Barnard College president Debora L. Spar

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A leading figure in business academics, Spar uses new research to examine the complex challenges facing today’s women.

Since 2008, Deborah Spar has been president of Barnard College, a women’s undergraduate college affiliated with Columbia University. She previously taught courses on the politics of international business, comparative capitalism and economic development at Harvard Business School, where she was one of the youngest female professors to be tenured. Spar is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and earned her doctorate in government from Harvard. She's the author of numerous books, including Wonder Women, in which she explores how American women's lives have—and have not—changed 50 years after the Equal Pay Act.


Tavis: Debora Spar has a Ph.D. from Harvard Business School and is now the president of Barnard. She’s also a wife and a mother. With this impressive resume she’s now entered the public debate about how to balance family with career.

The book is titled “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” Love that cover. She joins us now from Chicago, where she’s on tour for the tome. President Spar, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time.

Dr. Debora L. Spar: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Tavis: This book unapologetically is about liberating women from the unreasonable and the impossible standards, as you say, that have been thrust upon them. So my first question is thrust upon them by whom?

Spar: Well, that’s a really good question. I don’t think it’s a single person or group of people. Nobody sat down and tried to make this happen. It’s just been a combination of things.

I think women have taken on too many expectations upon themselves. The media – sorry – keep driving these expectations. Sadly, I think those of us who are mother are, without meaning to, passing on ever-greater expectations to our daughters.

Tavis: Let me pick some of those answers apart, starting with the media. How does the media drive these expectations of or from women?

Spar: Well, just pick up any magazine off the shelf. They’re full of gorgeous women, women who are keeping perfect homes and leading perfect careers and they’re thin all the time.

Then if you look at television shows, which of course are fictional so you don’t expect them to be real, but they’re constantly showing career women who are also successful mothers and also look gorgeous.

And we fall into believing that these fictional lives are somehow accurate depictions of what our real lives should be about.

Tavis: What responsibilities, impossible though they might be, are women thrusting upon themselves?

Spar: Well, I think what women are doing to themselves is that they’re seeing these different images of perfection – the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect career person, the perfect movie star – and they’re somehow thinking that they should be all of these things, and that’s the problem.

Because I certainly want to be ambitious for women. I’m ambitious for myself. I think women can definitely find areas in which they want to excel. But we constantly need to keep in mind that if you’re really focused on one thing, you’re not going to be able to be perfect or even very good at everything else.

Tavis: So if the paradigm has shifted and what you’re calling for is a different kind, a new kind of construct, help me understand how women go about reframing this conversation, reframing this agenda for the 21st century.

Spar: Well, I think one thing that women can do is to just be more honest, with themselves and with their friends, and be more willing to say I’m really excited about this part of my life, but I’m screwing up over here, or this is a mistake I’ve made, or this is something I’ve given up on.

We should feel more liberated to say you know what? I can’t bake the cookies for the school bake sale because I just don’t have the time. Or I’m really sorry, but I can’t do this at work because I’ve got too much else going on this week.

We have to be more up front in saying no, for lack of a better word, and then modeling that for others. I think it’s really important for middle-aged women who have achieved some level of success to be very clear in saying to younger women you can’t have it all. I don’t have it all – nobody has it all.

I think sometimes by portraying our lives as being too perfect, as being too balanced, we’re actually selling younger women a bill of goods that’s not true.

Tavis: So saying no, I hear you – saying no is about prioritizing. I know this is not a one-size-fits-all answer. But what advice exists in the text for how women go about prioritizing so that they can say no to the things that they just can’t do?

Spar: I think part of it is realizing. It’s a simple thing, but it’s a huge thing. You have to learn to say no not just to things you don’t want to do, you have to say no to things that you want to do, things that are good to do.

You have to realize that every time you say yes to one thing you’ve got to take something else off the plate. Critically, I think you have to realize that it’s easier to say no than to say maybe.

Maybe is what gets us into trouble, because I think constantly women are saying I’ll try to do it, maybe I’ll do it, I’ll do it if I can,” and then they’re feeling guilty when inevitably they can’t’ do everything.

Tavis: To your point about saying no to things that you want to do, there’s a wonderful story in the book – and maybe “wonderful’s” not the right word, but it certainly is a poignant and telling story in the book about on one occasion how you came to terms with that when you were rushing home from work to head to a PTA meeting. I’ll stop and let you tell the story.

Spar: Yeah. It’s just one of those great moments. I came home, I was rushing around, I got dinner on the table, I got dinner cleaned up, and then I was heading out the door to go to this PTA meeting.

My eight-year-old son said, “Mom, why are you going?” and I said, “Well, sweetie, this is very important.” He said, “Why is it important?” I said, “Well, it’s your school.” He looked at me with the honesty of an eight-year-old and he said, “I don’t care if you go. I want you to stay home.”

It was one of those beautiful moments where the light bulb went off, and I thought I think I’m doing this because it’s good for my kid and good for my community, but I wasn’t.

