Debora Spar on Women’s (Impossible) Quest for Perfection

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In her book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College president Debora Spar argues that women have come very far in the struggle for power but now face the tyranny of hyper-perfect images of working mothers and romantic notions of “having it all.” Recently, Spar spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about the unlikely moment when she realized she had it all, why we need to speak more openly about the tradeoffs of being in a position of prominence and why it’s time to stop telling women, “I don’t know how you do it all.”

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: We’re here today with Debora Spar, president of Barnard College and author of the book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. Debora, you draw a lot on your own experience in your new book. In the opening section, you describe the moment when you realized that you were “having it all.” Can you describe that and some of the realizations that stemmed from it?

Debora Spar: This is one of these really horrible, awkward moments that probably shouldn’t be put in a book, but I did, nevertheless. The book starts with this rather sad moment, when I’m in the ladies’ restroom at [New York’s] LaGuardia Airport, rushing to catch a plane and using a breast pump in the stall. It really was that moment where a light bulb went off, and I realized, somewhat ironically, that this was having it all. This was what it was actually like to have a family and be a mom and have a career and be a working woman. I realized that growing up, when I imagined my life as a working woman, this was not the image I had. Yet, this was the image that I was living.

All of my male friends who read the book – particularly when they read it in draft form – said, “Oh, please don’t include this scene because it’s just too embarrassing.” Yet every woman who has read the book says, “I was there….” Almost every working mother has to encounter these horrible breast pumps, and she encounters them at a very vulnerable moment in her life and in her career. It is these moments when you realize that you’re juggling, and it’s hard.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the other things you say in the book is that the feminine ideal that you saw when you were growing up was the “Charlie girl” in the perfume ad. Her hair is perfect, she’s managing her children, she’s managing her work and everything’s going perfectly. How do you think that cultural image has evolved? Who do you think is the Charlie girl of today’s generation? What influence has that image had?

“If you think about this historically, we had the same social structures for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.… It’s unrealistic to believe we would have solved it in just two generations.”

Spar: Sadly, we have made no progress. In fact, we may have slipped back in some scary ways. If you look at the images today, whether they be in magazines, in movies or on television shows, career women are glamorous. They are always beautiful. They are actresses. They are models. They may have children, and we may see some depiction of balancing acts. But they still look like movie stars. They still manage to pull off the kids and the career. Certainly, if you read magazines, you’re always getting a very glamorized view. Every female politician or CEO who you see in a magazine is always made up and buffed up. We see a beautiful photo of her in her home, which almost always has been staged by an entire team of interior decorators before they do the photos.

We are still seeing these hyper-perfect images of working women. We’re also seeing, still, these hyper-perfect images of women as homemakers, women who are delighted to be vacuuming their houses or doing the laundry. Sadly, we see fewer of the Roseanne Barrs, if you will, the women really struggling with working life. I wish there were more progress in this area, but I don’t see much.

Knowledge@Wharton: A college friend of mine recently had a baby. Afterward, multiple people asked, “Are you going to stay home?” When she said that she didn’t plan to, they said, “I’m amazed that you can juggle it all.” Nobody asked her husband those questions. It made me wonder to what degree these constant discussions about “having it all” may be actually perpetuating the problem.

Spar: I hate the phrase “having it all.” It’s a horrible phrase. I don’t know who created it, but we need to banish it from our vocabulary. It sets an expectation that is fundamentally impossible. No one has it all. If the standard is “all,” then by definition, we’re all going to fall below it. We’re all going to fail. It’s also deeply gendered. When is the last time you saw anyone asking a man whether he has it all? We just don’t do that. That’s really this new, subtle, but very dangerous double standard that I talk about in the book. Even in very casual conversation, we make very different assumptions about how men will be parents and how women will be parents. They perpetuate not only the stereotypes, but they perpetuate a guilt. Your friend probably is already starting to feel some levels of guilt — “Maybe I should be staying home” or “Maybe they think I’m Wonder Woman, and I’m actually not” — whereas her male husband just is getting on with his life, without these added levels of complexity.

Knowledge@Wharton: There has been a lot of talk in the past year or so stemming from the article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter arguing that institutions have put a lot of roadblocks in the way for women in terms of rising up the ranks, and from Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, saying that women sometimes create their own roadblocks. Where do you fall in that debate?

