Screw You, Jack Welch.

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by Leslie Morgan Steiner

 

Jack Welch was never my business idol, anyway. A little too militaristic, kinda like a junta leader minus the camouflage. Overly simplistic in his view of business. Arrogant in that “I’m a smart white man and I rule the world” kinda way.

 

His approach to his personal life didn’t leave much room for respect; he left wife number one after 28 years and then wife number two after 14 years to marry wife number three, Suzy Wetlaufer, who served briefly as the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review before being forced to resign after starting an affair with Welch while interviewing him for the magazine.

 

But now he’s really stepped in the squishy stuff.

 

At a keynote speech delivered for the June 28 Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference in New Orleans (for which insiders report he earned over $100,000 in speaker fees) he spoke about a subject I don’t think he knows much about: work/life balance. "There's no such thing as work-life balance," the former General Electric Co. Chief Executive. "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

 

Duh! Did it really take him four decades working at and running the largest and most valuable company in the world to figure this out? There is nothing revolutionary or particularly insightful in what Jack Welch said. For a lot less than $100K, I could have told the crowd that (and a lot more).

 

It’s the sexist consolations Welch added that raised millions of hackles and earned him a few more minutes of infamy in the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, and American Public Media’s Marketplace.

 

“We’d love to have more women moving up faster,” Mr. Welch said. Squish. “But they’ve got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one.” He added that those women who take time off for family could be passed over for promotions if “you’re not there in the clutch.”

 

Taking time off for family “can offer a nice life,” Mr. Welch said, “but the chances of going to the top on that path” are smaller. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice career,” he added. Squish squish.

leslie morgan s...
07.29.09

Leslie Morgan Steiner

I've been in situations where I wanted to sue as well, but I too found solace in moving on to a better job with a better boss...if well-educated moms are being treated unfairly you know women of lesser privilege are being treated worse...I applaud anyone brave enough to fight back through legal means, because you are helping all working moms of every income and education level...if any of you need legal help, contact Joan Williams at the Work-Life Law Center at Hastings College of Law in California. She is an expert in and advocate for equal treatment for working moms.

ltlbird
07.29.09

Tell me about it. When my son was about 1, and just starting daycare, my husband was in a new job that required him to travel 4 days a week. My son got a lot of fevers during those 6 months, and guess who had to leave work when he did? Moi. Now, I wouldn't have had it any other way...I wanted to be with him when he was sick...but I later got passed over for a promotion by a FEMALE boss who told me that it was because "your son is sick a lot." Yeah, I could have sued--and I looked into it--but instead I left the company for a MUCH better job, and a male boss who gets it and is totally flexible even though we're all working our asses off.

What really burns me about that previous job was that even when I left to take care of my son, I would always log in while he was napping and after he went to bed, so that I never missed a deadline. Insane.

dc_browser
07.28.09

Leslie,

Thanks for this piece. I agree with you that Jack Welch's comments, targeted as they were toward women, make the issue of work-life balance (and choices) seem only like "women's issues" rather than "men's issues" too. (And children's issues!) I wrote a post about this a few weeks ago for my Work Wednesday blog on CurrentMom.Com - see "What Do Jack Welch and Sonia Sotomayor Have in Common? Work-Life Balance at the Top" - http://www.currentmom.com/currentmom/2009/07/former-general-electric-ceo.... One thing that struck me, in reading the reactions all around the web to Welch’s latest screed, was that moms, dads, and non-parents too, were all sharply critical of Welch’s one-dimensional view of success. In fact, it appears that most people – at least those expressing their views on the web-define a

“successful life as one that involve[s] a satisfying but not all-consuming career and ample family time. (And maybe even some time for culture, hobbies, travel, friends, and civic involvement.) Maybe not ‘having it all’ – but making compromises to achieve some balance.”

I'm not as outraged as you are, though about the idea of having a "nice career," but I do find it dispiriting that a lot of highly intelligent and talented women never try to reach the pinnacle of their careers because of societal pressures and expectations – fueled by remarks by guys like Jack Welch.

westchestermom
07.28.09

yes, I agree that his comments do not help the situation. I agree that his comments can be harmful if certain managers think it validates their style of promotions etc. I also agree with your point that people can still stay in the work force (like me) for 21 years if they can find a position that provides some balance. I was just trying to say that some jobs are not able to be done in the evenings with a blackberry. I also think that more men have to be more honest or open about their work life situations. They tend to fly under the radar.

leslie morgan s...
07.28.09

Leslie Morgan Steiner

I agree with Jack that a single focus on career success is incompatible with being a good parent.

But do you really think ONLY women worry about work/family balance? Do you think it's helpful to have an industry titan make such sexist remarks? Have you ever had a boss who assumed that only you -- not the men in your office -- had work/family issues?

That's the part that roils me...because I know many ambitious, brilliant moms who are trying to find new ways to carve out work-family "balance" so they can be a huge part of their kids' childhoods without sacrificing their contributions at work. We need support from the (mostly) men at the top of the pyramid. Not uninformed, unhelpful, outdated comments like Welch's.

One person in the right position can make the difference between a talented woman keeping her job and "opting out" forever. We need more industry leaders who publicly support creative, nonlinear solutions....instead of people who mandate that talented, ambitious working parents fit into a model that excludes day to day involvement with our children.

westchestermom
07.27.09

Don't shoot me, but I have to agree with Jack - at least in the world of money center banking. In 20 years of work experience, I have worked for several major money center US and European banks due to mergers and job changes. They have huge women networks, have conferences every year to discuss how to retain women on Wall Street and they still can't do it. I have carved out a position in my group that is still front office, but it is really a mommy track position because I will not work the hours required to succeed here. The hours - be available at least five days a week for 24 hours. The weekends - sometimes. I just won't give up every evening with my daughter, but that means I can't be on the team that originates the deals because they work all of the time. Every man on that team has a full time stay at home wife. I have three men on my team, and they all joined my "side of the desk" because they are the dads that you mention in the end of your post. Every one of them has at least two kids under ten and their wives work full time outside of the office. We all still work 50 -60 hours a week, but we do not work 80-90 hours and we get up and leave at a reasonable time on most days. I am not saying that it is right, but it seems very hard to succeed in certain fields and rise to the very top if you can not travel extensively, work long hours, be available to cancel plans for every fire drill or new deal etc. I know women in every one of these banks that did rise to the top - and at each conference they mention that their spouse or partner is a stay at home something, or and artist or teacher with flexible hours. I agree that men can be the caregivers too, and leave on time like the men in my group - but in most cases - they will not rise to the very top in banking. They can still be successful, make decent money, but they are not going to run the bank or even be the division head.