Q&A: The Woman Who Wants You to Lean Into Less

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Photo: Steven DeCanio

In her new book Wonder Women, Barnard president Debora Spar argues that the triumphs of second-wave feminists have created a new problem for women: the obsessive, oppressive pursuit of perfection.

As we’ve noted before, nobody really needs another entry in the canon of “having it all.” But while Spar’s book has been heralded as the follow-up to Lean In, she’s actually attempting a sort of end-run around the whole have-it-all genre. Now that women can do anything, Spar writes, they’re expected to do everything, and do it excellently. She’s made it her crusade to tell women that they can’t have it all, nor should they feel pressure to do so (a compromise men don’t seem to have any trouble accepting, she points out). She urges women to reject the gendered expectations — about things like beauty, childcare, and housework — that haven’t shifted despite greater opportunities in the workplace. Rather than trying to be the perfect mother, wife, professional, and community member, she urges women to start settling for second best — a technique she calls “satisficing,” and explained in last Sunday’s New York Times "Styles" section.

The book is prime bait for critics exasperated with mainstream feminist conversations that focus on the concerns of privileged white women — Spar spends a lot of time talking about the pressure to get liposuction and the shame of store-bought brownies. Yet she’s unapologetic about her elite perspective. “I felt like I had to write about the world that I know,” she told the Cut. “And I am white, I’m straight, and I’m highly educated. I hope the book resonates with people of different backgrounds, but I am very aware of that.”

The Cut talked to Spar about striving for perfection, being the only woman in the room, and why she didn't always call herself a feminist.

You argue that there is more pressure on women to be perfect now than ever before. Why?

I think most of the reasons actually come from good intentions. They come, somewhat ironically, from all of the opportunities that women have. Meanwhile, we haven’t gotten rid of the expectation that women will be beautiful — we’ve almost upped the ante there by virtue of cosmetic surgery, which at least in theory allows women to look like they’re 27 until they’re 72. And, ultimately, you are still really expected to be a good wife and mother.

How much of this is really a specifically female issue, though? Why do you think it’s always women who are discussed as “having it all” or, not being able to have it all, and very rarely men?

That is a crucial point. We read stories in the press all the time about Steve Jobs and how brilliant he was, but you very rarely hear questions about whether he was a good father or a good husband. You hear comparisons of Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon in the financial sector, but no one ever asks questions about their fatherhood, their manhood, their hobbies, even. You never hear anyone say to Bill Gates or Bill Clinton, “Do you have it all?” I think because the opportunities to women are so new, in historical terms, that somehow we’ve created these unfair expectations for women.

In the book you describe your initial aversion to feminism, but you do call yourself a feminist now. What changed?

Well, I think part of this, to be honest, is semantics. Words take on a meaning that is much broader and more complicated than the initial word ever was — that’s what’s happened to feminism. But if you read the story on the gendered Harvard Business School — I was there for twenty years, and being a woman at that place will make you a feminist.

You say that for a long time you didn’t believe you were at a disadvantage as a woman in the workplace.

Starting with my generation, girls really do grow up believing that they can do everything and be everything — that their lives are going to unfold just like their brothers or male friends. I very much grew up that way. I had a strong mother who convinced me of that, and I never saw any obstacles in my path. I also was of an era where a lot of institutions were suddenly getting the message that they had to have women. It’s somewhat hard to admit, but I think I very much benefited from that. I mean, I was the woman in the room when they needed a woman in the room. I got very good at it, so I’m very comfortable in an all-male environment.

What are some of the differences you noticed between working in a male-dominated environment at Harvard Business School versus as the president of a women’s college?

You’re obviously going to get a lot more frat-boy behavior in male-dominated environments than in female environments. At Harvard Business School I had to learn a lot of sports trivia just to have a voice in the conversation.

I’m always nervous about broad, sweeping generalizations, but I think that men tend to be more comfortable with blatant displays of authority. Male-dominated organizations have more of a sense of who’s the boss and who’s not the boss, and fights tend to be frontal. People are generally comfortable, or at least accustomed to disagreeing publicly and explicitly. I think that women-dominated organizations tend to focus more on consensus building. There’s a little less of a comfort with hierarchy, and more of a desire to get along.

In the book you recount a time when you overheard a male senior executive laughing about how he never brings female colleagues along on consulting trips, because, he says, “My wife would kill me.” He’s laughing, but you point out that this is another opportunity for advancement denied to women. 

I was recently talking to a man who runs a large organization. He’s a great guy, and he was talking about how hard it is for him to mentor younger women , because there’s still the issue of taking a young woman on his office with the closed door, and he doesn’t feel comfortable doing it. He’s a guy who has the very best intentions, and really gets it and wants to help, but the social norms get in the way. I think that this is a problem that will get solved as we get more diversity in the top ranks, just by acknowledging it.

What kind of changes or conversations do you hope your book will prompt?

I really hope that this book helps to bring men into the conversation. I feel like I’ve been in an  idiosyncratically lucky position, because I have been in such female places and such male places. And my sense is that most men actually really want to solve the problem; they want to mentor young women, but they just don’t know how to do it, and I think that generally men feel very defensive on these issues.

I also hope that the books prompts conversations among women who are 18-35 — women who are early in their lives, early in their careers. I hope it brings them to be at least a little bit less concerned about being Wonder Woman. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.