“How many of you think that you do want to have both—children and a career?” Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, asked at a fireside chat on Monday night.
Among the 13 attendees in the Diana Center’s Judith Shapiro Faculty Room, all but two hands went up.
While the talk was intended to focus on telecommuting and Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer’s recent decision to ban working from home, the conversation at the event quickly evolved into a broader discussion about the challenges women face in balancing family and a career.
“I do think there’s a knee-jerk reaction in both men and women to expect women to be solving work-life relations, more than men are expected to solve them. And that’s just not fair,” Spar said.
Bunge Okeyo, BC ’13, said that the topic of telecommuting was an overly specific one.
“For me, I like to think about problems on a systemic level,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing to discuss, but it’s not necessarily how we solve the problem.”
Spar has written about the challenges that women face in working to balance a career and a family. She also has a book on the subject coming out in September, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” Her 2012 essay in the Daily Beast, “Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect,” sparked discussion about the topic on campus and has come up in her fireside chats ever since.
Spar discussed the news involving Meyer, who ignited a media firestorm when she banned telecommuting, drawing backlash from critics who said it would disproportionately affect working mothers. Spar also mentioned former Lehman Brothers Chief Financial Officer Erin Callan as a woman who had run afoul of the pressure and criticism that come with trying to have it all.
Callan wrote what Spar called a poignant New York Times op-ed several weeks ago about the sacrifices she made for her work and how her job came to define her. In the piece, Callan wrote, “Inevitably, when I left my job, it devastated me. ... I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did.”
Students spoke about the pressure to be perfect in both their personal and academic lives, and Spar said she recognized the challenges that the students faced.
“It’s not Barnard-specific, it’s any elite college. The competition for the number of majors you all can have, it’s a bit nuts,” she said.
Spar suggested that those students who were visible in leadership roles on campus had a “moral burden” to narrow down their priorities and demonstrate that it’s all right not to try to do it all.
Vivian Tsai, BC ’15, said that Spar’s discussion of limitations was thought-provoking.
“It felt very empowering for someone you deem to be successful talking about the sacrifices that she or he had to make,” she said. “You realize that you’re not the only one struggling.”
SGA VP of Communications Malvina Kefalas, BC ’14, who organized the event, noted that the recurring topic of perfection in Spar’s last fireside chats was telling.
“It’s interesting that regardless of context of discussion, perfection comes up,” she said. “It’s obviously something important to Barnard students.”