Jack Welch to women: Work and family don't mix

The former CEO of GE says that if you want to get to the top, forget about that "work-life balance"

Published July 14, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

Being a man, I wasn't quite sure how to react to the Wall Street Journal's report of a speech given by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch to the Society for Human Resource Management's annual conference on June 28. I would guess that for the women in the audience, who made up the majority of attendees, it must have been something of a downer.

"There's no such thing as work-life balance," Mr. Welch [said]. "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

Mr. Welch said those who take time off for family could be passed over for promotions if "you're not there in the clutch."

"The women who have reached the top of Archer Daniels, of DuPont, I know these women. They've had pretty straight careers," he said in an interview with journalist Claire Shipman, before thousands of HR specialists.

"We'd love to have more women moving up faster," Mr. Welch said. "But they've got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one."

I'm sure that corporate-minded women can speak for themselves on this topic. Christine Hurt, blogging at the Conglomerate, has a nuanced take. And the Journal's two female reporters, Cari Tuna and Joann S. Lublin, did get a wide variety of reactions to Welch's comments from women.

But being a man, I'll tell you what Welch's comments mean to me. By his definition, every man who has risen to the top of the corporate ladder has sacrificed his family for his career. By being "there in the clutch" they've not been there for the sick kid or the softball game or the dance performance. Of course men have it easier, since if they want kids they can outsource the job of actually bearing them to a sidekick and don't have to worry about figuring out how the breast pump works. But those are just technicalities.

Of course we all make choices with consequences as we go about crafting our careers and balancing them with other priorities in our lives. But to interpret Welch's words as a harsh message for women is to miss his real point. Denying that there is a possibility for a "work-life balance" is a bummer for the entire human race.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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