Barnard College president Debora Spar's new book explores the image of the "hyper-perfect" female leader.
Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College, believes three words have made women hold themselves to an impossible standard. These words, she says, have perpetuated a lie that continues to fool generations of women in the workplace.
During an interview with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Spar explains the first time she realized she "had it all." The moment, which is also described in the beginning of her book, was when she was in a bathroom at New York's LaGuardia airport, running late for a flight, and using a breast pump. Her moment of realization is a far cry from the I-don't-know-how-she-does-it wonder woman executive with kids, a husband, and the perfect house.
"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," she tells Knowledge@Wharton, the school's blog. "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."
Spar says she resents the popular phrase, which has permeated culture through unrealistic depictions of what she refers to as the "hyper-perfect" working woman.
"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," she says. "We're all going to fail."
She also says that the phrase is "deeply gendered," given that no one asks men if they have it all. She says the subtlety of the phrase promotes a "dangerous double standard" that assumes men and women have unequal roles and responsibilities as parents. It also can perpetuate guilt in women, who may already feel societal pressure to be at home with their kids instead of running a company and working demanding hours.
In spite of all the barriers that women have broken as they've moved into the workplace, society still has a long way to go to eliminate limiting stereotypes, Spar says.
"Now we need to have men becoming part of this conversation. We need to start conceiving of substitutes, of new social structures," she says. "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."
Although Spar doesn't have the answer, she believes it starts with more women being honest about their lives, struggles, and realities. After writing her book, she says she now understands that other women feel the way she did during her aha moment:
"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," Spar says. "If we're all out there selling our perfect lives, we're really just perpetuating a myth for the next generation of women."
What do you think? Let us know how we can stop perpetuating double standards for women in leadership positions. Watch Debora Spar's interview with Knowledge@Wharton below.
WILL YAKOWICZ is a reporter at Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and politics at Patch.com, and his work has been published in Tablet Magazine and The Brooklyn Paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @WillYakowicz