This Woman Says She Can't Do It All — & That’s Why We Like Her

Photographer: Winnie Au; Designer: .
Barnard College has long been known as a prestigious single-sex liberal arts institution. Across the street from (and affiliated with) Columbia University, the women’s college just celebrated its 125th anniversary and is more in-demand than ever, boasting a competitive 21% acceptance rate for the class of 2017.
A huge part of what makes Barnard College such a powerhouse, despite its relatively small size (about 2,400 enrolled): the fearless woman at its helm, Debora Spar. A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service with a doctorate from Harvard, Spar served as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development at Harvard Business School. Since taking over as the seventh president of Barnard College in 2008, Spar has hosted both President Obama and Sheryl Sandberg for commencement speeches (Perhaps you’ve heard of the catchphrase “lean in”? That was coined during Sandberg’s 2011 on-campus commencement speech), spearheaded women’s leadership initiatives including the foundation of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies on campus, and published the conversation-starting book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. Spar has also been named one of Fortune magazine's most powerful women on Twitter.
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Pretty damn impressive. But, despite all of that success, Spar will be the first to tell you that she can’t do it all, and she doesn’t want women to aspire to that kind of unreasonable standard of perfection. Life is messy, and Spar encourages embracing that — as illustrated by the fact that she spent our conversation icing one swollen, injured foot, while sporting a four-inch stiletto on the other.
She’s got style and charisma in spades, and immediately dispels any notions of academics being stuffy and boring. But, even more importantly, Spar is a thought leader who really wants to help women thrive. Up ahead, she shares some of the secrets to her success, and she tells us how she guides Barnard students to go after the lives they want. Basically, she’s giving you a DIY guide to becoming a Superwoman on your own terms.
Styling by Willow Lindley; Hair and Makeup by Erica Whelan; Photography by Winnie Au.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
In your book Wonder Women, you’re candid about your previous ambivalence toward feminism. How has that changed and evolved at Barnard?
“I’ve definitely evolved. I never had anything against feminism. I thought it was over. I wished it was over. I was of the generation that grew up believing you could do whatever you wanted as a woman. And then reality hit me over the head midway through my own career when I realized that there weren’t a lot of women where I was hanging out, and that life as a professional woman was different than that of a professional man. I began thinking that when I was at Harvard Business School, and then coming to Barnard gave me the opportunity to think about it somewhat more systematically, instead of just grumbling about it.”
What is your relationship with the idea of feminism today?
“I think I’ve grabbed onto the definition of feminism that many people, including the Barnard Center for Research on Women, have put out there, which is the crazy idea that women are equal to men, and I think that’s as good a definition as anything. Feminism is a huge tent, and there are a lot of pieces underneath it, but the overarching concept is the best way for me to define it.”
Judith and Charles dress, Lulu Frost earrings, Longchamp heels.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
I have a lot of friends who graduated from Barnard — I’m an ’05 alum — who feel that the Lean In movement doesn’t define us. We’re ambitious, we’re intelligent, we want great jobs and fulfilling personal lives, but we’re not necessarily looking to land in the C-Suite. How do you advise women like that, to help them strike the right balances in their lives?
“Well, I think all women are going to have different kinds of careers. That’s the beauty of feminism; we don’t all need to be on the same track — whether it’s to be a full-time mom or a full-time CEO. We have options, and that was what feminism was supposed to give us. So, at the risk of sounding trite, I urge people to think, ‘What do you like to do? What are you good at?’
“Sometimes, particularly for younger people, you don’t necessarily know what you want to do, in terms of ultimate career objectives, but you know what you like to do on a day-to-day basis. One [college] senior I was speaking with was saying to me, ‘I love bossing people around, I love yelling at people, I love criticizing people.’ She was thinking about a career in HR, and I thought Perfect!
“Every time someone says to me that they’re thinking of getting a PhD, I ask, 'How do you like spending time alone by yourself in the library? If you don’t like that, don’t do it.’ So, I’d say, start figuring out what you like to do, and put yourself in positions where you can do that.”
Judith and Charles dress, Lulu Frost earrings, Longchamp heels.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
For women and men who may be in their late 20s or early 30s and are feeling burnout, is it ever all right to take a grown-up gap year to travel the world or pursue an impossible dream — or just take a break?
“If you can afford to do that, emotionally and financially, go for it. I’m old enough to know that life is going to throw so many curveballs that trying to plot [things] out six years in advance, or even six months in advance, is tough. Of course, there are certain fields where you have to be proactive. If you’re a surgeon, of course, you have to get on that track.
“But, virtually all the successful men and women I know are not in the careers they thought they would be. I’m certainly not. But, life moves in funny ways. And, I think we have to... 'go with the flow 'sounds hippier than I mean it to be. But, we just have to be aware that you can’t control your fate, so put yourself in a position where you have opportunities that are attractive, and if one of those opportunities is backpacking around the world, go for it! But, as always, be realistic. Know that taking a year off means it is going to be harder to come back, too.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
So, what did you think you were going to be doing with your life when you were 22?
