Gender in the Workplace and Beyond: Re-Writing Perfectionist Narratives for Women’s Inclusion (Part Two). . .

Debora L. Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)  . . . .

As I introduced in my last blog posting, the “quest for perfection” in the corporate or creative or academic worlds often underlies women’s fears, anxieties and choices, reducing our creative energy and work. (e.g.The power cranny affects not only those who stop before reaching the 16% at the top of the pyramid, but also the women who were there [or destined to be there] and who bow out of high stakes corporate America to raise children, often because their husbands’ careers demand it).

Perfectionism isn’t only about society-based pressure, but is also about the internal dialog that results when we take pressures on, in inherently unrealistic and unfair messages and standards.  What creative woman (or man) hasn’t felt, when reaching for a contract that is beyond their experience, “maybe you won’t be good enough to do this”?

One criticism I have of Spar’s book, Wonder Women,  is that while she discusses perfectionism for women, she tends to fall into the old trap of essentializing women’s perspectives and characteristics, saying that we tend to stress “consensus,” to be risk averse, to want to share power and to be liked by our peers and associates, etc.  I’d like instead to argue that our culture has not succeeded in raising girls to be women who feel strong enough and strongly supported enough to want to overcome the 16% “power cranny.”

Having seen their mothers or aunts fight to find a rightful place against the “glass ceiling,” young women (e.g. Generation Ys or Millenials) often settle for less in their careers, and settle early, at that. They see the road ahead to having “more” in their careers too encumbered with difficulties that feel too great to be overcome. (cf recall Sheryl Sandberg saying that young women today too often “lean back,” instead of “leaning in.”) Spar says that some of her own students foreclose their own careers, choosing lesser professional standing in anticipation of having family, etc., long before their lives actually take that turn (if they do, at all.) Put simply, young women expect less than their mothers, aunts and (sometimes) even grandmothers did. And young women today quietly rationalize the loss of those dreams as the reality of not being able to “have it all,” instead of envisioning a culture in which an imperfect but important career and an imperfect and important family could be held in tandem. There, one still “can’t have it all” (no one, including men, can, as Spar acknowledges). But women can nonetheless achieve no less at work and at home than men or than anyone else.

I agree with Spar that the contemporary workplace is still “mired in the patterns of the 1950’s,” with employers being unable and/or unwilling to accommodate working mothers. But Spar also rightly observes that that doesn’t explain why women respond differently than men do, when dealing with tensions between work and family. Why do women bail first? And “jump quickly,” when they’re not passionate about their work?

Women, unlike men, when choosing between compromising a job versus compromising their family, almost always preserve the family, Spar says. It’s an “all or nothing,” a perfectionist pattern of thinking. Meanwhile, men most often choose the jobs that best pay the bills.

The “mismatch” between jobs and commitment varies by time, gender and industry (e.g. women leave in droves in banking, law and consulting, while more stay in academia, medicine, entrepreneurial ventures) (187). If their husbands are large wage earners, women often opt out after having children, or if they feel ambivalent toward their careers, which may have been haphazardly entered into, before they began raising children.

Spar interestingly argues that under US law in the 1970s and 1980s, women’s difference from men has been banished in favour of gender neutrality, in which it’s assumed that “given the  same opportunities, women will behave more or less like men” (193). She finds, on the contrary, that those differences may and may not involve non-aggressive consensus-building, leadership-inspiring, etc. (But see my paragraph above on the risk of essentialism.) She finds that women don’t work or provide leadership like men do.

In fact, Spar rightly calls for investigation into the ways in which institutions are qualitatively run differently by women, which she believes would prove the merits of having more women aboard in top professional positions. But at the end of the day, I agree with her fully that it’s just “common sense” that the 50% of the population that women represent need to participate in the highest professional ranks of our society. As she aptly says: “. . . the issue . . . is not about pulling token women into public places to pretend that their presence is more widespread.  The issue is about making it easier for all women to have the jobs and careers they want, and for all organizations to benefit from the diversity of perspectives that women tend to bring” (199).

One telling difference between women’s and men’s working methods  is evident in the story she tells of the way that new websites were created – one, for the business program at Harvard; and one created (later) for Barnard College. Deciding on the creation of a website at Harvard was done mostly by men, involved few conversations, after which implementation quickly occurred. At Barnard, by contrast, women held “listening sessions,” “consultations, working groups and committees” (196), followed by re-design, more discussion and alterations to meet the community’s approval. Spar observes that Barnard ended up with a better website than Harvard, but that it also took much more time and energy: “Same decision, but a wholly different dynamic” (197).

While Spar finds reason for optimism in firms that have begun recruiting women specifically and boosting their performance, as a result, she observes what most concerns me—that “expectations have become sky-high” (199). Of course, as she says, it’s unreasonable to expect women to act like men. But another piece of the problem is that women are expected to thrive in whatever career they choose, to rise “through the ranks happily, have the perfect partner, two flourishing children, and along the way, to have a healthy sex life and to look drop-dead gorgeous. Perfection is not a reasonable expectation. I agree with Spar that women who wish to have family could, in practical terms, avoid fields like investment banking and technological entrepreneurship, which are known to have 90 hour work weeks. One has to be one’s own advocate and know the requirements of one’s profession, if one enters into it. But perfectionism (for men and women both) can easily turn each of those top 16% of careers (and some that don’t get there) into 90 hour work weeks, as well.

