CHICAGO -- Having a lifelong commitment to a loved one means you never have to say you're sorry. But having a lifelong "commitment" to your job means having to say you're very serious about it.
The option to pledge devotion to a career is relatively new for the nation's employed women.
Those who are thus committed tend to be women who are financially independent and have no children younger than 18, according to new research by Helena Z. Lopata, professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Social Roles at Loyola University of Chicago.
"In the 1950s, women were pushed to have a total commitment to family and homemaking," said Lopata, who has a doctorate in sociology and has studied the roles of women since 1956. "That has changed considerably."
In her study of 1,635 employed city and suburban women age 25 to 54, Lopata found in overlapping categories that 78 percent of single women put their job first; 24 percent of single employed women with children put it first; 17 percent of those who are employed and married do so; as do 7 percent of those employed, married and mothers.
Other findings about women with strong job commitment:
* They have a fairly good family income and earn at least 60 percent of it.
* They are well-educated, and many went back to school to get additional training.
* They work full-time and have worked for a longer period of time since leaving school than uncommitted workers.
* They have jobs they consider complex, high-status, challenging and interesting.
* They are well-paid and feel their salaries are fair.
Lopata, whose survey is based on data she collected in 1979, has done 100 additional interviews and intends to do more for her latest project, "Side Bets of Career Commitment of American Women."
"I call it 'Side Bets' because the more women invest in areas of their lives that will help them get where they want to go professionally, the more likely they will be able to be committed to their careers," the sociologist said.
Lopata found that salesclerks at store counters generally are not highly committed to their jobs. But sales agents in real estate and insurance are highly committed -- and make 2 1/2 times more money than clerks.
Women managers for small businesses are not as committed as female bank managers, who are "very" committed.
A difference between today's full-time homemakers and those in the past, Lopata said, is that today's homemaker "plans to return to the work she was doing before her children were born. She keeps in touch with her profession, even though she is totally committed to raising her family." Some female lawyers who have families do legal work part time, she said, thereby staying in their profession while rearing their children.
Another important change she found is the emergence of the "entrepreneurial" woman, who may have her MBA and who starts her own business in reaction to the rigidity of corporate life.
"These women simply refuse to function the way the establishment says they should," said Lopata, who is married, has three grown children and has always been in academia.
Commitment, she finds, is a luxury that often depends on how a woman can handle her many roles. "In the coming labor shortage, employers will have to . . . allow women greater flexibility to move in and out of the work force as needed," Lopata said. "If employers do that, they will develop workers who have loyalty to them, not just to the occupation, and will have low turnover."
The sociologist's research indicates that since the 1970s, when women surged into paid employment, "working women are getting more self-confident and more willing to invest in their occupations."
Her advice, if you want to be committed to your job, is "either don't marry or be sure to have a supportive husband. Don't have children or have good child-care arrangements. Get the education you need, find the right employer and make sure you have a network of friends who support you in what you're doing."
But economist Julianne Malveaux said commitment is more complicated than its relationship to social roles. "The labor-market reality is that with the proliferation of service jobs and the disappearance of manufacturing ones in the last 20 years, there are very few secure and highly paid positions," said Malveaux, who has a doctorate in economics and is associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of California.
"When you talk about women's career commitment as compared to family commitment, you presume that women have access to a full array of occupations, but they don't.
"To put it crudely, no one in the world has a burning desire to type, but that's where the jobs for women are. Women need to have the same kind of job opportunities and career ladders men have. Those are the things that lead to career commitment," Malveaux said.