Renowned academic and business leader Dr Debora Spar returned to Harvard Business School on Tuesday evening to launch “WSA Celebrates 50”, a series of events celebrating fifty years since women were first accepted into the full-time MBA program.
Addressing students and faculty in Spangler auditorium, Spar warned that the socially-entrenched expectation that today’s women can ‘do it all’ – and can do it alone – are impeding women, not only in taking on leadership positions in business and government, but in achieving contentment with the trade-offs they will inevitably make.
Introducing Dr Spar, MBA Program Chair Professor Youngme Moon recalled their first encounter – Moon a junior faculty member, and Spar one of the few tenured female Professors. Now, as President of the all-female Barnard College and a Goldman Sachs Board member, Spar’s unique brand of wit, humor and ability to “make inspiration actionable” provides critical food-for-thought as HBS reflects on 50 years of women. Moon explained: “Instead of simply congratulating ourselves, we are using this as an opportunity to explore the issues that women continue to face.”
Weaving in academic research and personal experience, Spar described her revelation that there is still a “women’s problem” and that it is not easy to fix. “I began my career oblivious to the fact that I was female,” she mused. “Feminism had already happened, and I thought I could go out and do whatever I wanted.” However, she quickly discovered that while early feminists had paved the way – tackling prejudice, quashing discriminatory regulations and opening up institutions like Harvard to women – many more subtle challenges remain. Women are now laboring under impossible expectations: to be perfect wives, mothers and housekeepers on the one hand, and to be ambitious, strong and fiercely independent on the other.
Spar pointed to women’s slow ascent in the workplace as evidence of the pervasive challenges women continue to face. Despite outperforming and outnumbering males in colleges and graduate institutions, women continue to be vastly underrepresented at the top of the professional pyramid. Thirty years ago, this might have been attributable to a weak pipeline of women rising through the ranks; today, women are simply dropping out of the race.
Spar blames a combination of social, institutional and biological factors for this inequality at the top – ranging from entrenched discrimination and an inclination for replication, to the simple fact that women have babies. Compounding the challenge, Spar argues that women continue to shoulder the overwhelming majority of household responsibilities, in an environment in which we have ratcheted up the expectations of what it means to be a good wife and mother. Spar believes that this never-ending “pursuit of perfection” explains in part why today’s women are statistically less happy than women in the 1970s. “Women are now paralyzed by the choices they have and the expectation that not only can they perform them all, but they can excel at them all.”
Looking ahead, Spar implored women to help one another more, validate each other’s choices and to reintroduce supportive social structures within their own spheres of influence. “We have to convince women to form a social movement, not a 12-step program for personal fulfilment.”
WSA Co-Presidents Parker Woltz and Debora Singer believe that Spar’s message is on-point for the HBS community. “Dr Spar is part of a vital national conversation on how women can lead successful careers and lives. We look forward to welcoming Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter to campus this Thursday to continue this important dialogue. Our hope is that these addresses help create momentum for our goal of accelerating the advancement of women leaders who make a difference in the world.”