Until she became president of Barnard College in 2008, Debora Spar spent her days in a testosterone-rich environment.
In her new book, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection,” Spar takes on the modern myths holding back many women -- and ponders how her own breasts came to epitomize some tough personal choices.
We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Lundborg: You avoided feminism as you were growing up. Why is that?
Spar: I was in the generation just after feminism, and the struggle seemed over. I also worried that I would be marginalizing myself in a way I didn’t want to do: I was one of the few women in the room as my career developed.
Lundborg: Has the Harvard Business School evolved since you left in 2008?
Spar: There has been a fundamental change in the level of diversity at the top levels of the school. When I started, it was essentially a place run by white men of a certain age. And there’s a huge change in the sense that these “women” problems are recognized, made explicit.
Lundborg: HBS is not unique?
Spar: HBS is really a microcosm of elite US society.
If you look at investment banks, at trading floors, they too have seen shifts in the levels of diversity at the top, but I would argue they have not yet succeeded in making a workplace that is truly as open and inclusive to all as one would like.
Lundborg: Your book says women’s search for perfection is a large part of our current woes. How does that work?
Spar: Feminism was really all about taking on a set of limited expectations that have existed for women for hundreds of years: Women would be wives and mothers and take care of their husbands and clean up their houses.
Feminism said we want more. And it helped push forward a vastly increased set of expectations. So now, while you’re growing up, you can say, I want to be a physicist. I want to run and own an investment bank.
But we never took any of the other expectations off the plate. And so a woman feels she has to be a good wife and a good mother and keep the house clean and cook beautiful, organic couscous, plus be a master physicist and run a major corporation and give back to her community and create her own NGO.
Lundborg: While wearing stilettos...
Spar: Yes, in this city, it’s illegal to have a wrinkle. It creates a set of totally undoable expectations, so when women don’t succeed in doing all of those things well, they feel like they’ve failed.
Lundborg: We beat ourselves up?
Spar: When we “fail,” we feel guilty. And I think guilt in many ways is a much more devastating emotion than anger at some external constraint.
Lundborg: Why did you start the book with you breast pumping in an airport bathroom?
Spar: When this book was in draft stage, every male I showed it to literally said, “Yuck.”
Breast pumping is just a horribly unnatural, miserable thing. And yet, if you want to be in the workplace and still do what all of the experts now advise -- which is to breastfeed your child for as long as possible -- you’re stuck breast pumping in the workplace.
I can’t imagine a more visceral reminder of the choices you’re making.
Lundborg: One of the most shocking things in your book is the breast reduction you get after a man praises your “rack.”
Spar: This is one of the dirty little stories we don’t like to tell. There’s just so much more emphasis on how women look, and usually their bodies are wrong in some fundamental way.
I had reached a point where it was clear to me that my professional life was going to be affected by this part of my anatomy because I literally could not have a conversation without men staring constantly at my chest.
It wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life.
Lundborg: What advice do you give to your Barnard students about having it all?
Spar: If you want to have a family and a professional life, some careers are easier than others and some paths within certain careers are also easier than others.
If you want to be a doctor, you might consider anesthesiology or emergency room medicine, rather than surgery or obstetrics.
If you love the law, you might want to think about a route that takes you to a judgeship or general counsel’s position rather than corporate law, which is very tough.
What’s crucial for a woman is flexibility.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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