American Women Have It Wrong

Article excerpt

Byline: Debora Spar

Sure, we have powerful jobs, well-run homes, and perfect children. But we're still not making it to the very top. There are things we can learn from the rest of the world.

Over the past 30 years-first at Harvard Business School, where I was on the faculty for nearly two decades, and now, at Barnard College, where I serve as president-I have watched thousands of bright and talented young women start to plot the course of their lives. I have watched my friends' and colleagues' lives evolve in complicated and unpredictable ways.

And I have juggled like mad, with three wonderful kids, a husband I adore, and jobs that leave me perched perpetually on the edge of insanity. Like most working mothers, I have snuck out of meetings to attend piano recitals and missed track meets when a deadline was looming. I have sprinted through airports in the futile hope of catching an earlier flight home and tried to comfort a sobbing child when, inevitably, the plane was late. I delivered my first lecture in a suit that reeked of infant throw-up from earlier that morning and crashed the minivan into a tree as I raced to retrieve the correct ballet costume.

Through all this chaos I have become increasingly convinced of two interconnected points. First, that there is undeniably still a "women's problem" in the United States, a problem that relates deeply and intimately to the bleak roster of numbers that tell this story. And second, that part of this intractable problem is tied to the fact that women in this country are struggling far more than is necessary not only to have that ephemeral "all," but to do it all alone.

Indeed, rather than leaping with glee at the liberation that has befallen women since the 1960s, we are laboring instead under a double whammy of impossible expectations--the old-fashioned ones (to be good mothers and wives, impeccable housekeepers and blushing brides) and those wrought more recently (to be athletic, strong, sexually versatile, and wholly independent). The result? We have become a generation desperate to be perfect wives, mothers, and professionals--Tiger Moms who prepare organic quinoa each evening after waltzing home from the IPO in our Manolo Blahnik heels. Even worse, we somehow believe that we need to do all of this at once, and without any help. Almost by definition, a woman cannot work a 60-hour-per-week job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without the 60-hour-per-week job. No man can do this; no human can do this. Yet women are repeatedly berating themselves for failing at this kind of balancing act, and (quietly, invidiously) berating others when something inevitably slips. Think of the schadenfreude that erupts every time a high-profile woman hits a bump in either her career or her family life. Poor Condoleezza Rice, left without a boyfriend. Sloppy Hillary, whose hair is wrong again. Bad Marissa Mayer, who dared to announce her pregnancy the same week she was named CEO of Yahoo. She could not pull it off (snicker, snicker). She paid for her success. She Could. Not. Do. It. All.

Over the past half century, women have been rapidly collecting the skills and credentials that should have allowed us to take over the world, or at least our half of it. As Hanna Rosin has recently pointed out in The End of Men, her celebration of women's shifting roles, women today are attending college in record numbers (57 percent of college students in 2010 were female), surging into graduate programs (women earned 47 percent of all law degrees in 2010 and 48 percent of all medical degrees), and sailing with relative ease into the workforce. In 2011, women accounted for 47 percent of the overall labor force in the United States and 59 percent of the college-educated, entry-level workforce. Professional-minded women are marrying later or not at all, often working more, and earning more, than the men in their lives. In 2009, wives out-earned their husbands in 38 percent of American households. …