“I was supposed to be a spy or a diplomat! I was all set up — I applied to the Foreign Service and had gotten in. I was ready to go be a political officer in Poland, which would have been incredibly cool in 1984. And then the Foreign Service discovered I was too young, which they [probably should've] discovered earlier (laughs). So, I literally had to go to graduate school to kill time, and my whole life went in a completely different direction.”
And then, where were you at 30? Did you have a clearer picture of the future at that point?
“I ended up getting my PhD and taking a teaching job at the University of Toronto, so my husband, who was in Boston, and I were in a commuter marriage, which was just hell. And, we had a 1-year-old! I do not recommend that arrangement to anyone. So I said, I will take any job in Boston, and that’s how I wound up at Harvard Business School. I’m the only person who wound up at HBS because of a commuter marriage. I learned a ton, it was awesome, and in my mid-40s, I realized I’d made a career at a business school sort of by accident. I wanted to go back to more of my liberal-arts roots, which is how I wound up here.”
Theory dress, Tory Burch coat, Stuart Weitzman heels.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
That’s awesome! And that leads to my next question, which is that so many young men and women get advice in college that they need to not only prep for their future career, but for their future personal lives, and find a solid partner early. What is your take?
“You have to take life as it comes along. My favorite wisdom on this point is from When Harry Met Sally, when one of the old women is explaining how she knew she'd found the right man. She said: 'You just know, like you know with a good melon.' So I’d say, when the right one comes along, hopefully, you’re wise enough to stay attached to him or her, whoever that may be.
“And, I do think there’s a bit of a danger in the younger generation believing that they shouldn’t find their partner too young, that they should get their career established first, then find a partner, then have their babies. And my advice is that you can’t control what comes along. I met my husband when I was 21 and he was 31. My husband always jokes that he was smarter than me — that he waited for the right one to come along, while I grabbed onto him. But, I knew he was the right one. I may have grabbed him really young, but he was the right one. I think it’s a good idea to leave yourself open, because you don’t know.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Going from working with mostly men at Harvard Business School to mostly women at Barnard, what have you noticed in terms of managerial styles? I know you speak about this in Wonder Women, noting that one of the big differences is what’s inside people’s drawers: That women have candy. But, what else?
“That’s true! This entire cabinet is chocolate! You know, you would never walk into Barnard or Harvard Business School and mistake one for the other. It looks different. It feels different. The nature of the conversations is different. At Harvard Business School there was a lot of talk about Australian-rules rugby — to the point where I had to learn about it just to contribute to the conversation! Here, I’ve never had a single conversation about rugby. But, here, there’s a lot of 'I love that dress, those shoes are great.' No one would have ever commented on my wardrobe at HBS, because men worried about being inappropriate, and women wouldn’t talk about it.
“It may seem like silly stuff, but you have to make small talk in the office. If you’re uncomfortable, it’ll show. And, I see it now, when men come here. There will be eight women and one man, and we’ll be talking about handbags, and the man will be like, get me out of here.
“I think the issue is that men, in general, are more comfortable with direct conflict. They don’t necessarily need to like the people they work with, but they need to be able to exert authority. Oftentimes, speaking in generalities, women want to be liked. It’s relationship based.
“Neither [approach] is better or worse, but one of the things I deal with here is: How do we deal with conflict and talk about it when it isn’t explicit? At HBS, the conflicts were in your face, so it was more about: How do we lower the volume so we can move past [conflicts]? "
Theory dress, Tory Burch coat.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
What advice do you give women who are trying to navigate those different work environments?
“I think awareness [of the differences] is a huge thing. Early in my career, I had a boss who is now a mentor and great friend. But, when he was my boss, I thought he hated me. He would yell at me all the time. It took my husband to tell me, he’s not angry. He’s a coach. He literally had been; his mode of operating was yelling. And, once I understood it — and it took awhile for me to really get it — I didn’t take it personally. And, I learned from him.
“Here at Barnard, sometimes I'll have someone who is used to working in a male-dominated environment come to me when a conflict comes up and say, ‘Well, I didn’t know there was a problem, because she was always nice to me.’ They aren’t aware that someone could be nice and have an issue with them.
“This is why we want workplaces that are truly diverse. If we have a workplace that swings too far in one direction, it’s hard for everyone to feel comfortable.”
Theory dress, Tory Burch coat, Stuart Weitzman heels.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
The “cool girl” trope (as discussed in Gone Girl) has become such a buzzy phrase to describe something you touch on in Wonder Women — that women feel the pressure to be everything to everyone. But, at least from the outside, you seem to be managing just that. How do you handle that pressure?