Spar: Between those two books, I fall smack in the messy middle. The issues that women face are partly of their own making and partly of societal making, but are mostly just complicated. That’s not a neat answer, but I think it’s the accurate answer. If you think about this historically, we had the same social structures for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They essentially worked. The man’s job was to have a job, earn money and provide for his family. The woman’s job was to bear children, be faithful to the man and take care of the home. In Marxist terms, it was a perfect division of labor.

We turned this division of labor upside down, for all the right reasons: to provide women with equality and opportunity and liberation. But we haven’t really come up with a workable substitute for it. The work of the home and the work of child care has not gone away. We really are left with quite a complicated situation. It’s unrealistic to believe we would have solved it in just two generations. Now we need to have men becoming part of this conversation. We need to start conceiving of substitutes, of new social structures. They won’t be quite so simple as women trying harder, because that doesn’t address the problem. I wish they could be as simple as saying, “Let’s have better state-subsidized child care,” but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

“If you’re talking about running anything, whether it be a bank, a hospital, a television station or a university, these are not 40-hour, flexible work week jobs…. It’s a 24-7 job.”

Instead, I think we need to change our expectations. Not that women can’t be totally ambitious or competitive, but they have to realize that “all” is a bad idea. Men need to come up with new models of fatherhood. We’re starting to get there. But men face stereotypes as well. Where is the media hero of the great dad who’s also running a corporation, with a working wife, in any way that seems even vaguely realistic?

We need to change how our public schools function, so that they make it easier for working parents. We need to change how our organizations treat parents. It’s a messy set of solutions. We can get there, but I think we have to realize that there’s nothing simple about this. We are going through a major revolution in social structure. There are no easy solutions during revolutionary times.

Knowledge@Wharton: A lot of the conversation in the mainstream is coming from academia, where you are or where Anne-Marie Slaughter was, or it is coming from the executive office, where Sheryl Sandberg is. What does that mean for low-income or middle-income women? How can you tell a low-income woman that she needs to relax when it might be very hard for her to relax when she’s doing it all?

Spar: This is a really important question. I don’t think we have spent enough time being honest about this question. Part of it is that all women face certain issues that cut across race, socioeconomic status and age. That’s the issue of expectations. A poor woman of color who’s a single mom faces massive expectations, far greater than the ones I face. She’s still supposed to look pretty, be sexually attractive, take care of her kids, bring home money and do it on her own. So, the expectations cut across. But the workplace environments and the workplace problems are quite different. I think we have to be honest in saying the kinds of things that will work for women who are trying to become CEOs are very different from the women who are working 40-hour-a-week, blue-collar jobs. They both have problems, but they are very different problems.

For the blue-collar, pink-collar workforce, we have to think about pay equity. We have to think about more flexible and more generous maternity leaves. We have to think about cheaper and more accessible child care. For the women who are in the higher-paid, “hoping to be CEO” or more corporate jobs, the issues there are less about maternity leaves, and more about balance and remaining competitive in the workplace. The issues there are more about whether women can take time off and then come back into the workforce. The issues are about embedded sexism, in terms of how people are promoted through the ranks. There’s a certain political correctness, in which we try to lump all women together. That’s actually blinding us to the fact that we really need to think a little bit more … about what will help women, and also [about] minorities who face some of the same obstacles, in different sectors of the workforce.

Knowledge@Wharton: There has been some admission in these discussions that there are some professions that are more conducive to achieving a fairly good work-life balance than others. I wonder, is that OK? Is it OK that maybe banking isn’t one of them? Or should there be changes to make it so it would be? Or, is that just not reality?

Spar: Part of it is not reality. If you’re talking about running anything, whether it be a bank, a hospital, a television station or a university, these are not 40-hour, flexible work week jobs. If you’re running an organization, it’s a 24-7 job. That doesn’t mean women can’t do those jobs. But it means that the women who do those jobs, or aspire to those jobs, have to either not have children, or have partners who pick up the burden of the child care, or have parents or in-laws who are very deeply involved in the child care. Or [they need to] manage to have their children very early in life and then move into those jobs. Women can do them, but we need to be honest. There are certain kinds of jobs that will never be part-time, flex-time or easily manageable.

