Going Against the Flow: Lynn Pasquerella, President of Mount Holyoke College

Lynn Pasquerella is the President of Mount Holyoke College, the first institution in the U.S. to grant women college degrees. President Pasquerella is a 1980 Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude graduate of Mount Holyoke College and earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1985 from Brown University.

Lynn Pasquerella (Photo credit: Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College)

Q: What does entrepreneurship mean to you, and what underlying characteristics do you see in successful entrepreneurs?

Lynn: Entrepreneurship is promoting business, industry, and the social good through innovation. I am particularly excited about Mount Holyoke's creation of makerspaces on campus and in the Valley as a means of promoting entrepreneurship and creating pathways for girls and women in STEM through increased visibility around applied liberal learning.

Q: What are you most proud of in your professional career?

Lynn: Throughout my career, I have demonstrated a deep and abiding commitment to liberal education, to access to excellence in higher education regardless of socioeconomic background, and to political scientist Benjamin Barber's notion of colleges and universities as civic missions. I am proud of the fact that I have been able to enact these values through service as the eighteenth president of Mount Holyoke College, an institution that transformed my life, and by outreach in the public humanities as a teacher, radio and television host, medical ethicist, and prisoners' rights advocate around the globe.

Q: Tell us about an instance where you had to go against the flow to realize your goal.

Lynn: Much of my academic career has involved going against the flow. Only 16% of professional philosophers are women, and women represent only 26% of college and university presidents. Women often risk the scorn of their peers by taking on leadership roles without conforming to authoritarian, patriarchal structures. I am steadfast in my commitment to authentic leadership, collaboration, and cooperation as a means of achieving institutional objectives.

Q: What advice would you give women who worry about whether women can have it all?

Lynn: Most discussions of "having it all" center on balancing work and children, but that definition of "all" is incomplete. Women are more than two-dimensional humans. Women also want to spend time on other aspects of their lives: art, politics, faith, experiencing the natural world. Left to pursue only two dimensions of our lives leaves other parts of who we are under-cultivated.

  • We need to be mindful of who is left out in conversations of women and work/life balance. The argument is largely framed in terms of balancing work and child rearing responsibilities. Many women chose not to have or cannot have children. Yet, seeking a balance in their lives between work and personal obligations and interests is equally important.

  • That said, we are lucky to be pondering the question of balance. Many women around the world are concerned about surviving life rather than balancing it. They are concerned, out of necessity, with getting enough food on the table, keeping the heat on, and finding medical care for their families.
  • Keeping this in mind, helps those of us engaged in the conversation to understand that balance isn't to be found at one moment in time, but across or through stretches of your life. Proper balance requires changes all the time from one phase of our lives to another; it requires different adaptations. We need to think of "balance" as a verb, not a noun.
  • While there is much to be said for "leaning in," there is also wisdom in "leaning back"--disconnecting, taking a long view.
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter (Princeton professor and former director of policy planning for State Department) in a much quoted article in the Atlantic (July/August 2012) "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" wrote: "If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us. We'll create a better society in the process, for all women. We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek." Similarly, Gloria Steinem in a 2010 address at Yale University said: "Don't think about making women fit the world. Think about making the world fit women.
  • Nevertheless, we continue to live in a gendered world. A recent White House study found that women still disproportionately bear the burden of household work and child rearing, with employed women spending 40 minutes more each day on household chores than men.
  • When trying to address the problem of too few women in upper echelons of business, we tend to direct conversation to women as if the issue is a "woman's problem." We must demand that the issue of work-life balance be a human concern and the responsibility of men as well. (A 2014 Harvard Business Review survey showed that both male and female executives view balance issues as a women's issues.)
  • A recent study (summer 2014) presented to the American Sociological Association showed that employers view men more favorably than women when they request job flexibility to care for children or other domestic responsibilities.
  • So how do we address these challenges? We know that mentors help. Research shows that women who have strong mentors advance more quickly in their professions and report higher levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction. Seek out mentors. Be a mentor.

  • Q: LinkedIn style - If you were to give advice to your 22 year old self, what would it be?

    Lynn: Be yourself, follow your passions, remember where you came from, take some risks, and hang on--the best is yet to come!

    Follow Lynn Pasquerella at @Commish1837, and check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/ or goagainsttheflow.com.