Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jack Welch on women's work

Former GE CEO Jack Welch is in the hospital today, reportedly for a minor infection. But I wonder if his sudden internment has anything to do with the backlash coming at him after his speech to an HR conference recently.

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.


Kim Ratcliff said...

An excellent post. Work-life balance is only possible if both spouses want it. Usually in each family, there's one parent who bears more of the work load and one who bears more of the home load. I am married to a man that enjoys bearing the home load, and who also works, which is a good fit for all of us. But everyone's different. And I do agree that the work world should do more than pay lip service to the work-life balance. You provide a good historical perspective.

J9 said...

Jack Welch is an idiot when it comes to people management. That having been said, I disagree that men will take up the slack when re-employed in a regular fashion. I think they will be utterly grateful to be back at work, and continue to shove the responsibility onto their partners, working or not. I had to have a "Come to Jesus meeting" with my husband after 2 years of uneven employment by him (we're now at 4), and continued full time employment by me. He hadn't lifted a pinky to help out, instead opting to behave like a clooege kid on extended break, and do god knows what for the 7 hours he was home alone every day, after I dropped the kids at school, and before I picked the kids up. I told him I was getting a wife instead because he was certainly not contributing to any of my well being by sitting on his ass all day. Now? Now he gets the kids up and ready in the morning, while I get an extra hour of sleep, which makes me less bitchy in general. He's also grocery shopping and doing dishes, and cooking occassionally. I still do all the laundry and most cooking, and all house cleaning, and I'm still the primary care giver for the kids, but at least it's a bit easier. But I'm not fooling myself for one instant that were he employed ghainfully, he would revert back to wanting June Cleaver waiting by the door when he returned from a hard day, while I get to schlep in to a messy house...

Anonymous said...

I can see how something's gotta' give, but don't a lot of wealthy working women have the luxury of nannies? And to your point, aren't there dads who also want work/life balance?

So, is this about balance? Or classism?

The truth is that if the U.S. put kids first, we'd see a REAL economic payoff. Think different.

Pyzahn said...

I can understand why you are still working, obviously successful in your field.....this was a wonderfully written post. Informative and provocative.

Unknown said...

Great post Helen.

The good news is that in newer, primarily digital agencies, run by 30-somethings, that change is starting to happen and no one seems to be being penalized for having a family or wanting to see them.

The bad news is that so long as there are people who use work as an escape from life, a culture that rewards workaholism will be hard to change.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@Kim Ratcliff Thanks. Sounds like you've got a situation that is a dream for many working moms. Congrats.

@J9 Love what changed things in your house was your threat of bringing home a wife. So creative!

@Anonymous True, wealthy women have nannies. But hiring someone to take care of your kids does *not* afford the same brainspace as delegating kids to a spouse who is as invested as you are in their well being. And because kids can't vote, I don't think they'll ever take economic priority. Though it would, I agree, make a *huge* difference in opportunities for them. And their parents.

@Pyzahn Thanks for the read and kind words :)

Curious said...

Great commentary. What terribly sexist comments by Welch and French. And what is with the notion that a woman is and should be more vested in 'family' than her male counterpart? Shouldn't men (and so many do) make important everyday trade-offs between work and personal life?
You have an interesting, thought provoking and fun blog!

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Teenie said...

Thank you for bringing this into the light again, Ms. Broad! What neanderthals these men are--fully expecting wifey to raise the kids, do the laundry, cook the supper, tend the house, and shut up when hubby has yet another business trip to attend to.

They somehow think advertising is harder than being a housewife. Ha! Women have been shouldering the burden of kids and housekeeping for hundreds of years. How many new mother have I heard say they just want 2 minutes to themselves to pee. And the advertising men of old? Well, they got pee breaks galore--plus liquid lunches, trips, boys' club golf tournaments, and so on. Sure, they worked. But they also played. While the Mommies sacrificed everything.

The upside today? People are learning that work and life are one and the same--and a balance of both will keep you happy, healthy and living a lot longer. Our bosses here--both male--have young families and never miss a beat. They work hard, and they are also human beings. This is the first advertising job I've had where I don't feel guilty going out for doctor's appointments (and lord knows I have a lot of those now!).

Those old coots will die out and real people will take their places. And thank goodness--who wants advertising created by misogynistic robot demagogs who's entire life experience is made up of advertising life?

Unknown said...

