March 7, 2014

Barnard president to women: Avoid trap of perfection

As president of Barnard College since 2008, the recipient of a doctorate from Harvard and a mother of three, it can be hard to believe that Debora Spar takes her own advice when she urges women not to hold themselves to unrealistic standards.

Spar, author of the new book “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection,” spoke to a packed auditorium at Cornell March 6 when she delivered the annual Robert L. Harris Jr. ADVANCEments in Science Lecture.

Prior to Barnard, Spar held a chaired professorship in the Harvard Business School. She is a director of Goldman Sachs and a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Early in her speech, Spar shared data on the frequency of women in positions of power in professions such as academia, medicine and law. She identified a worrisome pattern: Despite significant gains beginning in the 1960s, women occupy only 15 to 20 percent of these roles. Spar refers to this across-the-board disparity as the “15 percent ghetto.”

Spar attributes the persistent gender gap at the top of the institutional food chain in part to “tokenism,” the tendency of powerful committees and governing bodies to include several women as necessary representative “tokens” without offering them any considerable influence.

However, Spar said the blame is not entirely external.

“The frustration that women feel,” Spar said, “has an awful lot to do with their inner selves. It’s not just that the data are so bad and the workplace is so tough. It’s that we’re putting expectations on ourselves that are, at the end of the day, making us miserable.”

Spar focused on several of these burdensome expectations for her own generation, which she labeled the first “post-feminist” generation. “By the time we started applying to college, we could go anywhere in the Ivy League; we could go into the once all-male clubs that were being forced open; we really did feel like we could be whatever we wanted,” she said. “It was only later in life that the harsher realities of what it meant to be female actually came back to haunt us.”

“Feminism was always about a political movement. It was a collective action designed to try to improve the lot of all women and all people,” Spar said. She identified a harmful trend among women of her generation to “privatize” feminism and warp the movement’s goals into an internal struggle for perfection. She suggested that this pursuit of individual perfection pushes against the most important goal of feminism: to liberate women from unfair standards.

Spar also warned against limiting the conversation on gender disparity to women: “If it’s only women talking about these issues, we will never solve the problem.”

She ended on an optimistic note. “The beauty of the world we live in now as women and men is that we have choices. We can make those choices, and we need to own them.”

The Office of Faculty Development and Diversity sponsored the lecture.

Sam Wolken ’14 is a intern for the Cornell Chronicle.