Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect

In the United States, we move away from our parents, our childhood friends, and the communities that might help us achieve saner and more balanced lives. Tamar Levine / Gallery Stock

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.

Yet, despite these successes, which Rosin cites as evidence of women's ascent, the harsh reality is that this march into the workplace has still not translated into either parity on the homefront or power at the top. Women are working for major corporations but not leading them. Practicing medicine but rarely heading medical departments or hospitals. Running for political office but still not winning more than a token percentage of seats. As of 2012, women accounted for only 16 percent of partners at the country's largest law firms and 15 percent of senior executives at Fortune 100 firms. They constituted only 10 percent of the country's aerospace engineers, 7 percent of its Hollywood directors, and 16 percent of its congressional representatives. And they still earn, on average, only 77 cents to every man's dollar.

More than 50 years ago, the United States was roiled by the feminist and sexual revolutions, which together sought to bring women out of their household isolation and into a community devoted to achieving broader social goals. Yet far from rallying around these quaint echoes of sisterhood, we seem stuck today in a purgatory of perfection—each of us trying so hard to be everything that inevitably, inherently, we fail.

So what, then, are we to do? One possibility, of course, is simply to give up; to acknowledge women's destinies as something different from men's and stop complaining about it. This, however, hardly seems fair, either to the generations who fought so hard for women's freedoms, or to those who have not yet had the opportunity to give these freedoms a try. A second possibility, trumpeted most recently in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her examination of why women still can't have it all, is to keep fighting the proverbial fights—for better day care, better family leaves, more flex time at work and co-parenting at home. These are all important goals. Yet they will never be sufficient to address the underlying issues.

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In 1970, the women’s movement seemed poised to change the world; indeed, by 1976, Newsweek reported that “women are surging into the offices, stores, and factories of America at a rate higher than in the World War II days of Rosie the Riveter.” But all was not rosy: in a package of stories 10 years later, the magazine chronicled the struggles to balance work and home that American women still face today.

This is because many of the problems that plague women now are not due to either government policy or overt discrimination. They cannot be resolved solely by money and they are not caused only by men. Instead, the problems we face are subtler. They come partly from the media, partly from society, partly from biology, and partly from our own vastly unrealistic expectations. To address them, we must go beyond either policy solutions or anger with the patriarchy. We must instead forge partnerships with those around us, and begin to dismantle the myth of solitary perfection.

To begin with, we need to acknowledge that biology matters—not that it determines everything, but that it's one of those areas of life that probably shouldn't be ignored. This isn't to argue that women's bodies condemn them to a particular fate, but really just to state the obvious: that women experience pregnancy and childbirth in a deeply physical way. Women are the ones who carry the child for nine months, and whose bodies leap instantly after labor to sustain that child through the first critical months of life. These are the physiological aspects of mothering that defy government regulation and corporate policy. And they are not going away.

But there are also attitudes and relationships that can make these facts of life infinitely easier—or more difficult—to handle. When my first child was born, I was lucky. I was still in graduate school, able to control my own schedule and surrounded by hordes of eager undergraduate babysitters. I was a young professor when my second son was born, though, and due to be back in the classroom less than three months after giving birth. I made one research trip in the intervening time, fervently pumping breast milk during an early-morning drive, much to the shock and consternation of my research assistant. I attended seminars—and heard for years afterward from one colleague how amused he was to see me "in your shlumpy clothes, like you'd just gotten out of bed!" (No, I just GAVE BIRTH, you idiot.) And I went back into the classroom with suits that barely fit and a body still physically committed to my son, not my students. Within weeks, it proved too much. I gave up nursing, gave up pumping, and tried diligently to avoid all the studies telling me how much healthier it was for a woman to breast-feed her child. When I survived—barely—the end of that semester, a colleague helpfully suggested that I end class by jumping out of a cake.

