Delinquent dads

A writer argues that Fortune 500 CEOs make bad fathers.

Published August 20, 2007 10:20PM (EDT)

In this weekend's San Francisco Chronicle, Penelope Trunk lays into high-powered working fathers who spend so many hours at the office they're most accustomed to seeing their children fast asleep. Her diatribe seems inspired by reports that Wellpoint dismissed its chief financial officer, David Colby, for "personal reasons" (i.e., his alleged affairs with numerous women, including a former employee, according to several reports). "Senior executives must lead their personal lives in accordance with the values of corporate boards," writes Trunk. "Thank goodness these boards do not value fathering, or there would be no one to run the Fortune 500."

That's quite a statement. She cites a couple of profiles in Fortune magazine as evidence. The magazine quotes Sir Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony and the father of two kids, at a company meeting: "I don't see my family much. My family is you." Jeff Immelt, chief executive of GE and father to an 18-year-old girl, told the magazine that he has worked 100-hour weeks for the past 20 years. (Just do the math.) Other than those two tidbits, though, Trunk doesn't provide any evidence to support the shot-off claim that all Fortune 500 CEOs are bad fathers.

More compelling (and certainly convincing) is her argument that rich but neglectful fathers are given a pass because they're seen as a different kind of provider. Low-income dads are targeted by government-sponsored programs meant to inspire parental commitment; Trunk quotes a publication from one such program, which intones: "Responsible fathers are men who actively share with the mother in providing physical, emotional and intellectual needs for their child." On the other hand, she writes, "if you are rich and you abandon [your family] to run a company, you are profiled in Fortune magazine."

I have a hard time getting fired up about Fortune magazine's profiling a high-powered CEO's business sense, rather than exposing his lack of fatherly commitment. My blood is brought to a much quicker boil thinking about a corporate culture that generally holds parenthood as a company liability. But Trunk ventures into truly dangerous territory when she declares, "It'll be a great day when CEOs are dismissed for neglecting their kids."

Do we really want corporate boards determining which employees are good mothers or fathers? That would spell a frightening new frontier in the mommy wars and, perhaps, the start of the daddy wars.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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