Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000
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Elizabeth Smyth, Sandra Acker, Paula Bourne and Alison Prentice, editors.
Challenging Professions: Historical And Contemporary Perspectives On Women's Professional Work.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, l999, 334 pp. $55.00 cloth (0802043194), $24.95 paper (0802081436).
In principle, this collection is most welcome, for women's challenge to these calcified, rule-bound l9th century entities, known as the professions, is long overdue. The welcome is all the warmer as we note the wide range of disciplines from which the authors are drawn - Sociology, Social Work, History, Education, Biology, Nursing and Pharmacy. It is also encouraging to learn that the authors have been members of an interdisciplinary network on women and professional education, supported by the SSHRC: they were thus able to get together to discuss and plan this volume.
This said, one must underline immediately that this book is not about what are generally termed the professions. As the editors explain in their introductory chapter, "...to focus solely on women in the established professions would exclude most of the jobs that women do" (p.8). Instead, they aim for an expansion of the definition of the professions and of professionalism through an investigation of various types of women's work, though we are given no explanation as to how or why certain types of work were selected.
Thus, the dilemma is clearly stated; to study women and the established professions would merely place women within a male- defined framework, thus significantly limiting the analysis. Instead, the authors have embarked upon an alternative approach which, in practice, is an exploration of women's white-collar work. Their categorization of the various contributions by type of approach is innovative. We get, first of all, a group of biographical studies (for example, Janice Dickin on the Pentecostalist evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and William Bruneau on composer Jean Coulthard); next come group biographies, including Alison Prentice on three women in Physics and Peggy Tripp-Knowles on women foresters. The collection ends with collective case studies, such as Cyndy Allen and Margaret Conrad on women chartered accountants in Nova Scotia, and W.P.J. Millar and R.D. Gidney on women medical students at the University of Toronto.
The various chapters are a splendid read and one can hardly put the book down (even on a long train ride to Toronto!) At the same time, one comes away with more questions than answers. In particular, what does this book tell us about women's work? about the professions? The answer to the first part of this question is that we acquire a great deal of material; the chapters are carefully researched and provide fascinating detail about the chosen topics. But this wealth of material is not synthesized, either through references in each article to related chapters, or through a general conclusion. Instead authors draw autonomous conclusions; for example, Carol Baines talks of the academic social worker Elizabeth Gowan as mirroring the behaviour of male academics (p. 61); Bruneau says that Coultard was "politically and administratively 'marginal' at UBC" despite, and perhaps because of her musical importance (p. 110); Prentice talks about women physicists not being "fully excluded" nor fully integrated into the field (p. 135). But none of the authors make reference to each other and no one brings these (or any other) conclusions together. As far as women's work is concerned, we are learning a lot of detail, but attaining few generalizations.
As to the professions, obviously this is a much more self- evident framework for the volume, but the relevant terms are often accorded lip-service. For example, Elizabeth Smyth uses various derivatives of the word "profession" throughout her chapter on women religious, but this does not "prove" that those who profess are necessarily professionals. In brief, the main problem is that the new definition of professionals, necessary for the inclusion of women, is never articulated at any point within the book. The editors make reference to a traditional definition of the professions in their introduction (p. 5), but since they are aiming to enlarge and elaborate standard definitions in order to be more inclusive of women, this is of little help. What ties the various occupations covered together? What do women evangelists, academic social workers, medical doctors and composers have in common (just to cover one section of the book)? or alternatively, women physicists, nutritionists, dieticians, nurses and foresters (to take another section)? Are we talking about qualifications? their "way of working"? their income? In brief, what makes a woman professional?
Thus, the book is full of rich data, but conceptually disappointing - and at times, I might add, conceptually misleading as with Linda Muzzin's unusual use of the term "patriarchies" for the relevant (surely very patriarchally similar?) organizations to which women and men pharmacists relate. Is this merely a sociologist-by- training reacting to a book which is largely written by non- sociologists? Is feminist interdisciplinarity merely a myth? I think not. It does not appear too much to ask that a book that purports to be about women and the professions provide at least a preliminary definition for the topic at hand. A concluding chapter would have helped to bring the various threads together. And while the present grouping of chapters is innovative, the emphasis on the type of approach rather than on families of occupations has certainly masked preliminary conclusions which could have been helpful.
However, the volume certainly has an important role to play in our understanding of women's work. It is a valuable collection of material on a wide range of women's occupations. The chapters are generally of high standard and some are outstanding - for example, Sandra Acker's chapter on the caring work of women educators. But a book on women's challenge to, and transformation of the professions, which makes a conceptual contribution, has yet to be written. These authors have certainly cleared away the underbrush and revealed the contours of the problem, which is a valuable contribution. But given the size of the undertaking, it is perhaps not totally surprising that this first - and very courageous - attempt has not been a complete conceptual success.
Department of Sociology
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