Debora Spar on the Dilemma of Modern Women

Debora Spar has what I feel is good advice for modern women in her Daily Beast essay “Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect.” I have no first-person authority on dilemmas that women face, but having been born in 1960, I watched the Second Wave of Feminism and the Third Wave of Feminism with interest from their inceptions. I recommended this essay to my daughter.

Debora has useful things to say about how inequality in the sharing of household burdens–and in particular, the unequal sharing of child care–affects how women fare in the workforce as well:

…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….

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.)

At work, Debora points out how the true marginal products of women are often underestimated because women are less boastful than men and because the ways in which they contribute to balanced decision-making and the output of others are not fully counted:

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.

Debora also has some wise words about the costs of political correctness:

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.

Finally, Debora has two key pieces of advice for women juggling both work and children in the world as it is now: 

  1. Let some things go.  
  2. If you can’t live near extended family, try to put together a group of friends who can serve as a surrogate extended family.

I like both of these points. On the first point, let me add this thought of my own:

If you think “setting priorities” is a pleasant platitude, you don’t understand what it really is. “Setting priorities” is the brutal process of deciding which things won’t get done.