Debora Spar, Barnard President, Says Women Can't Have It All -- And Shouldn't Even Try

09/30/2013 09:24 am ET | Updated Mar 03, 2014
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In her new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Debora Spar persuasively argues that despite all the gains women have made in the past 30 years, they simply can’t “have it all.” Drawing on extensive research, knowledge she’s gleaned as president of Barnard college -- where she says she observes young women striving for perfection every day -- as well as her own experience as a mother of three children and a former professor at Harvard Business School, Spar, 50, calls on all women to “kill the myths” that make them feel inadequate.

“Feminism,” Spar says, “was meant to remove a fixed set of expectations; instead, we now interpret it as a route to personal perfection. Because we feel we can do anything, we feel we have to do everything.”

Debora Spar visited the Huffington Post recently to talk about how workplaces dominated by men are different than those run by women, why having male mentors can be crucial for a woman’s success, and why, though it’s hard to resist, you shouldn’t always be friends with your coworkers.

Why do you do the work you do?
If you had asked me at 25 if I was going to be a college president, I would’ve laughed in your face and said something along the lines of “over my dead body.” I didn’t mean to be a professor at Harvard Business School either. I was supposed to be a spy, but that didn’t work out.

I had decided I was going to go into the foreign service. I got in, was ready to go, and was at that time dating a guy who is now my husband. I couldn’t be a diplomat -- much less a spy! -- and have a family so I went into academia in part because I could have a family and a career in academia. Life just unfolds in weird ways.

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Spar with President Obama at Barnard College commencement in 2012.

What work would you do if not this?
I like writing. I like not being part of a large corporate structure.

Who is your role model?
Judith Shklar. She was a Holocaust refugee, and one of the first women tenured at Harvard University. She was a political philosopher and mom of three. She was married happily her whole life. She was one of the first MacArthur Geniuses. So she was doing it before everybody even raised the questions. She sadly died much younger than she should have, but I was lucky enough to meet her early in my career.

Did you have a mentor?
I had tons of mentors. Some of them were female, but given that I was at Harvard Business School for such a long time, most of my mentors were male. There is still an assumption that women must be mentored by women and I think that’s a real problem because in most organizations, the people at the top are male.

I had a bunch of men who were older than me who not only took me under their wing, but were tough with me. I think that’s another problem: in more corporate places older men are sometimes scared of getting too close to a younger woman because they’re worried about all the other obvious perceptions. But they are also really scared of giving young women tough feedback.

I think the same is true for people of color. The problem for younger women and younger people of color is that they’re not getting tough feedback early in their careers, and you aren’t going to get better if you aren’t getting that feedback. I had a couple of guys who would literally rip my papers to shreds or come into the classroom [where I was teaching] and tell me the 42 things I was doing wrong, literally lined up in a yellow notepad. It was really tough to take at the time, but it made me better.

Is there still a glass ceiling and have you hit it?
Yes, there’s a glass ceiling. I don’t know if I’ve hit it.

How do you relax?
I work out. There was something on your site today about the “21 Secrets to Happiness” and I retweeted that. One of the secrets was about endorphins and exercise. I’ve said before, If I didn’t work out everyday I would’ve killed somebody a long time ago.

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Spar and her husband with their newly adopted daughter in Russia.

How have you managed your family life and your professional life. Have you found the elusive “balance”?
This is where the class issue becomes really important and always buried under the conversation. If you’re talking about [women] who are highly educated and earning good money the answer is outsourcing. You have to outsource. If you’re a working mom, working at a Dunkin Donuts, you don’t have the ability to outsource, but you still have to find other ways -- whether it’s childcare that’s not as good as we all would like it to be, or it’s living next door to your mother -- but you cannot do it all. This took me five years to realize. I started out thinking, of course I am going to clean my own house because a good mother cleans her own house.

Has an important work event ever coincided with an important school event?
Constantly. That’s another one of those dirty little secrets. There is no way in hell you are going to make every ballet recital or every flute recital. You can’t!

How did you manage your children’s expectations?
My husband and I tried to make sure there was one parent there. One of the things I wish schools would do a better job of is giving [parents] important dates earlier. A work calendar gets established a year in advance and schools send out notices the day before. It’s a little thing, but it would make a huge difference if the schools could get the dates out in advance. As my middle son is constantly pointing out, I did miss stuff. I just did.

You’ve worked in a male dominated workplace at Harvard Business School and a a female dominate one at Barnard. Not to generalize, but how would you say women manage differently than men? What are the downsides and upsides?
I think women tend to be more empathetic. They’ll ask you how your kids are or how you’re sleeping. They are more comfortable voicing empathy and are quicker to compliment and to give praise. They tend to be more consensual managers that want to bring everyone along. Those are the good things. On the other side of the coin, I think women manage a little too much around people liking them. They have a harder time not being liked and that’s very tough as a manager. Ultimately, in anything you do you are going to have to make tough decisions and someone won’t like the decisions. You have to be able to take the criticisms and not take it personally.

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Spar with her two sons when they were young.

How have you dealt with that?
Not very well. It’s a real problem for me.

What would be your advice be to other women in dealing with that?
I got this advice from someone who became my coach early on in my career. He said, “you have to remember the criticism is not personal and you have to try to smile even when you’re in tough conversations.” It sounds trivial, but I think it’s very important. Someone was asking me this week, “Well what if you’re in the workplace and you just want to burst into tears?” Don’t. Go into the bathroom. Bad things are going to happen. You are going to get upset. Don’t personalize it.

