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The Myth of the "Wonder Woman" is holding women back

Dec 9 2013

Debora Spar is many things: She’s the president of Barnard College. She was among the youngest women to earn tenure at the Harvard Business School. She is the author of six books. She is the mother to three children. By all accounts, Spar is a feminist success story. Yet she also is a self-described “reluctant feminist” who admits that she has spent most of her life “steering clear of any feminist agenda.”

In her new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Spar uses her complicated relationship with feminism to expose the conflictingprofessional and personal standards faced by today's women. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s opened professional doors for women, making previously unimaginable choices available, Spar explained to a Stanford audience.The next generation of women tried to embody these new professional opportunities—but without relinquishing their traditional female roles. 

Rather than offering a world of choices, Spar believes the feminist movement backfired when women interpreted it as a mandate to pursue perfection in all areas,ranging from their careers to their physical appearance. As explained in Wonder Women, the impossible goal of achieving perfection in all areas has limited women, rather than liberating them. 

Why does the glass ceiling persist? The quest for perfection is partly to blame 

Women account for just 16 percent of people in high-level positions in the workplace, explains Spar, despite the influx of women into higher education and the labor force. Spar recognizes the research attributing this leadership gap to institutional and cultural sexism. But she also argues that the problem “isn’t just legalized prejudice” or “men being mean.” Rather, it is the quest for perfection that holds women back. 

Women are “stuck” because they cannot simultaneously rise through the workplace ranks while also meeting 1950s standards of motherhood, according to Spar. As a result, women leave the workforce earlier and more often, rarely advancing beyond mid-level positions. 

The persistence of the glass ceiling may seem remarkable in this day and age. After all, second-wave feminists fought for equal treatment at work, pursuing legal claims through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Plantiffs in these cases sought to end the belief that women were less capable than men at work, calling for equal treatment of men and women and an end to stereotypes that women were somehow "different."

Spar wonders, however, if acknowledging gender difference in the workplace could actually help retain women in the workforce. In particular, she ponders the advantages of workplaces built around women’s interpretations of communication and leadership, citing studies that attest to the value of these differences. Spar is quick to recognize the risks in arguing that men and women have different orientations to work. At the same time, she does not rule out the possibility that doing so might help women break through the 16 percent glass ceiling. 

The perils of the perfect body image 

Body image is another area where women are haunted by the quest for perfection, according to Spar. Today’s culture glorifies a singular body image, ignoring earlier feminists’ push for women to celebrate the diversity of female body types. While theobsession with the perfect body is not a new phenomenon, it is particularly stifling in light of the current-day expectation that women also be CEOs and perfect wives. 

At Stanford, Spar juxtaposed images of a corseted woman and a supermodel. Historically, she noted, cultural norms dictated that women wear corsets to achieve the ideal body type. While the feminist movement sought to banish the corset ideal, women now alter their bodies through extreme diet and exercise regimens, in an effort to look like supermodels. 

Ironically, Spar finds the root of body image problem in her generation’s interpretation of second-wave feminism. The movement liberated women to explore their bodies and their sexuality, and it also emphasized the social and cultural power of physical and sexual attraction, explains Spar. Indeed, she believes that feminists’ emphasis on body image inadvertently caused women to fixate on cultural images of perfection instead of defining their own beauty standards. 

There is no easy answer as to how to counter this beauty culture. Yet Spar suggests that women start by separating perfection from beauty and by celebrating different forms of beauty as feminist theorists of the 1960s and 1970s endorsed. "Perfection,"explains Spar, is a singular, impossible standard, whereas "beauty" is multi-faceted and validates women of all shapes, sizes, and cultures. 

New choices for women 

Debora Spar reminds us that feminism did not have all the answers but that feminists were “asking the right questions.” She suggests that women today look to feminism to redefine the meaning of choice. Spar argues that “having it all means giving something up” and that women should be more “systematic in recognizing the choices that they make.” 


Spar advocates that women make realistic, informed choices about which paths to pursue—or not pursue—and that they support each other in these choices.

To be sure, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Many working-class women may not face the same choices as their middle-class counterparts. For some women, being a stay-at-home mom may not be financially realistic choice—and yet becoming CEO may be likewise unattainable.

Nevertheless, for professional women, Spar’s assessment of personal and professional choice is a welcome reflection on gender roles, feminism, and the importance of women-centered, collective models of success. 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.