“Look at the ice on my foot. I’m far from perfect! And really, you have to stop trying and just do the best you can, muddling through it. And, it’s hard. My daughter will catch it — when I’m trying to fake something or be better than something — and she'll say something like, ‘Mom, didn’t you write a book on this?’
“I wouldn’t claim I’ve nailed this one yet. But, I think the most crucial thing is to learn how to say 'no' rather than 'maybe.' Women want to be liked, so we say 'maybe' to things, whether it’s sexual relations or friendships or work relations, and that word gets you into trouble. 'Maybe' is a bad word, because then [the other person] keeps coming back to you, and you feel guilty. So, saying 'no' early is key.
“What I found is that it’s easiest to say no to entire categories of things, and you get more flexibility to do that at work the more senior you become. When I worked at HBS, one woman didn’t travel outside of Boston. I didn’t go to conferences. I never wrote anything in an edited journal. These were categories of things, and that’s how I made my peace with it.
“The harder thing was saying no to things in my personal life. It took me 10 or 12 years to actually find out that most of that stuff, like the PTA or chaperoning field trips, didn’t matter. But, that was hard. There was a moment when I figured this out: I had come home from work, gotten dinner on the table, was racing around like a madwoman, and my son, who was 8 years old at the time, asked me what I was doing. I told him, 'I need to get to the PTA meeting!' And he looked at me, with the honesty of an 8-year-old, and said he wanted me to stay home. I thought I was being a good mom by going to the PTA meeting, but they didn’t need me. My son needed me. That was a rare light-bulb moment.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the wage gap and know it’s going to be a huge issue to be discussed, politically, in the next few years. What would you say about how women — and men, too — should think about and react to the pay disparity?
“It’s good to know the facts. With the Internet, it’s generally easy to figure out what you’re worth. And, then, lay out the facts. I don’t think these conversations ever work out when it’s a demand. Go into it as a negotiation. Because, even if the boss says no, you have the opportunity to ask if you can come back in six months. And, you can find out what you need to do to get to that next level and get a salary increase.
“But, remember: You don’t need your boss to love you. And, don’t cry!”
So with that said, what do you say to women who take things personally and struggle with being on the more emotional side of the spectrum?
“I’m hardcore. Don’t cry in the office. Obviously, if you hear horrible personal news, that’s one thing. But, if you get upset at work, don’t cry. Go to the bathroom, or go for a walk. Screaming in the office isn’t professional, and there’s a whole range of unprofessional office behaviors — but, crying is absolutely one of them."
So, what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten in your career?
“Again: Don’t make work personal.”
What about the worst advice?
“Early in my career, I had an older woman pull me aside and tell me that I needed to make sure men saw me as a professional, not as a woman. She had rules: Don’t dress too feminine, don’t wear too much makeup. And, that’s not true. I wear dresses, and I wear heels. That’s who I am. I like my heels, I like long hair, and I resented being told I couldn’t be feminine and professional. You can’t be flirtatious [in the workplace], but that’s not the same as being feminine.”
Hugo Boss sweater and skirt; BOSS Hugo Boss coat; Preen heels.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Recently, along with a few other schools, Columbia University — which Barnard is closely affiliated with — has come under national scrutiny for its sexual assault policy. As a college president, what are your thoughts on the issue?
“It’s a problem. It’s a real problem. I don’t know if it’s a problem that’s gotten worse in the past few years, but it certainly has gotten on our radar in the past few years. And, while the problem is horrible, the fact we’re doing things about it is a step in the right direction.
“I don’t want to pat ourselves on the back too much, but I do think at Barnard, because of its deep feminist roots, the topic of sexual assault and sexual violence has always been something people have been aware of. I think Barnard has a lot of structures in place, but it’s something that the entire higher-ed sector is becoming aware of right now. Last week on campus, we had a great event surrounding what men can do in regard to sexual assault. The attendance was almost 75% men, both students from Columbia, members of the NYPD, and members of the community. It was a really powerful conversation.”
On a more celebratory note, Barnard recently saw its 125th anniversary. Do you think single-sex education is still necessary in 2014?
“I didn’t experience single-sex education until I came here, and the more I’ve been here, the more I think there’s a real need and space for single-sex education, as long as we live in a world where women face constraints in the workplace and in everyday life. It isn’t for everyone, but I think there are an awful lot of women who come here not especially interested in single-sex education, but when they get here and see what it’s like to be in a place where women really rule, they realize how valuable it can be.”
Finally, what do you want your legacy to be?
"Ultimately, my legacy is my kids. All of our legacies are children, no matter what we do. After that, my books are my legacy. I hope they have some legs. I’m really lucky in what I do: I interact with thousands of young people, and if I can have an effect on some of their lives, I’ll leave this world happy. "
Hugo Boss sweater and skirt; BOSS Hugo Boss coat; Preen heels.

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