Bad news for young women working their way up the ladder.
"There's no such thing as a work-life balance," Welch announced. "We'd love to have more women moving up faster, but they've got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one."
He explained that taking time off for family can offer a nice life, but the chances of rising to the top on that path are...nil.
He tried to cushion the blow.
"That doesn't mean you can't have a nice career," he smiled.
A similarly provocative statement was made a few years ago by former WPP creative chief Neil French who contended that women can't head ad agencies because their roles as caregivers and childbearers prevent them from putting in the long hours.
It's not that I necessarily disagree. A work-life balance IS an impossible feat, an inconvenient fact that came as a rude surprise to lots of boomer women who'd been led to believe otherwise. The "have it all" promise, unfortunately, is a crock. Sometimes, lots of times, you have to choose between your kids and your job, the playdate or the client, the school play or the important pitch.
But the balance is impossible for anyone to achieve, whether or not you've got a vagina.
In Welch and French's generation, men had the choice of outsourcing the job of tending kids and home to a wife conditioned not to make him feel guilty for it. In fact, to feel grateful that she herself "didn't have to work."
But sons raised by those dads have a different outlook. Many want to be around for their kids as they'd wished their dads had been around for them. (Some may want to be around a little too much--see alpha dads.) Childraising, with all its joys and vicissitudes, is no longer a topic verboten in conference rooms as it seemed to be when I got into the business. The other day, I rode an elevator with two guys who spent 34 floors debating the merits of cloth versus disposable. Men are taking parental leaves. Going on school trips. Coming in late after drop-off. These men don't consider work-life balance a problem their wives must grapple with alone if they want to go out and pursue a career. Unfortunately, most of these men don't run companies yet.
The real disservice Welch and French did was to use their stature to reinforce longheld convictions many men in senior management still harbor privately. And by doing so, helping ensure that women remain less likely to make it to the top.
If a male [boss]...is convinced that [a female worker] s extremely limited in her ability and value...would you expect him to offer the same support and guidance and consideration he gives the men? Might that woman keep herself down on the farm when her leader conveys in countless ways she's not as good as the boys? Might she respond with less than her best effort when the leader expects little of her? Might she want to leave, not to have babies but because the conditions for her to succeed don't exist and the message she can't succeed is too discouraging?
--Nancy Vonk, CCO, Ogilvy, Toronto responding to French
Twenty years ago, Business Week coined "The Mommy Track" to describe the "nice career" Welch says is the only one available to women with kids. If things are to change finally, more men have to speak up about their own need for work-life balance.
Ironically, the recession may help. Apparently, it's hitting men harder than women, creating a greater number of stay-at-home dads. Men who are coming to value the work done by women "who don't work." So that once they return to the 9 to 5, they'll be apt to shoulder more of it, understanding the necessity of doing so if their wives are to compete meaningfully for that promotion.