The feminist movement of the 1960s fought to grant women equal rights, opened the door to a myriad of opportunities and aimed to liberate women from their conventional role inside the home. Much progress has been made since then, but much more remains to be challenged. Debora Spar, President of Barnard College and former tenured professor at Harvard Business School, details the issues that still exist and how we can move forward in her book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.
Spar is a dynamic and engaging speaker, capturing her audience with funny anecdotes and insightful commentary. She opens with a powerful statistic – women only occupy 15-20% of senior positions across all industries, from surgeons to politicians to business executives. It is no longer a problem of a lack of qualified women, since 60% of college students are girls and female presence is heavy in most graduate programs as well. Instead, the phenomenon persists because women fall out of the pipeline later in life, especially after having kids. So even if women begin their professions as strongly as men, their career paths are often cut short.
Having grown up after the height of feminism, Spar explains that women of that generation were not as involved because they felt that the battle had been won. Instead, girls in the 1970s grew up with the image of the gorgeous young working women – epitomized by Revlon’s ad campaign for the Charlie perfume. “The culture [of that era] was screaming that we could be whatever we wanted to be.” Women thought they could magically and effortlessly have it all – a great yet unrealistic sentiment. Spar asserts that there existed two fundamental mistakes during the time. First, feminism was privatized into personal success and no longer embodied the larger social movement that it once was. Second, this led to heightened expectations for women, where the new opportunities became obligations, and the can’s became should’s.
Spar’s book walks through the various stages of a woman’s life, starting with girlhood and body image; moving through marriage, career, housework; and ending with aging. Despite efforts to de-sexualize women and focus on their intelligence and competencies, there still exists a double standard when it comes to beauty. The only difference is that now girls are expected to have the perfect body without the help of a corset. Similarly, mothers are expected to hand-make creative Halloween costumes and make cupcakes for the school bake sale, all in addition to a demanding job. Although men are picking up some slack, a woman still performs 33 hours of housework in a typical week. These expectations of physique and family fall less harshly on men, yet women are faced with the challenge of juggling everything. With increasing responsibilities comes the higher risk of failures: she might have a successful career, but boy, she is not a good homemaker.
So what can women do? Spar stresses the importance of bringing men into the conversation, as their help is needed to push through more change. She also believes that to be happy, women unfortunately have to give up on the notion of perfection and accept that one can’t have it all – and that life is about trade-offs. The key is to be comfortable with these trade-offs and understand what truly matters to oneself. For ambitious, high-achieving MBA students, this might leave a sour taste in some mouths. Whether you agree with Spar or not, it provides some comfort to know that women don’t have to be Wonder Women all the time.