To the Women Who Aim for Progress Rather Than Perfection
As we celebrate International Women’s Day this month, I’m once again struck by how lucky we are to be surrounded by such a high density of remarkable women around us—women who inspire us to push through and be better versions of ourselves. I’ve been lucky to meet wonderful women in my section, my class and the broader HBS community who have inspired me through their acts of tenacity and determination—balancing first-time motherhood and a demanding MBA program, shouldering the responsibility of running a family-owned business after the loss of a parent, managing a growing nonprofit as a “side project,” and the list goes on.
Being a woman myself, I don’t find it paradoxical that my fellow women—despite their countless achievements—are often plagued by guilt for not attaining their (often self-imposed) high standards across all domains of their lives. After all, we have spent our lives with the expectations, both internal and external, that we should not only do it all, but also do it all perfectly. For ambitious women disillusioned by their quest of having it all, Professor Debora Spar’s 2013 book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, offers thought-provoking wisdom:
All too often, even the most talented and fortunate women find themselves paralyzed by the options before them, and by the expectation that they can somehow entertain them all. Rather than delighting in their opportunities, in other words, or seizing the incipient power that has been thrust upon them, women are laboring under the expectation of the ephemeral “all.” The expectation not only that they can have perfect jobs and children and bodies, but that they should.
Thankfully, this problem is not that hard to fix. In theory, at least, it demands little more than a change in attitude, a societal ratcheting down of the great expectations that now engulf women. Critically, this doesn’t mean lowering the ambitions of any given woman or of women in general. It just means moving away from the vague but pernicious sense that any individual can have or do it all. In other words, because women today face such a dizzying array of options, they need to be more systematic in recognizing the specific choices they face and the distinctive trade-offs that accompany each one. Harshly put, they need to realize that having it all means giving something up—choosing which piece of the perfect picture to relinquish, or rework, or delay. Having choices means making them, and then figuring out how to make them work.
One way to begin this process is by embracing the concept of “satisficing,” an economics term that might best be translated as a combination of cutting corners and settling for second best…Simply put, women need to go easier on themselves, to move from the Martha Stewart world of feminine perfection to a messier and more chaotic reality. They need to pick some areas of their lives where they strive for greatness and others where they settle comfortably for less. They need—consciously, explicitly, and happily—to take whole chunks of activities off their to-do lists and add still others to their to-do-less-well lists. It doesn’t really matter which activities an individual selects. Some may choose, as I do, to forget about providing breakfast and lunch, but regularly try to cook (or at least prepare) dinner. Some may develop routines like my friend Sarah, who doesn’t cook at all but carefully encloses a handwritten napkin note into each of her daughters’ lunchboxes each day. Some may give up all job-related travel that isn’t absolutely necessary. Some may take the trips as precious time away and give up long lunches instead…And once they figure out how to do what matters most, they need to master the equally tough task of not caring so much about the rest.
When asked if she has seen any shift in the attitudes of women enrolled at HBS over the last seven years since her book was published, Professor Spar says, “It has been a pleasure to see how much more comfortable students— both men and women—are in discussing issues around life, family, and relationships. I’ve seen a surge of women who are happy to own their power and ambition—and equally happy to be thinking about integrating their professional lives with their personal ones. I’ve seen many men who are eager to build lives that combine professional and personal goals as well and also many men who are already thinking hard about how to include their partners’ goals in their planning. There’s an openness to all kinds of questions that I’m delighted to see—and much more of an understanding of how ‘success’ can take many forms.”
I hope that, on this International Women’s Day, Professor Spar’s words will inspire us to make choices that liberate us and to celebrate our progress, rather than our quest for perfection.
Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) came to HBS after spending roughly four years in the media and entertainment industry in New York, where she helped two media companies (HBO and Disney) transition into the streaming era and build on new strategic growth opportunities. Originally from Bangladesh, she also worked for the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) early in her career to promote financial inclusion and financial sector stability in South Asia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from The Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.