Feminism gave my generation of girls a dream. It gave us open doors and equal opportunity, a chance to run as fast as the wind and choose the lives we wanted. And yet, as we live those lives and passed those dreams to our daughters, something changed. Somehow—without meaning to—we became convinced, and then convinced them, that having it all meant doing it all. That beauty lay within and without. And that being good meant being perfect.
This is an enlightening excerpt from the beginning of Debora Spar’s new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, in which she explores the state of women today both in their careers and also their cultural evolution. Spar uncovers some real truths.
As the President of Barnard College, Spar has the opportunity to work with some of the smartest young women in the country at the beginning of their careers. As a Harvard Business School professor, mother of three, and wife of 25 years, her own personal journey is fascinating. She realized she technically had it all on paper (which meant pumping for breast milk in the bathroom at the airport), but she questioned why having it all meant trying to reach an unattainable perfect woman profile. Can anyone do everything they need to excel in their career and still make a fresh batch of brownies everyday?
When did having it all change from having the opportunity to try to do what you want to being expected to be everything to everyone? We discussed this as well as why women are still scrutinized for their looks, this exhausting quest for perfection that is exhausting young girls, her best career tips, and, of course, the TV show “Girls.”
Some people have said that your book is a counter to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Do you agree with that assessment?
To be honest, I wish that people who were saying that it was a counter were doing the math, because I started working on this book way before Sheryl [started hers]. I’ve been working on it for years and years. I wish I could tell you [the timing] was part of some well conceived plan, but it was just when I was able to finish it. It is interesting that the book has come out at a time when there are several books on this topic. I’ve been working on this book for over five years so it’s just an accident that it came out at this particular time.
Timing aside, the book is in many ways complementary to Sheryl’s, but also quite different. It is a much broader book. Sheryl’s, and most of the books in this space, focus on the specific issues that confront women in the workplace. Mine is much broader and really looking at the issues that confront women in life which, of course, affect the workplace. I’m really trying to argue in part that the issues that really confound women aren’t what happens between 9 to 5, but it’s everything else.
When do you believe women started believing that they must not only have a fabulous career, but also look great and be everything to everyone? How did that happen?
I don’t think it was a single moment. It was an evolutionary process. It wasn’t like someone went, “Hmm, how can we up the ante on all the things women are supposed to do?” I think there are good intentions, but we as a society have just continued to heap expectations and opportunities upon women without ever really reaching a moment where we pull back and go, “My God this has become really unsustainable and unrealistic.” So I’m hoping the book helps to start propelling those kinds of conversations.
You say in the book that you often see women entering Barnard so exhausted from such pressure-filled years of high school. Do you think we will see that change anytime soon?
I tend to think that a lot of social movements move as pendulums. It’s not always that we move in a straight and linear fashion so I’m hoping we’ll see the moment now where the pendulum can start to pull back a little bit. Not in terms of women and girls ambitions at all, but I hope we pull back just in the sheer busyness. I think the moment is ripe for that. There is a lot of concern for the over-scheduled child and the over-parented child. I am in this strange position where I see these kids in the moment of college admission where it should be the real start of their academic lives. Unfortunately, many of them are coming in so exhausted that they are really losing some of the fun and the opportunities of what should be a really special moment.
What is your advice for young women starting in their careers, who may not be married or have children, but are trying to do too much? Should they be “satisficing” as you wrote about?
Nobody can do everything and certainly nobody can do everything well. So what I’m proposing in terms of this word “satisficing” is not leaning out at all, not opting out, not giving up. Let’s say you want to take this extra course because it is a great thing for you to do and you’re really excited about it. You’re going to have to give something else up. Maybe it’s tea time with your friend or a particular exercise regime or reading the Sunday papers. Something is going to have to give and it actually forces a useful conversation with yourself.
In the book you talk about how female politicians, and women in general, are still scrutinized so much for their looks and attire. Will there ever be a point where this doesn’t happen?
I think like many other related topics, a lot of this has to do with critical mass. If there are only a handful of women in the public eye, they’re always going to be criticized for how they do their look and wear their hair. But if we can get to a point where we are regularly seeing women running for office, then we will see a change. It’s really a question of numbers.
You talk about often being the only woman in the room in the first half of your career. Do you have any tips for young women who are outnumbered by men at work?
Know your stuff, speak your mind, and try not to overly personalize things. You will be more scrutinized than the men in the room so you have to be really good.
What is your hope with this book?
I’m hoping the book can definitely continue the conversation about where women are advancing, but I really hope to continue that conversation in a more realistic and pragmatic way. I hope it comes as a little bit of a sigh of relief for many younger women, which is what I’m hearing from a lot of younger women. It allows them the opportunity of greatness, but hopefully not burdening them with expectations that just become cumbersome.
Do men ever have this conversation?
I think it is a more women’s issue. Not that there aren’t very high expectations that men face as well. I think what we’re seeing now though is that we’ve really overturned the social structure in just 50 years. Because the changes have fallen more directly on women, I think that women feel more frustrated and confused. Their worlds have been turned upside down much more than men’s.
What are your top tips for women at the beginning of their careers?
I think the most important things, are the most basic ones. Try to do work you like. I don’t know any 24 through 26 year old woman who is at her dream job. Again, be realistic. You’re early in your career so you don’t have to love your job, but try to do work you like. And be good at it. I think those are the two most important things. If you can manage that everything will eventually fall into place.
You talk a lot about how this image of the perfect woman is reinforced in all the television shows we watch with these powerful career women who are also gorgeous. I’d love to hear what you think about the show “Girls” which goes against that type of leading lady in many ways?
“Girls” is a big deal. It’s not surprising that it’s become as popular as it has because it does show a more realistic version, not of all girls lives, but of a particular segment of society. I think it does young women a good service that way and I hope we start to see more shows like that. Television is, of course, always going to be like that. That’s why we watch it. It’s an escape. But I think that we are seeing them wrestling with young issues and not looking like models is a good thing.
Thank you for this book.
Don’t miss Office Hours with Debora Spar!