I also find it inequitable and unfair in our society that some men can excel on a single project at work, while leaving the lawn unmowed and the plumbing leaking. This is angering since at the same time, women often feel they must balance competing demands all at once, attending to them all: work, children, spouse, housing, friendships, powerful personal attractiveness or beauty, and the list goes on and on . . . . (Spar details this problem very well, including her own experience.)

I would argue (even stronger than Spar does) that the outrageous burden on contemporary professional women has now eroded the gains won by first-wave feminists. “The personal is political” has been but forgotten by many young and middle-aged women. As one former radical observed to Spar, “We weren’t fighting so you could have Botox” (231). First-wave feminism fought male oppression and unattainable norms of beauty demanded by a male-dominated society (e.g. the “Charlie girl” perfume ad). And yet, our culture has gone on to celebrate women in the 1990’s like “Murphy Brown” and Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” And since then, look at the superstar, “diva” demands made of women in reality t.v. such as “American Idol,” or “The Voice,” etc.  Women’s bodies are more objectified than ever (a point that Lady Gaga strives to make).

And yet, women of course still must confront the biology of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Spar says that the expectations are “to be madonna and whore. Mother and wage earner. Smart but not arrogant. A leader but not bitch” (233-234). No one—man or woman—she says, can save the world while looking “like a 17-year old” or bake a perfect cake the night before a major presentation at work. And yet our culture is faster to criticize a woman, when she doesn’t, than it would criticize a man (e.g. Hillary Clinton’s intellect undermined by criticism that she has had “bad hair”).

Cultural stereotyping based on perfectionism has been causing women in the West (and no doubt in related ways, elsewhere), when faced with these impossibilities, to go “inward,” and control ourselves, to micromanage ourselves until we look and sound and appear to be “perfect.”  We move from options that we “can” be to what we compulsorily “should be:” Spar comments that when there are more choices, women feel they must choose them all—perfect careers, kids and bodies. She says: “My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and the victories of feminism [especially in the first wave of the 1960s] and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.”

She continues: “Feminism was supposed to be about granting women power and equality and then about harnessing that power for positive change. . . . [R]ather than embracing these political objectives, younger generations of women have largely turned away from first-wave feminism’s external and social goals and instead turned in on their own lives, focusing, say, not on better neighbourhood schools, but on their own children’s SAT scores; not on social equity writ large, but on the professional advancement of small and highly specific groups of women. Rather than trying to address the world, we are trying to control our own small pieces of it” (236).

As perfectionism rears its destructive head, we need to see it for what it is, kill it and replace its expectations with attainable goals that “acknowledge both women’s aspirations and the obstacles to them” that women confront (237). Spar’s argument is certainly for “total equality with men,” but also to recognize women as different from men (and I’d add,  from each other), so that “women’s paths to success may be different and more complicated than men’s” and that those complications should be recognized and allowed to become part of the broader cultural discussion on gender and power (237).

In practical terms, this means that the challenges to the workplace caused by pregnancy and motherhood need to be openly discussed and “explicit” in the workplace, so that better maternity leaves and family-friendly workplaces result. Men need to help, not only at home, but also at work, to help accommodate women and women’s differences. And so do women who choose not to, or who are not able to, raise children.

Spar rightly observes that men haven’t had it easy, since the 1960’s, either. In the US, there was Vietnam; jobs lost to women in the 1980’s; and since then, the economic collapse of “male” industries, such as “construction, automobile manufacturing, electronics” (247). And men have had to strive to define “workable contours of a radically-changed home” (247). Canada was not involved in Vietnam, but has faced similar class, economic and vocational challenges.

We are not yet to the point of celebrating difference and finding that “joy” (of all things) can come from what diversity offers to our culture. The perfectionist lie in our work and homes decimates the lives of both women and men. (And on the “lie” of perfection for creatives, see Seth Godin’s arguments on the primordial “lizard brain,” in Linchpin: Are you Indispensable?)

Spar cites feminist Andrew Dworkin from Woman Hating¸ where Dworkin says that feminism is about restructuring “community forms and human consciousness so that people have power over their own lives, participate fully in community, live in dignity and freedom” (Spar 236). These are goals that are within our sight, but require much more conscious effort than our culture currently mandates to pursue. We are far from attaining these goals and sometimes move yet further from them (e.g. some government policy).

An an academic of business and of women’s education, then, who shows cultural savvy and skill as a writer, Debora Spar (and not only, say, Sheryl Sandberg and Seth Godin) certainly deserves some sentences in a new narrative of gender that we’re attempting to write, this century and in the West—a narrative in which everyone will acknowledge that “no one” (of either sex) can ever “have it all” and that the lie of perfectionism must be expelled, for the benefit of all of society, including for our cultural and creative work.  And while Spar’s study and my frame of reference here is focused on the West, these truths need now to be understood more globally, in the lives of Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan) and Leyma Gbowee (Liberia). And in the lives of the many girls and women whose names have not yet been uttered, and that we still too conveniently bracket off as the “East.”

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