Barnard President Spar: ‘Give up on being perfect’

Barnard President Spar: ‘Give up on being perfect’

Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, tells women to "take being perfect off the table."

Women are laboring under incredibly unrealistic expectations about career, family and home life, Barnard College President Debora Spar, author of "Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection," told a sold-out crowd of 1,200 industry leaders at the NEW Leadership Summit, Oct. 1, in Dallas.

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"[We believe] as we climb the ladder of success we have to be the perfect wife, perfect mother, look like a model and bake gluten-free and nut-free brownies for the school bake sale,” Spar said. "Women are working 40-60 hours a week — because that’s what it takes to get to the powerful positions — but we never got rid of the expectations of looking pretty, having babies, cooking dinner. Women today spend more hours on housework and childcare than women did on the 1960s, when they were staying at home.”

The expectations that surround us that we have to be perfect on all fronts is why increasingly our lives as American women and men are so chaotic for extended periods of time, she said. "’Having it all’ is a horrible phrase,” Spar said. "It’s an expectation no woman, no man, no human can meet. And it’s a very gendered expectation that we all fall prey to and that we explicitly ask of women. No one asks [JP Morgan CEO] Jamie Dimon about his fathering skills. But we know way too much about Sheryl Sandberg’s childcare arrangements.”

To change expectations, women must:

  • Get to the halls of power by not giving up or falling out. "We must go ahead,” Spar said. "We have to continue along the path of whatever makes us as women, men, workers, humans feel liberated. Not perfect. Not doing it all, but liberated to be joyous, engaged and building lives that truly matter.”
  • Be ambitious. "We have to learn to go for it. Men are much more willing to put themselves in positions they aren’t yet qualified for. "
  • Figure out "the baby part.” Women move to the sidelines when they have children, Spar said. "If women want to be in the workforce and be mothers we have to acknowledge and grapple with the fact that isn’t not easy and it easy. You have to be quite specific about what works for you. If your husband is carpooling to ballet, don’t hide it. Brag about it. If you want to work and have a family – you can’t do everything else – you can’t volunteer for PTA or go out with friends every Saturday for breakfast. That’s okay. You can’t be a perfect school volunteer and run a business at the same time.”
  • Learn how to exercise power. "Grab it and learn how to use it like any other skill,” she said. "Women are a bit timid on acknowledging and actively employing it.
  • Bring men into the conversation. "Unless we do, we won’t solve the issue. Men don’t feel comfortable entering into the conversation unless they feel they are in a safe place.”

Finally, she said, take "being perfect” off the table. "Make it about being very good. Make it about being very good at what matters and being less good at things that don’t matter.”