engineers seem to operate within a matrix of constraints created from the intersection of separate spheres ideology and habitual ways of assessing work performance. The narratives reveal a shared pessimism among them about the possibilities for changing these assumptions, perhaps because women trace the source of these constructions to a basic lack of empathy emanating from male standpoints and male prerogatives that dominate the occupational culture of engineering. As one woman engineer said:

The people who are managing engineering firms today are white males in their fifties and sixties, with the engineering personality profile. . . They can't personally relate to the fact that you can't work sixty hours a week. And that's part of the problem, I think. You know, they come from a very traditional background. They have very traditional family lives. This assessment was echoed by another participant: I think we still have a lot of managers from the old school that sometimes still have trouble grasping that you're a woman and have children and you have a family, and even though I put in a forty hour week I still have to go home and cook dinner and help around the house. According to Erica, the typical engineering colleague is a white male who has a stay-at-home wife "and that white male can work ‘til eight o'clock and his only need is, you know, throw a sandwich at him around six p.m." Speaking of her organization's resistance to part-time schedules, Kate was more succinct: "It's the culture, the mentality." Kate noted that one of her bosses was currently at home, recuperating from a punctured lung, an experience that she hoped would "open his eyes" to the possibility of employees working productively from a home office.

These women seemed to say, in effect, that such premises are "natural" and beyond their ability to change, thereby reifying these as masculine standpoints and limiting the generation of alternative strategies. Rather than organizing collectively to change the perception and availability of flexible schedule options, these women see these as individual problems to be managed, for example, by "stealing time" from one domain to meet obligations in another. Erica spoke about the scarcity of her time and energy resources, comparing her simultaneous commitments to her job, her husband and her son to portions of a pie:

You have to give and take. 'Oop, this week work gets a half, you know, and oop, this week, Jack, my little boy, gets more. Oop this week my marriage gets it.' With multiple involvements vying for her attention, Erica responds with "time thievery strategies," common practices in the lives of working women (Buzzanell, 1998; Hochschild, 1997b). Her particular solution to this conflict over time use is a combination of ongoing re-prioritization and human factors engineering -- later in the interview, she described weekends devoted to domestic work, "running the dishwasher, pushing laundry through the system."

The gender-specific frames of the good mother and the perfect engineer are grounded in institutional and cultural norms and are thus relatively resistant to transformation (Schon & Rein, 1994). Nevertheless, within this general framework of acceptance, some women found ways to subvert established organizational practices. For instance, Cathy, who had held a technical managerial position before leaving to start her own company with a female partner, recalled how she violated official company policy by secretly allowing subordinates in her work group, both men and women, to work part-time. This required her occasionally to cover for employees to help them evade the scrutiny of disapproving co-workers:

I would just fend them [the co-workers] off. . . I could enable that for people, and would enable that for people. There are a lot of managers out there who either didn't want to do it or didn't have the guts to enable it. Typically, however, strategies for circumventing established policies were less overt. For example, I asked Erica what she would do if a meeting ran beyond the end of working hours and she had to leave to pick up her child at daycare. She said, "I have another obligation" is the way I phrase it now. . . I'm sorry, I have another obligation at 5 o'clock and I use those words, "an obligation" . . . Or, "I've a 5 o'clock." You know, because that's the way we talk around here, "I've got an 11, a 1, a 2 and a 3:30." Well, I also have a 5 o'clock . . . Okay, my baby sitter is doing this work for money. Okay, it's not volunteer work. I pay her, and I pay her very well. So she's in it because it's a job. Okay? It's a full job to have four kids for ten hours. And so she needs to get on with her life so I am relieving someone else from their job. You know, so I'm not, oop, I've got to go be a mother. No. It's like, no, I have another obligation. Cathy recalled using a similar tactic in negotiating her working hours when she first started a job as an engineering consultant. The client had told her the hours were eight to five, and Cathy responded saying she had to leave at four: "I was kind of surprised at myself for telling him that.. . . I was proud of myself for saying, "I have to leave at four because I have business to do in Westlake." Both Erica and Cathy use locally meaningful terms ("obligation," "a five o'clock," "business in Westlake") to disguise their early departures, thus mapping their actions onto the language of the prevailing culture. As Marshall (1995) suggests, while "adapting" might be an appropriate word to describe such behavior, these activities seem less like passive acceptance rather than an active managing of the self by "working the organization" as they find it. Erica's remark about the baby sitter needing to get on with her life is particularly interesting as a cultural intervention. Said to predominantly male colleagues as a justification for leaving the meeting, her comments demonstrate not only her appreciation for the work of the daycare provider, but also offer a redefinition of the work itself. In saying that she must relieve the provider from her "job," Erica suggests that the so-called private work of home daycare makes similar claims and offers similar rewards to paid work in the public sphere.

