College president tells women to stop being perfectionists

‘No human does it all,’ Debora Spar says at Coralville conference

By Hayley Bruce, The Gazette
Published: April 23 2014 | 9:25 pm in Career Training & Development, Front Rotator, Local News, Networking, Workplace culture,

CORALVILLE — No one has it all.

“Having it all” is just one phrase Debora Spar, Barnard College president, wants women to ban from their vocabularies and internal dialogues.

Spar — who is a writer, researcher and parent in addition to leading the liberal arts college for women in New York City — discussed her recent book Wednesday and how women can navigate the workplace without superpowers during the Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference at the Coralville Marriott.

“The critical thing we need to do is get rid of the notion of perfection, we need to banish the wonder woman image from our collective psyche,” Spar said. “...No woman does it all, no human being does it all, and if we set ‘all’ as the parameter, we’re always going to fall short.”

Spar’s keynote speech borrowed from ideas in her recent book “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection,” which focuses largely on the concept that women need to take a closer look at the impossible goals they sometimes set for themselves. She also discussed the importance of achieving gender diversity in leadership roles.

Spar said she spent most of her career ignoring the fact that she was female, believing her gender shouldn’t be relevant to her professional life. But soon, Spar said she noticed she became the only female tenured professor at Harvard Business School, despite the fact she was one of 10 other women hired at the same time.

Later, she said she noticed her male students were well outpacing the female students in their professional careers, despite the fact that they were equally smart, ambitious and competitive. While the men were becoming heads of hedge funds and successful private equity investors, very few of the women were gaining leadership roles in their careers.

“Success, for men, was the rule,” Spar said, referencing the professional sense of success. “For women, it was the exception.”

Next, Spar said she pulled some data and came to realize that women generally make up only 15 percent to 20 percent of total leadership ranks across professional sectors in the United States.

That, Spar said, is when her perspective on her gender in her professional career began to change. She said those statistics stood out to her, especially, because gender is no longer a pipeline issue as women now are generally performing better, academically, than their male counterparts.

“Women are falling out before they reach the top tier. And what explains it, I think ... is this nasty little word called ‘tokenism,’ ” Spar said.

“If you think about how most organizations are run, the top tier is about 20 people. So what’s happening? There’s a little unconscious checklist in the back of people’s heads saying ‘Oops, we really need a woman,’ and they kind of know they need two and they need at least one person of color. And if they can get a woman who is also a person of color, it’s a double whammy. But once you get two women and a person of color you’re done and everybody else who is filling those chairs is a middle-aged white guy.”

In order to advance and increase more diversity, Spar said it is important for women to make trade-offs, meaning if they say yes to one thing — such as preparing for an important work meeting — they need to be OK with saying no to something else, or letting some other things fall by the wayside, like housework or baking cupcakes for their kids.

“It’s a matter of math. If you work 50 to 60 hours a week and you have a couple of kids, there are literally no more hours in the week. So something else has to give,” Spar said. “So we need to make those trade-offs and then not judge each other, and as women we tend not to be very good at that.”

Spar also said men need to be brought into the conversation — as fathers and husbands and employers — about increasing diversity and equality because they still hold 85 percent of the positions of power.

Because society’s expectations of women have only increased — to the point that women are now expected to be beautiful, financially independent astronauts on top of getting married and having children — Spar said it’s important that women remember the early ideas of feminism.

“It was about freeing women to do what they wanted to do and it was about making women’s lives easier and more fulfilling rather than making them harder and less fulfilling,” Spar said. “And unless we can remember that, we’ve actually lost the plot.”


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