It’s good to be honest, in particular, in talking to young women and young men. If they really are committed to having an active, enjoyable professional career, and a working spouse and a couple of kids, there are some professions, or some fields within professions, that will give them that flexibility. I don’t see that as stepping back, leaning out, opting out or whatever verb you want to use. I see it as just being practical. In my own case, I was ready to go into foreign service. I had gotten in; I was ready to go. Then something in the back of my mind sort of triggered the thought, “Gee. It’s gonna be harder to have a family and a husband in the foreign service. I don’t know that I ever sat down and worked out the math. But I went into academia instead, which has given me a lot of flexibility and a lot of control over my own productivity.

“It’s very important for women who are in positions of some prominence to be more honest about the trade-offs they have made, about the mistakes they have made, about the hard times they have had.”

Knowledge@Wharton: One of your pieces of advice to women in the book is that they should relax and realize that the only Wonder Woman is flying around in the invisible plane somewhere.

Spar: That’s right. The magic bracelets.

Knowledge@Wharton: Right. You suggest women focus on what works, instead of trying to have it all. But sometimes that’s a lot easier said than done. How can we really divorce ourselves from this need to be everything to everyone? It is instilled in us very early on, like you said.

Spar: It is deeply instilled, although there is a moment right now when these conversations are occurring, these books are coming out and I think they are healthy. I’m seeing myself and other people catching ourselves from saying and believing silly things, like the things … people are saying to your friend: “I don’t know how you do it all.” That’s a silly thing to say to somebody. Nobody does it all. Like feeling compelled to constantly dress up when you’re going out to have coffee with your friends. Like constantly feeling that the house has to be perfect. Constantly feeling that you have to bake cookies every single time for the school bake sale.

I don’t mean to trivialize it. But I think [we should take] every little step we can take to lower the stress level and be more realistic. It’s very important for women who are in positions of some prominence to be more honest about the trade-offs they have made, about the mistakes they have made, about the hard times they have had. If we’re all out there selling our perfect lives, we’re really just perpetuating a myth, for the next generation of women.

Knowledge@Wharton: How much do you think maybe social media has perpetuated that? Everybody’s out to create their brand on that, no matter what.

Spar: It’s horrible. I don’t spend that much time on social media, but I’m hearing more and more from younger women that social media is not only perpetuating these stereotypes, but also is exacerbating them. Nobody puts ugly photos on their Facebook page. Everybody puts themselves doing something wonderful, looking beautiful with glamorous people.

Knowledge@Wharton: Right. Making jam from scratch, while they build a table.

Spar: Exactly. I think people realize that it’s perpetuating all of these bad things, but it really is a dangerous slope we’re running off here.

Knowledge@Wharton: You are really upfront about how you are just as guilty of this as maybe the rest of us are. How important was it for you to be that honest in the book?

Spar: I’ve never written a book like this before. I’m an old-school academic. I’ve written serious, nonfiction academic books. This was really tough to get up the nerve to write. But there was an interesting thing that happened to me a number of years ago. The Wall Street Journal asked college presidents to write their own admissions essays. I whipped out something I had written in just a horrible moment, several years earlier, when I was having one of these terrible days where my husband was out of town, my kids were sick and the cat brought home a half-dead chipmunk. It was just a horrible day. But, I wrote about it. What was so interesting to me was I got an overwhelming response to this silly little essay because it struck a chord with women. I was bombarded with women saying, “Oh, my God. I’m so glad you described my day.”

I realized that there was a power in telling these goofy, crazy, messy stories from my life. I started experimenting with that mode of storytelling in the book. It was therapy for me, first of all, to put some of this stuff on paper. But I think it worked, at some level. What I’ve heard from many readers of the book is that it validated some of their own struggles. That has been a good thing for me to hear. It was scary to put some of this stuff out there. But I think what I began to understand when I was writing it, and I’ve definitely understood since the book came out, is that everybody has these stories. Everybody has the breast pump. Everybody has the moments where they are ready to kill their husband and their hair is horrible. They are blowing the presentation because their kid had to poop last night. The more we can get these stories out there without turning this into a massive sobbing event, it just normalizes the image of Wonder Woman, which is a much better place to be than perpetuating this myth of perfection.

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