Another strategy practiced by informants in various ways was to try to prevent the "framing in" of family status from workplace interactions; as one informant advised, "Never ever ever mention family needs at work. The whole time I was pregnant I never mentioned it." Even the decision to become pregnant is influenced by anticipated responses. Amy said she wouldn't have another child in her present job: "I'm not going to walk around on a ship that's being built with my stomach out to here." The disclosure of a pregnancy invites the assumption, again, that a woman will give up on her career, with the result that she will no longer be seen as a serious organization member (Martin, 1990; Sheppard, 1992).

The implicit recognition that the disorderly aspects of mothering may be viewed as undermining organizational control also played out in the kinds of public career narratives women construct, as revealed in a story told by Beverly, a civil engineer working for a firm that specialized in federal contracts. When Beverly became pregnant and decided to seek a temporary reduced schedule from her company, she submitted a carefully worded proposal in which she requested twelve weeks leave without pay at the time of the birth, followed by seven months of three days per week at reduced salary, followed by a return to full-time status. Beverly's proposal was accepted, perhaps in part, because it suppressed certain unpredictable (disorderly) aspects of the mother role. The application promised, for example, to request no additional days off during this period of reduced work (i.e. no "personal days"). Still, during that time, her child got sick, the baby sitter canceled, and she was able to get occasional days off when necessary.

Whereas Beverly's formal proposal was accepted by management, she described an unsuccessful application by a co-worker, the mother of a two-year old who had returned to work full-time following her child's birth. Difficulties in finding satisfactory childcare led this colleague to subsequently seek a temporary reduction in her hours. Despite the similarities in the circumstances of the two women, Beverly's bid was successful while the colleague's was not. One interpretation may be that Beverly's proposal promotes an overall appearance of life-course continuity -- a progression from full-time maternity leave, to part-time work to the resumption of a full-time schedule -- whereas the timing of the colleague's application indicated a lack of planning and predictability necessary to the appearance of organizational control.

Women Organizing as Women

The possibility of organizing as women to advocate explicitly for more family-centered organizational policies was not an appealing prospect for most of the informants. In negotiating a professional engineering identity, most seemed reluctant to identify themselves as women, as evidenced by their ambivalence about joining a national organization such as the Society for Women Engineers (SWE). Open to women from all engineering disciplines, SWE is devoted to advancing women's interests within the profession; yet several informants expressed outright opposition toward a group designated specifically as a woman's organization. One woman said she was:

philosophically opposed to that. As much as I enjoy supporting other women and mentoring them, and so forth, I don't understand why you have a society that's gender based. Another said: I was a member of the Society of Women Engineers in college. However, my belief is that the goal of the organization should be not to be in existence anymore. And another: When I was in college they had the Society of Women Engineers and I went to a couple meetings, but . . . they were too far out there for me, you know, I was more traditional in my, they were real extremist to me. Erica summarized the reactions among her colleagues to the proposed formation of an organization targeted at women in defense contracting, saying: The men around here, they say, "Oh, Women in Defense? What are you going to do next, have a Left-handed Person in Defense?" They don't see the need. They don't realize that just being a woman in a white male organization gives you a common bond. This reluctance to risk heightened visibility as women by joining SWE seems to be part of a broader strategy to frame gender out of workplace encounters. These participants are not inclined to credit the women's movement for their own career opportunities, nor do they appear to blame sexism in the profession for women's underrepresentation. In a variety of ways, they argued that engineering is "gender neutral territory" with equal opportunity for men and women. As Kate told me, "In twenty years, I have never been discriminated against," or in Laurel's words, "You make your own opportunities." And from their point of view, affirmative action initiatives to recruit more women only serve to undermine women's professional standing because they seem to imply that women could not be successful without special treatment (Bergvall, 1996). Affirmative action policy constitutes a particularly damaging frame in the eyes of female engineers, one that undermines their very presence in these organizations by encouraging the assumption among male co-workers that women were hired not because they were competent engineers but because they were "women."