I dunno, Jack. My wife took off 7 years to be a stay-at-home mom, and has been kicking serious a** ever since re-entering the workforce in 2002.

And may I editorialize for a moment and say that I can't stand when people say "how lucky" we were to have her stay home? It required significant planning, scrimping, saving, and hard choices, particularly since I went freelance in 1999. (On the other hand, freelancing gave me a chance to be closer to my family than my 7-to-7 job ever could.)

Balance is in the eye of the beholder...

Gidyean said...

What ever happened to so-called technology that was to help simplify our lives and take over so many chores that could free up our time so that we could pursue family life and other interests???
Seems like we have become slaves to technology and all the future predictions made in the seventies were completely wrong!!

Jaye @ canadian-mom.ca said...

Terrific post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your POV - I will definitely be back for more! :)

California Girl said...

This post takes me back 19 years. My children were 2 & 3 and I worked full time as a radio rep for one of the still small but getting ready to acquire or divest corporations who didn't give a damn about their people. At the time, I was in my late thirties, a top producer in a top 20 market. I made excellent money, most of it from commissions.

I worked for a not very smart guy who'd been promoted to GM via the Peter Principle. I knew more than he or the GSM did and I wasn't shy about demonstrating it. Yes, I have THAT kind of personality: I believe in myself.

But I had little kids. If they were sick, I had to take them out of their little country day school and take them home. If they were sad when I took them there in the morning, I stood with each one wrapped around my individual legs while they cried and asked me not to go. It was a lovely little school and they were happy there but they were just little guys. This could make me late. Mind you, I was getting up @ 5am to get myself ready before I got them up to feed, bathe & dress, then take to school and still make it to work in time for the DAILY sales mtg @ 8AM. Yeah, he was one of THOSE bosses. (The dumb ones always have too many meetings.)

The first time I was ever late, he was standing at the door when I came through, tapping his watch. I was called on the carpet often for having to go home to my kids. I was the only salesperson w/ kids. He proudly told me his wife always took care of their child and it never interfered with his work. I lost it and finally cried in his office, out of sheer frustration.

Four years later,at another station, I talked my very cool bachelor male GSM into letting me work part-time from home while retaining my full list. Whaddyathink? I actually did more billing. Why? I was happy. This guy was a dream boss and he'd never even had kids but he knew a good salesperson when he worked with them.

I don't think you can have it all. It's too damn hard. I'm still working in the business, now niche tv, and sometimes feel like the oldest woman in broadcast sales, but I'm happy.

I really really like your blog and am happy to have found you through "Blogs of Note".

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@Alan Thanks for weighing in. Yes I think the family-friendlier attitude of younger CEOs is key to setting in motion changes in corporate culture. Of course, you're right, workaholism will always be with us. But better it's a choice, not a mandate for advancement.

@Curious Thanks. French's exact words (which I felt too inflammatory for this post) were: "All women in the industry... inevitably wimp out and go suckle something.” He was trying to be funny.

@Karen Thanks

@Teenie Nice you have such a good situation! Especially in your condition ;) You've coined a whole new category of advertising: Created by Misogynistic Robot Demagogs Whose Entire Life Experience is Made Up of Advertising. I believe Adland is showing the latest award winners in this category. http://adland.tv/content/sexist-ads-hot-cold-too-soon-or-too-late

@Jake P You make a good point. Achieving balance is a lot less luck than it is hard work and hard choices. Kudos to you and your *sskicking wife :)

@Gidyean I sometimes wonder the same thing! The Jetsons made the techno-future look so carefree--robot maids and flying cars left George and Betty nothing to do but play golf and shop and plan family outings. We really imagined it would be that way. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful writing. I had a (dominant male) client once who told me what I needed was a "Good strong man to come in and take care of things" in my little agency. It's been a great joke around our office ever since. Maybe that's the reason I have TWO ex husbands...I'm all I need. It's gotta be a partnership if it's going to be good for both spouses.

Goddess Crystal's Pet said...

Work life balance is tough for anyone. Spouses have to be willing to work as a team. It's true if a woman really wants to "move up the ladder" she's going to spend far more time at work than home. That's true for anyone.

Welshaims said...

I am a 26 year old female copywriter. I was taught when I was in school that I should go for my dreams. Then, while at Oxford, I attended a debate in the Union entitled "Can Women really have it all". The thing that i found upsetting was the fact that the only women who said they had it all - 6 kids, wonderful career, all had stay at home husbands. The truth is that someone has to downsize their career to fit in kids. My boyfriend works in Finance and makes double my salary. I know it will be me who gives up my career. It's a depressing thought. We need some regulations in the industry that protects women's rights to work part time or flexible hours.

