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Communicatively constructing gender, marriage, and career: A discursive exploration of female doctoral candidates with non-academic male partners

Jenna Stephenson Abetz, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Located on a transitional bridge between the worlds of student and scholar, doctoral candidates face multiple challenges as they negotiate their personal and professional futures. Researchers argue that women more frequently report mobility, plans for parenthood, and the academic environment as hindrances to their desire to pursue academic careers. Framed in the dialogic paradigm and guided by Relational Dialectics Theory, the goal in the present study was to understand how female doctoral candidates communicate a sense of their academic and family possibilities in light of the cultural, organizational, and familial discourses they encounter. Data consisted of 30 in-depth interviews with female doctoral candidates married to non-academic men to examine how these women situate themselves discursively within career and family contexts, how the discourses interplay to create meaning for the participants, and how they negotiate the identity-related challenges they face. Three primary discourses animated the participants' talk concerning their career and family plans: (a) admiration and worthiness, (b) selfishness, and (c) gendered expectations. While their identities as daughters, wives, and mothers animated much of their talk, participants discursively attempted to marginalize selfishness and gendered expectations while centering their career choices as admirable, worthy, and fulfilling. Participants also navigated four central identity-related challenges: (a) educational differences, (b) uncertainty, (c) desires for motherhood, and (d) self-doubt. These challenges illustrate how the construction and negotiation of personal, relational, and professional identities bridge both interpersonal and organizational contexts. With discourse highlighting the double bind of "you can be anything" and "you can't have it all," the findings of the present study point to the persistence of gender-based pressures while simultaneously suggesting that the family exists as site that challenges, resists, and transforms restrictive gendered norms. Constructing ambitions, making personal and relational decisions, and navigating career possibilities was not an easy construction for these women. Understanding how professional women draw on particular relational and cultural discourses and how they negotiate the challenges they face with their partner fosters a rich opportunity for studying identity construction during a unique period of contestation.

Subject Area

Communication|Individual & family studies

Recommended Citation

Abetz, Jenna Stephenson, "Communicatively constructing gender, marriage, and career: A discursive exploration of female doctoral candidates with non-academic male partners" (2013). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3602775.