Still, even though female engineers seemed to want to avoid any formal affiliation with women's groups or causes, this did not preclude informal networking among fellow women engineers. Through conversations with female peers, women found support for managing work-family conflicts. In fact the supportiveness, even inspiration, received from female colleagues were repeating themes. On the day of my interview with Erica, she apologized for keeping me waiting, explaining that she had just received upsetting news from another branch of the company about an employee's death from breast cancer. This news had come as she was making plans ("very quietly" she emphasized) for a female employee's reception to welcome a newly hired female vice president. Participants spoke of informal socializing at after-work get-togethers in order to share what one marine engineer referred to as "waterfront stories" and to exchange advice.

Conclusions

In the technical work settings described by these women engineers, work continues to be organized without much regard for its compatibility with family life. The research participants have presented themselves as evolving diverse work and family strategies within professional and organizational contexts that are marked by persistent dichotomies between the spheres of work and home, as well as by associated (largely unstated) distinctions between "men’s work" and "women’s work." The application of frame concepts highlighted some of the larger sources of those gender constructions and their local operations in workplace interactions.

In response to the professional repercussions that are perceived to follow from women’s symbolic association with home and family, these women engineers seemed to adopt various strategies for maintaining rather than deconstructing the boundaries between the spheres of personal and public life; clear public-private boundaries, insofar as they limit organizational scrutiny of one's various role performances, provide female professionals with a way of negotiating the organization's gender-based frames. Masking family commitments is one way in which they "leave gender at the door" in order to find acceptance within a male-dominated field.

Such strategies are not necessarily conducive to transformational change. "Stealing time" and the management of emotions, for example, may have helped women to distance themselves from the problem, but these responses tend to defuse collective action and prevent progress toward broad-based solutions (Buzzanell, 1998; Martin, 1990). Indeed, by insisting that engineering is gender neutral territory, and by avoiding the extra visibility that membership in a "women’s" professional organization would create, women engineers appear to support and "blend with" the gender status quo (Eisenhart, 1998, p. 206) that subordinates their concerns as women to those of men.

On one hand, the picture that emerges from their stories and reflections seems to depict these women as perpetuating the very assumptions that retard their career advancement. Yet this collective story does not do justice to the complexity of their accounts. Their experiences as working mothers have also given them a vantage point for appreciating some aspects of hegemonic masculinity in their organizational settings. And some participants, by negotiating for specific flexibilities that meet their needs, and by circumventing, and occasionally subverting official policies, have found opportunities to take innovative action and even to influence others to take their meanings seriously. These are not necessarily dramatic, "frame-breaking" forms of resistance, but as women engineers begin to examine and reflect on taken-for-granted realities, they may be initiating a process of slower, steady "frame-bending" change (Gardner, et al., 1994) in the ideology of separate spheres.

This study has implications for future research on the work identities of women engineers. One avenue would be to explore the variability within the category, "woman engineer," by comparing the views and practices of these women with others who actively participate in the Society for Women Engineers. A related inquiry would explore the orientations of these research participants to the work itself – to the technologies and work processes of engineering – to see how work and family strategies intersect with other aspects of women’s identity work as actors in a male-dominated profession.

* Author's Note:   This research was supported by a grant from the Institute on Black Life at the University of South Florida, Tampa, FL.  A previous version of this paper was presented at the National Communication Association annual convention in New York, NY, in 1998.

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