Brian Belefant said...

Beautiful post, Helen. Too bad my wife won't be able to read it. She has no time, being so "lucky" that she "gets" to stay home with the kids and all.


Jonathan Trenn said...

Welch raises some valid points but the wrong issues. Therefore, it's insulting on many fronts.

Women are often discriminated against in the work place, yet often women both feel as they should be and also WANT to be the primary caretakers of children. And many man let this be the case because they're either concentrating on their careers more so than the woman or because they are lazy asses who don't want to deal with the responsibilities and sacrifices. That type of guy pisses me off.

As a single father, I've also seen situations where organizations seem to "understand" that they have to make accommodations to moms, but less so to dads. They can't quite "get" the idea that sometimes it's dads that take the kids (I have only one) to the doctor or do the assortment of things that moms mostly do. So I've felt similar types of discrimination, somewhat reversed.

By the way, didn't Jack leave his former wife for his current one? Just had to bring that up as he's positioning himself as a sage of families and gender roles.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@California Girl What a great story! Always enjoy meeting another Ad Broad. Congrats! For having the guts, drive and tenacity to stick things out. Sounds like you've ended up in a good niche :)

@adchick Hilarious when you think about how many agencies are run into the ground by "good strong men who take care of things." Agree with you on partnership. Third's the charm... ;)

@Don Simkovitch I'm with you on teammwork. But I wonder if there's another corporate model...one that allows for both work and for life...Hmmm...perhaps fodder for a next post...thanks.

@AdGirl Your scenario is, alas, a common one, isn't it? Since women tend to make less money (partly bc of longheld mgt beliefs like Welch's) their jobs are viewed as the more expendable. She stays home to accomodate spouse pursuing career at corporation set up to reward facetime. By the time she re-enters, she's lost momentum, connections, skills. I think changing attitudes about work and childcare is what's called for in order to change legistlation. Good luck to you as you figure out how to maneuver this Rubrik's cube to best suit your own life.

My dear @Brian! Lovely to see you here. Kudos to you for figuring out how to achieve this work-life balance thing long ago ;)

Sunil Shibad said...

Misogyny is alive and well in advertising and the world in general.

Rosaria Williams said...

This is quite a revelation. You mean to tell me that things haven't changed for women? I'm angry about this; I thought we earned our standing.

Liz said...

Thank you for your post. I am a 31 year old mom of 6 year old twins who has taken the "long" path through my bachelors only to get to the last quarter and realize that this is harder than I thought. I have been in and out of the business world over the last 10 years, but my path is/was unorthodox. I wouldn't have it any other way, except to say that earlier today I was going through my campaigns and such for my portfolio and I started to have a bit of a break down because I had a professor imply that they did not have any idea how I did the things I did with twins and being single and working as well. Shortly after the sideways complement, the professor says that my work will need a lot to compete with some of the others in my class. I have never made anything below a B and it is never for lack of ideas. I have millions of ideas... But I agreed and ever since have been working to prove to the prof and myself that it can be done.
Your post made me realize that I am striving for the wrong thing. I have so much more to offer than many if not all of my classmates and I almost forgot that while balance may not be attainable in a traditional sense, if I am happy with what I do in life the example I give to my girls (lucky me) will more than make up for the lack of balance. This road I am on will not be easy but it seems so worth it to me.
I read your blog regularly and you offer a sense of wisdom that I have been seeking in the industry. I know you love it. I have met others that love it and they too write about their love. I am inspired to realize my dreams thanks to people like you. Keep writing.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@Jonathan Interesting about the reverse discrimination. Your last point is well taken. Yes, Welch's wife sued him quite publicly for vastly underestimating her worth in divorce settlement. Ironic, isn't it?

@newnimproved Unfortunately.

@Liz Thanks for sharing your story. It takes an enormous amount of dedication and courage to do what you're doing. But remember. Impressing profs, while nice, doesn't pay bills. And no two creative directors think alike. A concept one CD rejects, another might see as a potential award winner.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Lakeviewer--you're being ironic, I take it? ;)

BluePixo said...

The best thing about being a stay-at-home dad is having the freedom to do what you want with your time. You can spend time with your kids and do other activities.

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