I was doing it because somehow I felt that I had to, and I must confess I stopped going to PTA meetings after that.

Tavis: You feel bad about that?

Spar: I feel a little bad, but what I decided to do, I religiously signed up for garbage duty at school events because I realized that was actually efficient to do. Nobody else wanted to do it. So I got over my guilt, but I stopped going to the monthly PTA meetings.

Tavis: And if you were late, you’d still get there on time for garbage duty.

Boyle: That’s right. You can always get there for garbage duty. (Laughter)

Tavis: Let me ask to what extent, if you believe this is true, President Spar, to what extent is feminism itself responsible for raising the bar so high, the bar of expectation so high that women have been trying to hurdle over?

Spar: Well, I certainly wouldn’t go back and blame feminism, because all that feminism was really trying to do, which was huge, was to create a new set of expectations, a new set of opportunities for women, and they did.

It was feminism that made it possible for women to go to the Ivy League and women to be astronauts and women to have their own TV shows. What happened, though, was that I think it was the generation after feminism, which is my generation, that misunderstood what feminism was saying.

Whereas they were saying, “You can do all these things, we sort of heard, “You should do all these things.” We were the ones who translated, unfortunately, an opportunity into an expectation, and that’s where we’ve gone wrong.

How much of the travail that women have to deal with is legitimately or illegitimately blamed on men?

Spar: Well, I think if you go back 50 or 60 or 100 years ago, a lot of women’s problems were caused by men, or more specifically they were caused by traditional ways of organizing the workplace and organizing the home.

When I look at where we are today, I really don’t see any men sitting in the corner office plotting to keep women out. All the men I know are actively trying to promote women, to get more women involved.

These men have wives they care about; they have daughters they desperately care about. So I don’t think it’s fair to blame men – or I don’t think it’s accurate to blame men anymore.

Instead, I think what we need to do, and this is hard, is to step back as a society and say okay, we’ve kind of turned things upside-down. We have moved away from the nuclear family, in which the man always works and the woman stays home. How are we going to rearrange things now?

We’ve done the first part of the revolution, we’ve turned everything on its head, but we haven’t figured out what structures will actually work in this new world. Because let’s be honest – if two people have a couple of kids, somebody does have to take care of the kids. Somebody does have to cook dinner; somebody does have to do garbage duty.

We need to take some time and give some thought, without being angry, to just thinking about what these new structures are going to look like.

Tavis: In corporate America specifically, if you’re not going to blame men for the slow rate of progress, and there are studies that indicate, as you well know, that where CEO status is concerned, there was at one point some acceleration and now it seems to have slowed again.

So if you’re not going to blame men, certainly in corporate America, then who are you going to blame?

Spar: Well, again, I don’t think it’s so much a question of blame. It’s a question of saying how do we sit down together and figure out how to make this work. Because let’s be honest – if you’re aiming to be the CEO of a corporation, you’re not working the 35-hour week.

You’re working a 60 or 70-hour week. It’s very hard for any two people in a couple to both work those hours. So we have to figure out how to make the home front work. We have to figure out how to make the schools work.

We have to figure out how schools can organize themselves so that working parents can actually participate. We have to find better ways of getting childcare.

I think societally, we want to think about not moving so far away from our own parents, because if you’re going to make this work, you need an extended family.

You need people to help out, to pitch in. We need to have honest conversations among women and men to say how do we restructure this thing, and how do we stop blaming each other?

Because I’m not saying that every woman wants to be a corporate CEO. We need so that the women who are corporate CEOs get supported and they’re not looking askance or down at women who make other choices in life.

Tavis: In the book, you talk about “satisficing”, satisficing. Tell me more.

Spar: Well, satisficing is a term that I’m stealing from the economics and the bargaining literatures, and it’s about realizing that in any given situation there’s not just one good outcome and everything else is a failure.

In any given situation there’s a whole array of possibilities. So maybe I can’t be secretary of State in my own life, but there’s probably nine million other things I can do that would also be very intriguing.

So how do people pull back and say here’s where I am with this particular decision. If I can’t get my very best outcome, what are the other outcomes that I can think about that might work as well?

So to go back to my silly thing, if I’m not going to go to the PTA meeting, maybe I can do garbage duty and I get over some of my guilt, but I’m also being more efficient with my time.

Tavis: Finally, how do these – find the right phrase here – these destructive demands long-term undermine American progress if we don’t get a handle on how to find greater balance for women and their live in this nation?

Spar: Well, just to put it very simply, women right now are getting more than 50 percent of all the college degrees in this country. They’re getting close to 50 percent of the medical degrees, of the Ph.D.s.

If we don’t find a way to keep women in the workforce, keep them productive, keep them happy, we are literally just throwing our investment down the drain, and we can’t afford to do that.

Tavis: Debora Spar is the president of Barnard. Her new text is called “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” President Spar, thanks for the text, and an honor to have you on this program.

Spar: Thank you so much.

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Last modified: October 29, 2013 at 3:09 pm