Can you unravel that a little bit? I think there are arguments on both sides for the crying issue. I think it comes up for every single woman at one point in their career.
I think crying in the workplace is generally a bad idea unless some tragedy has happened. Crying over criticism is not appropriate. The workplaces is not a personal environment. You are being judged on your professional merit and your output, however that’s measured. It’s important to keep your personal life out of the workplace. Not entirely -- I mean, it’s good to hear how someone’s baby is doing. But I think it’s important for young women to realize they are going to get slammed and bad things are going to happen. Resilience is a core skill. You have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

In theory I agree with you completely and I would give a younger colleague the same advice. And yet, in the work environments I’ve been in, there are a lot of friendships and a lot of intimacy because we spend a huge chunk of our day together. In reality, we do know what’s going on in each other’s lives so I’m having a hard time imagining a workplace where no one gets emotional sometimes. So do you manage this by not having friends at work?
That’s something that changed fundamentally for me. When I was at Harvard Business school, I had lots of friends who were my cohorts and some who were my mentors. I’m the boss now. I kind of can’t have friends and it’s quite difficult. I came to Barnard from the outside and am essentially a friendly person so my initial expectation was that I would have friends. So when people approached me, I went out for lunch with them.

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Spar with her husband, Miltos Catomeris, in 2013.

Then it was brought to my attention that people were misinterpreting that. If I even went out for a drink with a faculty member, it was literally being read as I was supporting their project, that I was making alliances. I was perceived as doing things that I had no intention of doing. So I find right now that I can certainly have friendly relations, but as the boss you can’t have real friendships. It makes it lonely.

When I took this job I went on a little listening tour of other college presidents just to hear their views. One man said to me, the best advice I can give you is don’t give up your old friends because you won’t make any new ones. I thought, what a horrible human being. But he was right.

You have your work, your family -- how do you make time for your female friends?
I don’t have a happy answer for that. It’s part of what I’ve been saying -- something’s gotta give. You can’t have all these pieces of your life. This is where I think people make individual choices. For me, work was very important. Both this job and my other job -- I love what I’ve done. I like being in the office. I like working. I also really want to spend time with my family, my kids and my husband. So, everything else kind of falls away. I haven’t spent a lot of time with friends. Thank God I have really good friends and we’re now spending a lot more time together because our kids are older. But for 20 years I didn’t have a lot of time for friends. I didn’t socialize all that much. I didn’t see my parents all that often. What’s important and uncomfortable to point out is that at the end of the day there are only so many hours in the day.

In the five years you’ve been at Barnard, you’ve watched a new generation of young women come of age. What are some of the more encouraging, wonderful things you’ve seen -- and what things do you think they uniquely struggle with?
Two years ago the Sandra Fluke episode -- and the surprising re-emergence of restrictions on access to birth control -- really politicized women on campus in a way I had never seen before.

It think it’s harder to concentrate. The idea of college as a time you sit under a tree and read a book doesn’t happen so much. It’s harder to concentrate because when you are doing your “homework,” you are also Tumblring and Pinteresting and YouTubing. The levels of concentration have just shifted. For young women in particular, they are just constantly being bombarded by images of perfection that they can’t turn off. You know when I was growing up, I would do my homework in the library. Then if I wanted to pick up Glamour magazine, it was fine -- it was a relaxation and I entered another world. But now, it is literally in your face while you are doing the paper on Dostoyevsky. I don’t know how people navigate through that.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
I would say to my 25-year-old self, that life, if you’re lucky, is long. The things that are beseeching you when you’re 25, and the things you think you can’t accomplish when you’re 25, will be fundamentally different by the time you’re 35 and 45 and 55. You’re still very young at 25, and even though you think that whatever you’re captured in is going to define you forever, you really move on in quite dramatic ways.

Do women have a responsibility to help other women at work?
Yes, but men also have to help women at work. If we put all the burden on senior women then we are only over-burdening them. It needs to be both men and women who help junior women.

What is your work uniform? What would you wear if it were completely up to you?
I would wear shorts and a t-shirt every single day of my life. Having said that though, particularly in New York, you dress up for work. I wear a dress and heels most days.

Are you paid what you’re worth?
That’s a good question! Yeah, I think so. Overpaid some days, underpaid some days.

When did you most recently think of quitting your job?
There are many moments in any given year. On bad days, I think it’s perfectly natural to want to quit your job.

Do you have a work persona and a non-work persona?
Totally. Earlier in my career, my kids identified it with my clothes. As soon as I got home from work, I changed my clothes and then I was mommy again. I still do that.

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Spar and her family on vacation.

How many hours of sleep do you get?
I need 8. I really try. There’s a problem if we think women [can “have it all”] by not sleeping. That’s a real problem because then you’re not happy. If you’re not taking care of yourself at a very basic level, that’s not a good thing.

In your house, who does the grocery shopping, the cooking, the bill paying, etc.?
It’s evolved. There was a really tense moment when we decided we had to divide and conquer. I think in the beginning of our marriage when our kids were young, we thought we were going to do everything together and spend a lot of time together and that proved to be a disaster. When we really made it work was when my husband and I divided things. We used to pay the bills together. I’m sorry because I fall into gender stereotypes here, but my husband pays all the bills. I don’t know where are checkbooks are. I don’t even know how to do online banking. I do most of the kid-focused stuff. He takes care of the car. I take care of the groceries. We decided it would produce less tension if we actually had a clear division of responsibilities.

What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without checking your email?
Not very long. If I’m not sleeping or on a plane, then 15 minutes. It’s really bad.

Define success.
Success is finding pleasure in whatever sphere of life is most important to you.

With that definition, have you found success?
Yes.

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