These are the pressures that are tougher to address. Of course, companies should strive to create generous maternity leaves and family-friendly workplaces and private pumping rooms for new mothers. And yes, governments should aim to provide more accessible and affordable child care. But at the end of the day, women who juggle children and jobs will still face a discrete and serious set of tensions that simply don't confront either men (except in very rare cases) or women who remain childless. Women cannot avoid these tensions entirely, but they can make choices—and plans, if they're lucky—that acknowledge them more carefully. Women can choose, for instance, between jobs in far-off cities and those that leave them closer to family and friends willing to help with the inevitable crises of child-rearing. They can choose not to breast-feed their babies for as long as they might ideally like, or to resist the lure of attachment parenting. They can choose whether to have children earlier in their lives or later, and indeed whether to have them at all. The point is that women need to make these choices and plans consciously rather than simply hoping for the best and trying to do it all. Because unless biology truly undergoes a revolution, the task of bearing babies will fall always on women. And having babies imposes consequences that cannot, and should not, be denied.

Meanwhile, if women are ever to solve the "women's problem," they need to acknowledge that they cannot do it alone. Men must help. This isn't because women aren't smart enough, or unable to garner sufficient power. It's just the basic math. Women account for only 50 percent of the population and far less than 50 percent of the decision-making seats in any organization. If women want to change the world, they need to involve men as well.

Thankfully, the time for this evolution is now ripe. Millions of men have watched their daughters play soccer, their mothers launch companies, their sisters struggle to compete. They have invested in female employees who subsequently quit and have wondered, later in their own lives, whether they asked their wives to sacrifice too much on their behalf. Most of these men genuinely want women to succeed.

But they don't know how to make the right changes and are generally not party to the conversations that women have among themselves. All too often, women are scared of raising the topic of gender with men, thinking it will brand them as radicals or troublemakers, while men are terrified of saying or doing anything that might classify them as politically incorrect. The result, of course, is that no one says anything productive at all. Women mutter to themselves about their continued exploitation, men mumble platitudes and hire high-priced diversity consultants, and nothing changes.

Let me say what is often forbidden: women may differ from men in a whole range of important ways. In the aggregate, as research has shown, they may be less comfortable with outsize risk than men, and more inclined toward caution. They may be less directly confrontational, and slower to boast of their talents and successes. They may prize consensus over discord and favor personal relationships over hierarchical ones. Rather than wishing these differences away, or pretending they don't exist, we need to analyze them, understand them, and then talk to one another about how best to create a world shaped by a diversity of styles and patterns; a world driven by women's skills and interests and passions as much as by men's.

Another piece of the puzzle sits closer to home, where parity remains frustratingly elusive and women still consistently log more hours than their mates. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of working mothers in the United States rose from 45 to 78 percent of all mothers, and the average time that an American woman spent in the paid labor force increased from 9 to 25 hours a week. Yet women were still devoting nearly 40 hours a week to family care: housework, child care, shopping. Men, by contrast, spent only 21, most of which were devoted to fairly discrete and flexible tasks like mowing the lawn, washing the car, and tossing softballs with the kids. (Try this. See who in any household schedules the kids' dental appointments. My own husband, lovely though he is, seems not to be aware that our children even have teeth.)

There is much to be said about these persistent inequities; about the deep-seated patterns that seem to drive women toward the laundry room and men to the couch. Yet there may also be reason to pull back from this fight, or at least to recast it in ways that don't continually drag the gender wars into every American kitchen. Yes, women incontrovertibly do more work around the home. But men, to be fair, have also leapt pretty dramatically into a rapidly evolving rearrangement of roles. Between 1965 and 1983, married fathers more than doubled their housework hours, from four hours per week to 10. They tripled their time spent on primary child care between 1965 and 2000, from two and a half hours per week to nearly eight. These men may do the household chores differently than their wives would. They may leave the playroom messier or abandon more socks in the dryer. But, given the vast changes afoot in household organization, those socks might just be worth sacrificing.

Meanwhile, American women may also want to consider returning to the kinds of social structures that prevailed in earlier decades, to things like coffee klatches and neighborhood clubs that we have somehow banished from our more atomistic and hard-driving schedules. Recently, I found myself listening enviously as a high-profile businesswoman from Mumbai described her backup network. When one mom had an early-morning meeting, she dropped her toddler off with a neighbor; when another had to travel abroad, a friend handled lunches and carpools for her kids. These Indian women also spoke of their extensive family networks, of the parents and in-laws and cousins who lived nearby and regularly pitched in with the myriad tasks of daily life. Few people in the United States live this way anymore. Instead, we move away from our parents, away from our childhood friends, away from the communities that might help us achieve saner and more balanced lives. In most parts of the country, we don't even let our kids roam around the neighborhood, chauffeuring them instead in solitary splendor and ripping them from what might otherwise be—used to be—a neighborhood.

