The Shriver Report – Women and Power: Imagining a New Way Forward

Special Edition

Women and Power: Imagining a New Way Forward

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The intersection of care and career is a pain point for many women – and men – as more households are perpetually managing the juggle of raising children and working outside of the home. Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, has been a leading force in igniting conversations around women and leadership.  She shared some of her insights on this topic with us via email.

TSR: What do you think is the biggest obstacle standing in the way between women and power?

Thankfully, it’s no longer education or opportunity or lack of access.  Instead, women are being held back by the subtler pressures and impediments that crop up in their lives.  Women, we know well, are still bearing the bulk of child care and household work in this country.  They are still juggling their personal and professional lives more than their male counterparts. And they are dealing, sadly, with expectations of perfection – of having and doing it “all” – that ironically can make it harder for them to see the pathways to their own success.

TSR: In our quest to redefine success, where do you think women and men will be in 50 years?  Will our children be experiencing a very different reality?  And what do you think that reality will look like?

I think, and hope, that our children will create a more equitable division of labor – at least on the home front.  If you think about it, we are still in the relatively early stages of a major social revolution; a turning-on-the-head of social patterns that have existed for centuries.  It is going to take some time for us to conceive of new social structures, and new ways of dividing the work that still needs to get done.  But hopefully this new reality will include better childcare options, more efficient means of outsourcing the mundane tasks of the household, and more creative ways of using technology to enable us, truly, to work more efficiently and productively

“There are a number of paths that we must take simultaneously.  We need better governmental and corporate policies around child and family care – more flexible options for time away and new metrics for counting success at work.” 

TSR: When discussing this site, Maria Shriver said, “We need to imagine a new way forward, and go there.”  Where are you imagining we go and how do we get there?

There are a number of paths that we must take simultaneously.  We need better governmental and corporate policies around child and family care – more flexible options for time away and new metrics for counting success at work.  (For example, law firms that bill by the project rather than by the hour are already creating more flexibility for those who are very efficient, but constrained in terms of hours they can spend at the office).

We need to bring men fully into the conversation and validate the work they do for their families and on the home front.  We need immigration policies that support domestic workers and tax policies that enable families to pay their domestic workers fairly, and with a minimum of bureaucratic overhead.  And we need, as women and people, to validate the choices that our friends, neighbors, and co-workers make rather than presuming that there is some single way of balancing one’s life and interests.

TSR: The constant internal struggle that goes on inside of women between work and family – do you see that as growing pains that are part of our modern reality – or have we entered new territory, and this angst is simply a permanent part of our modern America?

 I think that we are still in the growing pains phase – but also that the struggle between work and family will never entirely go away.  It is simply hard to leave a nursing baby, or a crying toddler, to go to the workplace. That part of our collective reality will never go away. But we need to relieve the guilt that women feel over how they manage this inevitable tension, and the fear that, by striving to have both families and jobs, they will somehow do badly at both.

TSR: When raising our children what lessons do you think are key to teach our daughters and our sons?

It sounds trite, but we need to teach them to think about the broader world in which they live, a world that is bigger and always more challenging than the individual trials they will inevitably face.  We need to teach them, especially as they grow older, to try to understand what makes them happy and where their skills truly lie. I see far too many parents urging their children to be perfect across the board, or trying to push them into areas that don’t really fit their talents and interests. And crucially, we want to encourage them to search for joy in their own lives, and in the lives of those around them.

TSR: You are clearly a very successful woman. What is the one thing you crossed off of “the list” that made your juggle easier? 

I took lots of things off my list.  Hobbies, for example.  Leisure time with friends. Work-related travel that wasn’t totally necessary. And community involvement in those cases when I couldn’t really see how my voice or energies were important to a particular situation. None of these were easy to give up.  But if you are working, and trying to devote time to your children and partner, you have to give up a lot of other things – at least for those years when your children are young.


BarnardPresidentDeboraSpar2009Debora Spar is president of Barnard College and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Wonder Women:  Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.  Prior to her arrival at Barnard in 2008, Spar was the Spangler Family Professor at Harvard Business School, where her research and teaching focused on political economy and the various ways in which firms and governments together shape the rules of the global economy.  Spar also serves as a Director of Goldman Sachs and trustee of the Nightingale-Bamford School.