Gender in the Workplace and Beyond: Re-Writing Perfectionist Narratives for Women’s Inclusion (w. Debora Spar), Part One

A colleague and associate of Debora Spar, the President of Barnard College (the all-women’s liberal arts college in NY) contacted me recently, after reading some of my recent blog on Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013). This associate promoted another more recently released book, in a similar vein to Sandberg’s—Debora L. Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). As Spar’s title suggests, the study addresses issues that include the psychology of the professions, including business and academia and the complex role that gender and maternity play in it.

I was impressed by several of the arguments in Spar’s book. So my next two blogs will give a précis of Spar’s study, focusing not on her autobiographical exploration of gender inequality at work (which much of the book discusses) so much as on her analysis of the complex ways that the “glass ceiling” still exists for women in the higher echelons of our culture’s professions. While these blog postings will be academic in tone, Spar makes arguments that are relevant to creative artists (including writers and designers) and to the people who hire them. (In the near future, I’ll discuss some of the writing of the highly successful US copywriter, Dianna Huff, and also of the journalist Mika Brzezinksi, on the question of gender and professional success.) Debora Spar focuses on corporate and academic America; but many of the same arguments bear relevance to those sectors in Canada, as well.

I’m particularly interested in Spar’s writing on “perfectionism,” the noose that threatens professional people in every industry, and women, in particular (cf my blog on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In). I’m ultimately arguing that the only way to deal with the demanding creative work of writing, editing and design is to cut oneself free from that perfectionist “noose”—more particularly, from the fear-mongering and unrealistic expectations (whether internally or externally directed) that compose it.

But first: who is Debora Spar? Earlier in her career, she was one of the youngest female professors to receive tenure at Harvard Business School. Raised after the “tumult” of the first wave of feminism (e.g. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem), Spar, like Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook), thought that “the gender wars were over” and that “we thought we could just glide into the new era of equality, with babies, board seats and husbands in tow.” But it didn’t work.

Spar does not dispute that the “first wave” of feminism in the 1960’s enabled women to enter into the labour force more than any other cultural movement. She cites that in 2008 in the US, 47% of the labour force was women. 34% of lawyers that year were women and 30% of doctors. 61% of accountants and auditors were women, and some 25% of architects (174). This is hard-won gender participation. But fifty years after Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Spar argues, women are still underrepresented at the “top of the pyramid,” where they glass ceiling persists. We are, as she puts it, still “stuck” below it.

The stats are revealing: in the US, only 15.2% of the board members of Fortune 500 Companies are women. Only 16% of the partners of the largest law firms are women.  And a scant 19% of surgeons are women. So why is that? What has gone wrong?

Academic studies of structural and psychological barriers that women face agree that women pay a “disproportionate price for juggling kids and career, and that many high-powered men remain subtly antagonistic to working with and promoting the women who surround them.” Spar foregrounds that even more than today’s “old-fashioned,” stay-at-home Moms, limited maternity leaves, “mommy track” jobs (less demanding and less influential positions that can be held to accommodate child-rearing), and “men who don’t play nice,” there are “subtle and intangible factors that stem from underlying differences in how women tend to work and organize themselves professionally” (174). And because women’s differences are not recognized within the structure of work environments, Spar says, the “glass ceiling” (or permafrost) persists. We are “stuck in the 16% power cranny.”

Spar says that prior to the 1980’s, American women were “right to blame men for holding them back,” right to seek the changes in the workforce to enable themselves to rise in the “ranks of power.” Women did succeed in prying open men’s clubs, Ivy League Universities, equal-pay legislation, maternity leaves, child daycare at work, etc. Also, many men are more enlightened, now. But there remains a large gap between where women thought they’d be, in the 21st century, and where they actually are.

Only 21 companies on the Fortune 500 list are run by female CEOs. Women in the US continue to earn on average 23 cents less than men for every dollar they earn. And the underrepresentation of women applies across very different industries (Spar cites “movie directors to accountants”).

Those limited 16% of women at the top either think like men themselves, or by extraordinary willpower, learn to operate in a male-dominated atmosphere. And women’s underrepresentation is not due to a lack of available, trained women: the “pipeline to the top” has been flush with women, for more than 20 years. Women who were graduating from male-dominated sectors at the time that Spar entered graduate school in the 1980s have not “soared or crawled their way to the top.” They have not reached the top, at all–their progress has been slower than anyone in the first wave of feminism would have expected, or else is non-existent.

At least some of what’s lacking has been a “critical mass” of women in such positions to mentor junior associates at crucial points in their careers, to ensure that diversity programs and accountability are properly implemented. Spar cites Ina Drew, one of the US banking sector’s longest-serving and highest-ranking executive as saying that mentorship counts for much: “ ‘The top echelons of finance still lack mentors that women desperately need . . . If women remain unfulfilled by their positions, without the potential for growth and discouraged by male aggression, the discrepancies will persist’ ” (179).

Meanwhile, only at the lower end of the pay scale and professional range (e.g. nursing, hair-dressing, middle school teaching) have women made strides, so that two-thirds of American households benefit from the mothers’ contributions to family earnings. Mothers are the primary income providers in 40% of households and half of those are single parent households. The bad news at this lower end of the career spectrum is that many of these women are “barely holding on,” living paycheque to paycheque, at the bottom of the career chain. This is the place where women for generations have struggled and from which they were supposed to have been liberated, in the 1960s. In other words, women enter college and graduate school, followed by entry-level and mid-level positions in every industry, but “fall out well before they reach the top” (180).

Women are choosing to stop, deciding that they need to stay at home, or work part-time, or leave the “fast-track.” Such decisions may be sensible for individual women, Spar says, but the demographic result is “a landscape where women are still scarce and where the clashing of visions between what is and what was expected to be makes them feel scarcer still” (181).

What Spar refers to as “mommy-track” jobs are the positions gained from the less demanding path women sometimes take when they want to stay in the workplace, but not sacrifice their entire lives to it. It allows “retention” of the women recruited, trained and invested in, “but not advancement.” “Mommy-track” jobs offer more flexible scheduling to enable women to take off occasional hours, a day, a week, or to work sometimes from home: the reality is that few organizations have found ways to re-define their most important positions “in any way different from full-time chunks.” Spar says that only 2% of female financial managers and 13% of female lawyers work part-time. In a recent survey, even at Spar’s own women’s college (Barnard College), only 11% of female staff were found to work part-time.

Most part-timers work at the lowest end of the career spectrum, as “cashiers, waitresses, sales assistants,” etc. Managerial and better jobs go to full-timers. And once women have pulled over to the “off ramp,” career-wise, the road back, Spar observes, is “treacherous . . . . Positions disappear, salaries plummet, professional relationships grow stale.” And so only 40% of women who try to return to full-time professional positions, after having children, succeed in doing so. The rest settle for the “mommy-track” of “slower-paced, lower-ranked” jobs, or else retire early (184).

What conclusions we can come about women’s “16% power cranny” or impasse, and specifically how it connects to women’s quest for perfection, I’ll explore through Spar’s book, in part two of this blog. To be continued . . . .

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