Which brings me to my final point. The only way that American women will ever fully solve the "women's problem" is by recognizing the quest for perfection for what it is: a myth. No woman can have it all, and by using all as the standard of success, we are only condemning ourselves and our daughters to failure.

Several months ago, I attended a speech given by one of my recent graduates, a funny, smart, ambitious woman. Speaking to a group of younger women, she recalled her friends and classmates asking her that proverbial, horrible query: How do you do it? "Do what?" she'd queried back. "Do everything." Her response was frank, and frightening. "Each time someone commented on how I'm always in a good mood or smiling, I felt more and more like a phony," she confessed. "If only they knew that, behind closed doors, I cried and crumbled under unrealistic expectations set not by peers or professors, but by me." I hear sentiments like this all the time—from high-school girls, from college grads, from young mothers and old women. Or as another former student recently confided, "Girls need to have all their grandmothers wanted them to have, while looking as pretty as their mothers wanted them to look ... You try so hard to be who everyone wants you to be while attempting to maintain some kind of individuality and in the end you seem to lose everything."

Today, part of what keeps women from the top ranks of their professions is a fear that they will not perform well enough; a suspicion, usually ungrounded, that they are not fully qualified for the job. Part of what makes women unhappy at home is a related fear that they are not quite good enough—that their kids don't practice piano for at least two hours a day, their closets are a mess, and the brownies they brought to the bake sale weren't entirely gluten-free. It's madness. Let me be clear. if women want to have both families and jobs; if they want, even, to have fast-paced jobs without children or fast-paced children without jobs, something has to give.

Many years ago, during my very first week of graduate school, my classmates and I attended a seminar with Judith Shklar, an early MacArthur "genius" and one of the first women tenured at Harvard. "How do you find time," one of my classmates earnestly asked, "to talk with your colleagues and really understand their ideas?" "I don't find time at all," Shklar shot back. "If I want to know what my colleagues think, I read their books." At the time, I was aghast. What a miserable woman, I remember thinking, she doesn't even talk with her friends. Now, of course, I totally get it. Shklar, who raised three children, wrote eight books, and pioneered work-family balance before anyone coined the phrase, wasn't being harsh or mean at all. She was being wise. If you want to know what your colleagues think, you don't, in fact, have to spend endless hours chatting over coffee. You can read their books. If you want to be a good mother, you don't have to chair the nursery-school auction or bake perfect madeleines for the second-grade fair. Sometimes, you can pack RingDings instead.

Meanwhile, making a world that is better for women also demands that women work together. In its earliest incarnation, feminism was about communal action and goals; about giving women the power to shape not only their reproductive lives, but also their destinies and that of the world around them. Over the decades, though, this collective goal has been lost, replaced by the individual struggles that now compel most women. Rather than fighting for better public schools, for instance, we are focusing on our own kids' SAT scores. Rather than supporting other women, we tend to attack instead, arguing endlessly over who is raising better children and getting less sleep.

It is time now to go back—to channel the passion of our political foremothers and put it again to good use. It needn't be anything particularly elaborate. How about organizing babysitting collaboratives for worn-out moms? Or potluck suppers, that remnant of our grandparents' age? We could work together to make the life we share a bit easier for us all. And yet too often we do not. Why? Because we're too busy being perfect.

Once a month, I have open office hours for my students. It is one of the best parts of my job—four fast-flowing hours during which wonderful young women parade their dreams and fears before me. Some come, of course, to complain about bad roommates or boring food. But most come to discuss their still-evolving plans. To solve the world's water shortage. To launch an online incubator or a vegan café. One day, four separate students proudly described their plans to start rural schools for girls in Africa. I was so proud of them, so happy to see the enthusiasm they generated. But as the last one left my office, I ventured what I probably should say more often: "You see the woman who was here before you? Why don't you track her down, and try to work together."

Feminism wasn't supposed to make us miserable. It was supposed to make us free; to give women the power to shape their fortunes and work for a more just world. Today, women have choices that their grandmothers could not have imagined. The challenge lies in recognizing that having choices carries the responsibility to make them wisely, striving not for perfection or the ephemeral all, but for lives and loves that matter.

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