July 13, 2009
Jack Welch, Grumpy Old Man? "There's No Such Thing as Work-Life Balance."
Posted by Christine Hurt

About a million years ago, Dana Carvey played "the grumpy old man" on SNL, "and we liked it!"  This WSJ article makes me wonder if Jack Welch was doing a grumpy old man impression at a human resources convention or whether he's just trying to wake people up.  Apparently, Welch (a University of Illinois alumni) was pretty blunt:  "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."  He gave as examples the female CEOs of ADM and DuPont who had "pretty straight careers" without taking time off for family.

Wow.  That's some cocktail party conversation.  Lots of scattered thoughts here.

1.    There are 100 CEOs of Fortune 100 firms.  Now, for the other 6 billion of us.  There are different ways to "have it all," and having a rich family life and being one of the top dogs at a huge conglomerate that's been around for a hundred years and probably has a strong corporate culture is one way.  But there are others.  I can imagine women creating their own path at a lot of other firms with different norms.  I like to read Mommy CEO blog sometimes, by a female CEO of a software company.  At our little corner of legal academia, we wonder a lot about women attorneys making partner, or even managing partner.  These are accomplishments that may constitute what Mr. Welch refers to as a "nice career," but maybe not what he thinks of as "the top."

2.    Of course, we know he's right, and that's the worst part.  In a lot of jobs, in a lot of places, individuals wanting to get to the top of whatever type of career ladder have to make difficult choices.  The toughest part of this next phase of career equality is realizing that yes, we can all now be anything we want to be, but maybe not everything we want to be.  As Mr. Welch points out, sometimes opportunity comes when you have suited up and shown up, and if you have taken time off, you just aren't there.

3.    This all brings me back to my old saw about "opt-in" programs, not "opt-out" programs.  Mr. Welch seems to be talking about women who are "taking time off for family;" presumably through extended leaves or maybe a part-time or reduced hours arrangement.  So, yes, the benefits we keep asking for aren't going to help -- but benefits that allow us to opt in (telecommuting technology, on-site daycare, ability to travel with family), these will.  In today's world, corporate actors are there "in the clutches" via Blackberry and iPhone from airports and far-flung cities anyway.  I can be "in the clutches" from Little League, no problem.

4,    Other thoughts?

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Comments (12)

1. Posted by Stacy on July 13, 2009 @ 20:50 | Permalink

Well, you can stay connected with a laptop and cell phone, but it really isn't the same. People don't call or IM you to participate in the hallway chats and off-the-cuff huddles in the boss's office. Some folks will actually act as if you're out, when they know damn well you're just in the other office or working from home.

So Jack Welch may have one foot in the old days, but the new days still aren't as different as we wish they were.

2. Posted by MisseLaneius on July 14, 2009 @ 2:35 | Permalink

Travelling with family and telecommuting is not going to lead to gender equity in the workplace.

My department at work has a high level of telecommuters. They are all very good at their job, but I can only think of one who is actually making any career headway. (Incidentally, it's a man)

What's going to help? Being a kinder society. Being a society where caregiving is honoured, where men and women naturally work together to raise children.

3. Posted by Katy on July 14, 2009 @ 4:43 | Permalink

What bothers me most about Welch's comments is that his attitude still dominates in the US. Hiring managers still eye women with suspicion, wondering whether career comes first, and don't think the same of men, no matter the person's desires. I worked at GE Corporate in Fairfield, CT. Didn't see too many women, except as secretaries and some mid-level managers. Jack always flew in on his helicopter. I wonder, when he traded in his first wife for a younger model, did he have a new family too? Men have the luxury of doing that, after building successful careers, they get to have second families. And they're always so pleased with themselves about the chance to "get it right this time around." I can't help but feel that, to men like that, women are disposable.

4. Posted by Joe on July 14, 2009 @ 8:02 | Permalink

I think in America being an absentee father is just fine as long as that father is "working" and "getting ahead." People would never extend the same grace to women, even if women could really bring themselves to do that. It's a really unfair double standard.

5. Posted by David on July 14, 2009 @ 8:36 | Permalink

In a sense, I think he's right, in that, we have to make a work/life *choice*

By "we" I don't mean men and women individually, I mean as a family. I have friends that have "passed me by" in the corporate ladder sweeps, but my wife and I have made a decision that she should have a career too (she is a nurse). That means I can't take a position with frequent travel, for example (we have no family near by, as an added twist). Financially, we're better off, mind you, but there's a ceiling on how far either of us can advance.

But, we made that decision together, we are both seriously hands on at home, but we're happy with that.

6. Posted by David on July 14, 2009 @ 8:44 | Permalink

Oh yes, one other thing, can we stop with the "double standard" thing already? Women in the western world have it better than women have ever had it, in the history of mankind. YES, there's still a lot of progress to be made, and I'm hopeful for the next generation.

Still, we can't legislate for human nature. Biologically, a Mother is irreplaceable. I'm proud of how hands on I am with the kids - bath time, swimming, park trips, I'm *well* over the 50% mark on all of those activities. Still, when they wake up at night, the cries are for mommy. I can't explain it, I don't try, that's just human nature.

7. Posted by Ray Campbell on July 14, 2009 @ 9:01 | Permalink

It's perhaps worth remembering that choosing "work" instead of "a life" does not remotely guarantee a brilliant career. There are plenty of laid off big firm attorneys coming to grips with exactly that right now.

8. Posted by Kate on July 14, 2009 @ 9:48 | Permalink

to David-

Perhaps if you drug yourself out of bed sometimes the kids would want you but it's easier to say "You go. You have the biology to get up in the middle of the night." My husband is now who my son calls for at least half the time BECAUSE he feels it's important to be there even though he doesn't have a uterus.

9. Posted by David on July 14, 2009 @ 10:43 | Permalink

Hey thanks Kate - I appreciate your expert opinion on a family life you know nothing about. Heck, you don't know me at all, however, I did expect a purely emotional response from someone, and I guess you were the one to bite.

I'll take the pepsi challenge on "who participates" in the house hold any day. You don't indicate you are speaking from personal experience, but perhaps you know plenty of women who's husbands pull that line - I'm not one of them, and some anonymous ticked off responder is the last person I need to defend my family participation to.

My point was simple: To Children, Mothers matter more. That was a compliment, by the way.

10. Posted by Mike on July 14, 2009 @ 11:54 | Permalink

Weird. Thought I was reading the Glom, but somehow got the ATL comments section. TypePad glitch?

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